It is fascinating to discover that Arthur Miller’s brilliant 1953 play, “The Crucible” which portrays the 17th century Salem witch trials in Massachusetts, is in fact an allegory of the political climate of his day.
The play, which recounts the circumstances surrounding the trial and execution of various New Englanders on charges of witchcraft, is used by Miller to allude to the blacklisting of many US citizens by the McCarthy administration. In the 1950s the US Government, led by Republican Senator Joseph McCarthy, accused, publicly shamed and even imprisoned many thinkers, political activists, writers, artists, actors and film-directors on charges of communism and homosexuality.
Labelled the Second Red Scare, or McCarthyism the era epitomised the making of unfair or unjustified allegations and the use of unfair investigation to restrict political dissent. Heightened by Cold War tensions, claims that communist spies and Soviet sympathisers had infiltrated the US abounded. It seems McCarthy did not stop a communists, but also targeted and threatened to expose prominent homosexuals and free thinkers in education institution, unions and in Hollywood.
Miller himself was questioned by the House of Representatives in 1956. Despite this or perhaps due to this, his play became a classic and remains and timeless reminder of the power of propaganda, the destructiveness of fear driven ideals.
“Witch hunting” becomes a powerful metaphor for the desire to prosecute, expose and punish dissenters or those representing the unknown element.
With political tensions heightened in our own “war on terror”, it’s still as relevant as ever to consider deeply who and what we are seeking to expose, prosecute and punish.