Film Scouts Reviews

"The Crucible"

by Karen Jaehne

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Watching the recent movie based on "The Crucible" - even though its script has been adapted by the playwright Arthur Miller himself - you may wonder how the story was a metaphor for the "witch hunts" of Senator Joseph McCarthy and his House Un-American Activities Committee pals intent on driving Commies out of the underbrush of American society in the early 1950s.

This is how the play came to be and how it was seen in its own time.

In 1952, when Arthur Miller was told by his friend Elia Kazan that testifying before the House Un-American Activities Committee was the right thing to do, Miller drove away from the Kazans' Connecticut home - and their friendship - into the rain and headed, more or less directly, to Salem to begin research on the play he wanted to write about the witch hunts of the 18th century. In his autobiography, "Timebends," Miller says he was not really afraid that Kazan would toss in Miller's name among the names he intended to hand over to the Committee - primarily because Kazan was now aware that Miller had once gone to some party meetings.

Miller gives an impressive account of the fears everybody felt: never working again or having a friend tell the Committee that you were a Communist. One of the worst things was being subpoenaed yourself and having to decide whether to take the Fifth Amendment, to name names of suspected "Commies," or to go to Washington, D.C. for a showdown at the risk of being jailed for contempt of Congress, i.e., refusing to answer their insidious questions.

No matter your reaction, you would inevitably be "blacklisted." Obviously, there was no actual "list" drawn up. It was a vague thing, and you had to sign oaths of allegiance or a studio chief in Hollywood had to call Washington to make sure you were in the clear before giving you a job. A lot of people in the film industry were then (as now) leftists, and woe to anybody who ever attended a Communist Party cocktail party. Because the USA had been allies with the USSR in WWII, this preference for Marx and Lenin over Hitler and Mussolini became known as "premature anti-fascism."

"McCarthy's rise was only beginning," writes Miller, "and no one guessed that it would grow beyond the power of the President himself... My decision to attempt a play on the Salem witchcraft trials was tentative, restrained by technical questions first of all, and then by a suspicion that I would not only be writing myself into the wilderness politically but personally as well."

Miller quickly deduced from reading the transcripts of the trials that the community of Salem welcomed the process as a "cleansing" of their collective sins, not just the case of Procter's marital infidelity. "It was this ricocheting of the cleansing idea that drew me on day after day, this projection of one's own vileness onto others in order to wipe it out with their own blood. As more than one private letter put it at the time, 'Now no one is safe.'"

The strongest objection to his play, Miller felt, would come from people who argued that there were no witches, whereas Communists... well, they exist, whether they're under your bed or across the ocean. Not so, argued Miller, what about laws? Don't they reflect our actual beliefs? In 18th century Massachusetts, people passed laws against the practice of witchcraft. People in the churches would have considered it blasphemous to suggest that there were no witches; why, the Bible has three warnings against dealing with them, and nobody was going to challenge the veracity of the Good Book.

"The political question," writes Miller, "of whether witches and Communists could be equated was no longer the point. What was manifestly parallel was the guilt, two centuries apart, of holding illicit, suppressed feelings of alienation and hostility toward standard, daylight society...

"Without guilt, the 1950s Red-hunt could never have generated such power. Once it was conceded that absolutely any idea remotely similar to a Marxist position was not only politically but morally illicit, the liberal... was effectively paralyzed."

Perhaps the widespread fear of liberals in recent years is what got Arthur Miller to go along with "The Crucible" being made into a major motion picture. But wait! If the Soviet Union and its Communist empire is as collapsed as the Hindenburg, it's obviously not Reds and Pinkos who're threatening democracy. So what are the witches of "The Crucible" trying to tell us? Is this a warning against sex? Against the temptations felt by hypocritical old geezers? Against all the political wannabes who kiss and tell?

If this movie hits a nerve today, I believe that's it: the kiss and tell process. Once you offer one of those diabolical multi-million-dollar advances for a tell-all book, there's no telling how much trash you'll get. There's no limit to the lies that can be printed by somebody in league with the Devil.

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