Home Massachusetts The Crucible Revisited, or How Arthur Miller Got Witch Hunting Right

The Crucible Revisited, or How Arthur Miller Got Witch Hunting Right

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The following is a responsa to an article published in these pages under the title ‘The Crucible, or How Arthur Miller Got the Salem Witch Trials Wrong.’

Few playwrights since the Bard can claim to have done what Arthur Miller did in his play The Crucible: to have invented an entirely new metaphor, and brought it to the center of public discourse.

Arthur Miller in 1966

In the aftermath of World War II, two congressional committees aggressively investigated suspected Communists. In the House, Martin Dies, a Texas Democrat, chaired the Un-American Affairs Committee. Wisconsin Republican Joseph McCarthy chaired the Senate Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations. McCarthy’s committee alone caused more than 2,000 government employees to lose their jobs. HUAC’s investigations into writers, directors, actors and producers resulted in a Hollywood blacklist of 300 people, most of whom never got their careers back.

Arthur Miller defied the HUAC and refused to name names of suspected Communists. He won a conviction for contempt of court and couldn’t get a passport to see the premier of The Crucible in Brussels.

The Gift of The Crucible

Miller also gave us a new phrase with which to talk about politics: witch hunt. He put the drama of the Salem trials onstage at the height of those committee hearings.

Since then, hardly a figure of speech has been more serially abused. It seems we hear it invoked every news cycle, usually by powerful men anxious about being held to account. What’s more, the accuracy of Miller’s version of the Salem story is seriously suspect. Another historian writing in these pages has catalogued the many factual errors of Miller’s play. Some are minor. Some, like the age of Abigail Williams and her relationship with John Proctor, are flagrant. A piece of theater, of course, need not be judged on its historical accuracy. But should these errors cause us to re-evaluate Arthur Miller’s reputation as one of the great truth-tellers of modern drama?


The Salem witch trials

The details may be shaky, and the analogy may be prone to misuse. But I believe Miller truly knew his subject. We should neither throw the baby out with the bathwater, nor lose sight of the forest for the trees. The Crucible’s central metaphor is apt. The comparison between the witch hunts of the seventeenth century and the political persecutions of the twentieth yields deep insights into both. Miller may have been wrong about Salem, but when it came to the thorny problem of interpreting the phenomenon of witch-hunting, he got it.

A Common Enemy

When we look closely at the histories of the European witch hunts and the American Red Scare, we find a number of striking similarities. McCarthy conducted, in a meaningful sense, a witch hunt. Miller’s astute recognition of this uncanny resemblance is an important part of what makes The Crucible so intelligent. He observed that McCarthy and the witch hunters, despite the centuries that separated them, shared a common enemy.

Sen. Joseph McCarthy

Whether it went under the name “Un-American Activities” or “maleficium,” this enemy had a few consistent characteristics. It was powerful, but mysterious. It operated by conspiracy, seeking to undermine normal society in preparation for an all-out Manichean struggle. Above all, it was politically subversive. In early modern Europe, witchcraft was often prosecuted as a crime against the state, because devil worship was believed to threaten the God-given authority of the Crown. It’s not hard to see a parallel between Senator McCarthy’s claim that Communist infiltrators undermined the State Department, and James VI of Scotland’s belief that his political adversaries used witchcraft to try to harm him and his family.

Sex and the Witch Hunter

Another area of similarity was sex. Both the witch hunters and the McCarthyites were preoccupied with it. Right from their beginnings, European witch beliefs were greatly concerned with deviant female sexuality. It’s a major theme in the Malleus Maleficarum, the 1486 witch-hunting handbook written by inquisitor and first-degree misogynist Heinrich Kramer. Kramer believed that women had a tendency to worship the devil because they couldn’t control their sexual urges:

“Everything is governed by carnal lusting, which is insatiable in them […] Hence, and consequently, it should be called the Heresy not of Sorcerers but of Sorceresses, to name it after the predominant element.[1]

Malleus Maleficarum

Even for his day, Kramer’s views were extreme. Many influential contemporaries considered his fixation on the sex lives of accused women improper. His idée fixe led to at least one reputation-damaging failure in the courtroom. But his book was influential, and there can be little doubt that the vision of the sexualized female witch he promulgated was in part responsible for the fact that some 80 percent of those executed for witchcraft were women.

Sex seems to have been on Joe McCarthy’s mind too. The senator focused on the sexuality of one group in particular: homosexuals. Gay men were heavily victimized. Hundreds of government employees were outed and fired. Public figures called before the HUAC and the Senate Permanent Investigations subcommittee  could find themselves subjected to probing questions about their sex lives. McCarthy and his allies attacked their enemies with campaigns of insinuation and innuendo.

Deviance and The Crucible

Historian David K. Johnson popularized the term “Lavender Scare” to describe the persecution of homosexuals.[2] The McCarthyites justified their actions by an argument that Heinrich Kramer would have grasped instinctively. Homosexuals, they claimed, were more likely to be turned Communist because they were susceptible to blackmail. Like the lusty women of the Malleus, their sexuality, and the anxieties it provoked, made them targets. Is it any wonder, then, that Miller chose to put sexual indiscretion, in the form of the invented adultery between John Proctor and Abigail Williams, at the center of The Crucible?

Fear of a hidden enemy and anxieties about deviant sexuality formed a common emotional foundation to the Salem witch hunts and the Red Scare. More than this, the congressional hearings bore a structural resemblance to the witchcraft trials as they unfolded. One of the most notorious aspects of the HUAC’s investigations was its capacity to coerce denunciations. Targets of the committee who declined to name names and identify their friends and colleagues as Communists ended up blacklisted.

The Hollywood Ten and their families in 1950, protesting the impending imprisonment

Quirks of the Early Court

Witch hunts often followed a similar pattern, sometimes taking on a life of their own as chains of denunciations spiraled out of control. This phenomenon was enabled by a few quirks of early modern jurisprudence. The first was a belief in the supreme reliability of confession. As nobody would give false testimony incriminating themselves, early modern jurists reasoned, confession was regina probationum, “the queen of proofs.”

The second was the notion of crimen exceptum. In ordinary cases, early modern courts did not accept the testimony of convicts as evidence. But witchcraft was no ordinary crime. It was a spiritual crime – one that might leave no physical evidence, and no witnesses except the devil himself and the accused witch. To solve this problem of proof, the doctrine of crimen exceptum lowered the standards for admissible evidence in witchcraft cases. That opened the door for the chain denunciations that allowed witch hunts to gain momentum like a snowball rolling down a hill.

Neither of these early modern doctrines has a place in an American court of law.  Under Joe McCarthy and his allies,  the legal logic of the witch trials crept into congressional proceedings. In many cases, the charge of being a Communist resembled a spiritual crime — empirically unverifiable except by the guilty parties themselves. Testimony that any judge would have dismissed as defensive lying was accepted by committees that elevated confession far above its status in modern jurisprudence. It wasn’t quite regina probationum of a crimen exceptum – but the resemblance is significant. Arthur Miller understood this with the intimacy of someone who had seen the beast from within its belly.

The Crucible: Understanding the Past 

Perhaps the most important thing we can take away from The Crucible is a deeper empathy for our forebears. For historians, empathy is more than a virtue: It’s a tool. It allows us to reach back to recover the mentalities of people who saw the world entirely differently than we. Witch hunting has proven difficult for modern people to understand because so much that constituted the mental world of the witch hunters has disappeared from our twenty-first century lives. That includes the fear of a real and threatening devil, the mysteriousness of disease, the strained intimacy of village life and the ardent belief in the power of words to harm. In this insulated age, the men and women who hunted witches seem impossibly alien.

But if we engage seriously with Arthur Miller’s metaphor, then we can close the distance of the centuries. We can allow, even if we don’t fully accept, meaningful similarities between the witch hunts and the Red Scare. The political dramas of our grandparents’ lifetimes don’t seem so foreign to us. We understand how chains of denunciations can spiral out of control. We see how demagogues can exploit the fear of a sinister and subversive enemy. And we realize that suspicion and doubt can turn a community against itself.

People Like Us

We recognize that the same dynamics of political paranoia that made Salem tear itself apart still exist in this era of disenchantment. And then all of a sudden the deepest question of witch-hunting scholarship, how can they have done such a thing, becomes a little less inscrutable.

All great art holds a hint of contradiction. It is the paradox of The Crucible that a play, for all its flaws and inaccuracies, should allow us to see the witch-hunting Puritans of Salem not as characters but as people like us.

End Notes

Emerson Hurley studies early modern history at the University of Melbourne, with an interest in the social history of the European witch hunts. He can be contacted at [email protected].

[1] Heinrich Kramer, The Hammer of Witches: A Complete Translation of the Malleus Malleficarum, trans. Christopher S. Mackay (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2009), 170.

[2] David K. Johnson, The Lavender Scare (Chicago: Chicago University Press, 2004).

Image of the Hollywood Ten: Fair use, https://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?curid=7669765.


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