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.
Miller had already been thinking about using the witch hunts in Salem as a metaphor for his own time, but this falling out with Kazan motivated him even more. The Crucible opened in 1953 and the connection Miller was trying to draw to the Red Scare was well-noted by all reviewers. Some reviewers felt like the parallels were too overt and the play overly political, and many people complained that there weren’t real witches but there were real communists. This was, of course true, but most communists posed no real threat to America’s political order, no more than the innocent people accused of witchcraft posed to Salem’s community. Many members of the communist party, especially the high-profile artist HUAC targeted, were nothing more that leftist literary types and FDR democrats who had joined communism in the 30s before tensions with Russia escalated and well before Stalin’s genocidal tactics had been discovered. In addition, HUAC called many people before congress who never had been communists at all. In particularly telling instances of paranoia, HUAC would identify “subversives” for what they called “premature anti-fascism,” meaning the accused opposed Hitler’s rise before it became popular to do so.
Miller had been on the radar of the FBI and conjointly HUAC for some time. Ironically, when he tried to travel to Brussels to see a production of The Crucible, he was stopped by the FBI who told him he couldn’t renew his passport without additional investigation. Miller was finally subpoenaed in 1956 and called to testify before HUAC. Miller himself was confused by the timing of this. In 1956, he was not engaged in political activity. The committee hadn’t chosen to call him three years earlier when The Crucible was first produced, so why now? When a congressman offered to let Miller off the proverbial hook if Miller could convince Marilyn Monroe to pose with the congressman for a picture, the reason for the subpoena became more obvious.
The HUAC had a history of trying to get publicity be indicted famous members of Hollywood, and Miller’s connection to Monroe was likely one of the causes for his subpoena. At the time, Miller was having an affair with Monroe that the FBI knew about and that would shortly become public knowledge when they married. Miller refused to give Monroe up and so he went before the committee.
Arthur Miller had never been a member of the Communist party though he had attended some meetings and he did support many leftist causes. He didn’t deny any of this in front of the committee but when asked to name the names of people he had seen in meetings of communists he flatly refused. For not naming names, he was found in contempt of the committee, a sentence that had resulted in jail time for others.
Miller would be found guilty of contempt and sentenced to a few months in jail but this sentence was overturned in appeal. This was partly because Miller had been assured before his testimony that he wouldn’t have to name communists by a member of the committee, a promise that had been broken. The result of this appeal also demonstrates how the power of the HUAC was beginning to wane. By the end of the 1950s, HUAC had lost considerable power and almost all public support. Throughout the 60s is would be roundly mocked by satirists, and it would be finally disbanded in 1975. It’s worth noting that it might not be completely dead; in 2016, Newt Gingrich argued for the HUAC to be reinstated to hunt out “Islamic supremacists.”
The Crucible received mixed reviews in its day but has had a lasting impact and is the most produced of all of Miller’s works. While Miller wrote it to specifically comment on his time, the condemnation of mob mentality remains resonant whenever and wherever it is produced. While I’ve addressed “the two histories” of The Crucible (the trails in Salem, and the HUAC hearings), this play becomes a part of history every time it is produced drawing parallels to many different political and social situations. In today’s political climate, The Crucible invites us to once again think deeply about the power of a mob and the power of individuals willing to stand firm in the face of them.
Bigsby, Christopher. Arthur Miller: 1915-1962. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2009.
Goodman, Walter. “The Committee: The Extraordinary Career of the House Committee on Un-American Activities.” Science and Society 35, no. 1 (1971).
Longworth, Karina. After the Fall: Arthur Miller. You Must Remember This, Blacklist Series. May 30, 2016. Podcast.