Our Present Crucible

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Saturday night my wife and I went to see the Hartford Stage’s terrific production of Arthur Miller’s The Crucible, and it was hard not to come away without pondering the play’s relevance for America today. When it was first produced in 1953, The Crucible struck unimpressed reviewers as little more than a straight-up allegory of their own era, with the Salem witch trials standing in for McCarthyite attacks on the loyalty of upstanding Americans. As Miller noted In a 1996 New Yorker piece, “Why I Wrote ‘The Crucible'”:

Inevitably, it was no sooner known that my new play was about Salem than
I had to confront the charge that such an analogy was specious–that
there never were any witches but there certainly are Communists.

We, however, live in a time when a candidate for the U.S. Senate airs an ad denying she is a witch and a candidate for the vice presidency of the United States appears on video being prayed over by a preacher asking God to protect her from witchcraft–both in the context of a generation in which partisan politics has increasingly taken on the aspect of spiritual warfare. With the existence of witches and Communists equally plausible (or implausible), the world of Salem that The Crucible conjures up has become less alien, its actual religiosity more real.

Miller, who spent weeks in the Salem courthouse studying the judicial record of the trials, ends his piece by puzzling over what was taken to be the “crucial damning event” for an accused witch–signing one’s name in the Devil’s Book:

But what were these new inductees supposed to have done once they’d signed on? Nobody seems even to have thought to ask. But, of course, actions are as irrelevant during cultural and religious wars as they are in nightmares. The thing at issue is buried intentions–the secret allegiances of the alienated heart, always the main threat to the theocratic mind, as well as its immemorial quarry.

These days, the fear of such secret allegiances is preying on the hearts of Tea Partiers and their kin–the fear that the president was born in some other country and is an adherent of some other creed; the fear of secret terrorists, or those who would impose on us their own religious law, of immigrants in general; and perhaps most powerfully, the sense of being victimized by elites–powers and principalities that are conspiring to rob us of our birthright as Americans.

The heart of The Crucible‘s darkness, however, lies in the alliance of the girl accusers and their own elite supporters; both groups come to recognize the power to be gained by accusation and condemnation. Anxiety from below and opportunism from above can be a lethal combination–especially if religion is added to the mix.

Miller points out that the Salem court’s critical decision was to admit the use of “spectral evidence,” so that a person could be convicted merely by swearing that she had sent her familiar spirit to trouble you. When civil society embraces apparitions, anything is possible.