Arthur Miller's play The Crucible deals with dark and frightening times. Though the setting is 1692 Salem, Massachusetts during the wide-ranging hunt for witches, this 1953 piece is equally an evocation of America's sudden dark fear of enemies in its midst. Just years earlier, in World War II the Soviet Union had been considered a valiant ally; with the division of Europe, the threat of the atom bomb and the populist hectoring of politicians such as Senator Joseph McCarthy, many American intellectuals, civil servants and diplomats found themselves targeted for "communist sympathies."
This was the context for The Crucible. It's a strong, at times poetic piece, but much of the play's power and lasting relevance comes from Miller's admonitory lesson about hysteria, prejudice and injustice. In an essay about the play written in 2000 when he was eighty-five, Arthur Miller commented,The Crucible straddles two different worlds to make them one, but it is not history in the usual sense of the word, but a moral, political and psychological construct that floats on the fluid emotions of both eras. As a commercial entertainment the play failed [it opened in 1953]. To start with there was the title: nobody knew what a crucible was. Most of the critics, as sometimes does happen, never caught on to the play's ironical substructure, and the ones who did were nervous about validating a work that was so unkind to the same sanctified procedural principles as underlay the hunt for reds. . . . Several years after, a gang of young actors, setting up chairs in the ballroom of the McAlpin Hotel, fired up the audience, convinced the critics, and the play at last took off and soon found its place. There were cheering reviews but by then Senator McCarthy was dead. The public fever on whose heatwaves he had spread his wings had subsided.
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