Let’s go back and imagine the situation from which The Crucible came to being. We set our scene on a countryside highway in the early 1950’s.
A car is being driven from Connecticut to Massachusetts. The driver is in his late thirties, his name is Arthur Miller. He is a well known and rather successful playwright, however somewhat anxious. He has recently translated Ibsen and battled with Hollywood producers because of his Marxist opinions. His anxiety is understandable, since the FBI are keeping an eye on him. For over a decade The House of Un-American Activities Committee has existed and would soon start interrogating his colleagues.
But Arthur Miller is driving North. He is heading for a small village called Salem. He wants to research a historical event that has lived in his memory since he took a course in American history in the University of Michigan. The event occured in 1692 and nearly thirty people were killed because the village accused them of being witches. When Arthur read about these events in University he thought they were absolutely absurd. All of a sudden, the thought that something like this could happen in 1951 wasn’t so absurd any more.
In June 1951, Senator Joe McCarthy accused General George Marshall of being at the heart of a conspiracy to betray his country, and suggested that he had the president of the United States in his power. It was time, McCarthy insisted, to seek out the enemy within. Within the next year, Arthur would hear about his colleagues being interrogated and giving up names of other Communists.
There was with out any doubt parallels in the paranoia and persecution of the McCarthy era and the witch hunt in Salem, but there were also deeper and more human themes that have, with time, made The Crucible a modern classic.
Arthur was on this drive not only heading North, but also getting ready for heading inward. A protagonist burdened by guilt of being untrue to his wife, John Proctor, was brewing at the back of his head.
What Arthur Miller found in the Salem witch-hunt of 1692 was a small repressed community that had imploded with moral judgement, paranoia and guilt. In his research he found the witchcraft was almost always linked to lust and to repressed sexuality.
In his autobiography Timebends Arthur Miller writes:
The relief came to those who testified was orgasmic; they were actually encouraged in open court to talk about their sharing a bed with someone they weren’t married to, a live human being now manacled before them courtesy of God’s lieutenants. Timebends, page 341
And that is where the idea of The Crucible is born. A crucible is a metal or ceramic container that when subjected to very high temperature is used for melting metal and other substances. For example, in order to melt iron from the earth, a crucible is heated to 1510 degrees.
The Crucible is a parable about a community where passion is overthrown for reason. Where the villagers transform and turn on each other. The root of its delusion lies in the use, or rather misuse, of power through language. Language can overpower our senses and alter our minds, like it was witchcraft. And funnily enough, it is the same transformation which happens in the theatre.
The Crucible plays at Bristol Old Vic between 8 Oct – 7 Nov. Find out more, and book tickets, here.