Arthur Miller’s disturbing play The Crucible, bluntly comments on the horrors of a society infiltrated with mass fear and hysteria. Written as a parallel to the late 17th century Salem witch trials in Massachusetts, Miller illustrates how conflict can tear a community apart and leave dire consequences upon its people. In 1692, Salem was a puritan society that viewed witchcraft as a taboo. When a group of young girls fell ill, each with symptoms of hallucinations and bizarre behaviour, Salem was driven to a state of panic believing that witchcraft was the culprit. A frantic search began to determine who was to blame for performing witchcraft, which lead to a series of accusations from one Salem citizen to another.
Driven by fear, the conflict worsened when the authorities began searching for the perpetrator. Miller highlights the dangers that arise when a theocracy reacts to such fear with its own extreme religious beliefs. Government officials treated several people with intimidation and coercion to confess to crimes regardless of insufficient or questionable evidence. This societal conflict developed into personal conflicts as many of these baseless accusations resulted in innocent people being incarcerated and punished with the death sentence. Ironically, in order to avoid imprisonment, many of the innocent obliged with the government’s terms and confessed to crimes they had never committed. They were then excused from sentence, as it was believed that their ‘confession’ displayed they were no longer under the influence of the devil and possessed an awareness of the sins they had committed.
The Salem situation is starkly linked to McCarthyism, a term inspired by U.S. Senator Joseph McCarthy during an anti-communist scare in mid 20th century. His actions effectively led thousands of Americans to be subjected to interrogation and various forms of punishment, although in many cases evidence against these Americans was less than substantial. Even those who merely hinted sympathy towards pro-communists would be treated as traitors. Much alike Salem, a picture of frenzy and paranoia lasted in America for a number of years, resulting in over a hundred peoples’ conviction.
The play highlights how a society so quickly gripped with hysteria can disintergrate – a timeless demonstration warning us of the frailties of any society.
Salem, Massachusetts from 1692 when initial accusations surfaced to the release of the convicted in 1693.
Next: The Crucible: Act 1