by Kristin Perkins, assistant dramaturg
In the last blog post I wrote, I talked a little bit about the Salem Witch trials as the primary history that The Crucible draws from. There is a second history that demands to be accounted for in a study of The Crucible: the story of the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC), the Red Scare, and Arthur Miller’s involvement.
For the sake of total accuracy, this is technically the second Red Scare which happened after World War II and coincided with the height of HUAC activity. The HUAC was a congressional committee tasked with rooting out dangerous communist or “fellow travelers,” the term for being sympathetic to communist ideals. This committee targeted many theatre and film artists; partly because of fear that radical leftists were taking over the entertainment industry, and partly in service of publicizing HUAC by accusing people in the public eye.
Throughout the 40s and 50s, Miller saw many people he knew subpoenaed by HUAC. The consequences for being accused of communist ties could be severe. While the HUAC was not an official court, being condemned by this congressional committee could result in being blacklisted from Hollywood and, in some circumstances, even jailed for “contempt of congress.” Being blacklisted meant suddenly losing your livelihood for writers, directors, and actors working in Hollywood, all for something that is constitutionally protected: one’s political beliefs.
Miller was opposed to HUAC from the very beginning and viewed HUAC as foundationally unconstitutional; a view that was initial popular when HUAC first began its communist hunt but which quickly grew unpopular as political figures like Senator Joseph McCarthy promoted fear of communist infiltration. What ultimately strengthened Miller’s resolve to write The Crucible as a condemnation of the hearings was the HUAC testimony of Elia Kazan. Kazan was a famous director and had been good friends with Miller ever since they first collaborated on the original stage production of Death of a Salesman. Miller thought that Kazan was on the same page in opposing HUAC but when Kazan went in front of the committee he named names in order to clear his own. Unlike Miller, Kazan actually had been a member of the Communist party briefly in the 30s, and he felt like naming other communists was the only way that he could continue his successful career in Hollywood. In fact, Kazan was probably right about this but it aggravated Miller who found Kazan’s behavior indefensible. Continue reading