Born on October 17, 1915, Arthur Asher Miller was the second of three children and was part of a prominent family. His family had a lot of assets but lost everything to the great depression in 1929. Wanting to help his family, he started delivering bread to houses every morning before school. In 1932, he graduated from Abraham Lincoln High School and started working at different jobs to cover his college tuition. He attended the University of Michigan where he first majored in Journalism. He served as an editor of a student paper from his University.
His first play was No Villain (1936), which he wrote in six days while still a student at the University. The play earned him recognition, winning him an Avery Hopwood Award. He then switched his major to English and began to contemplate a career as a playwright. His relationship with Hollywood sex symbol Marilyn Monroe brought scrutiny to both of their personal lives. Marilyn was attacked by “red-baiters” for associating herself with an alleged communist sympathizer like Miller. The two first informally met at a Hollywood party in 1951 when Miller was at the top of his career, while Marilyn was virtually unknown with minor film roles behind her. Miller described Monroe as “almost ludicrously provocative” at the party. A short time later, they properly met; Monroe likened her encounter with Miller to “running into a tree”, for he stood over 6 feet. At the time, Miller was married with two daughters. It wasn’t until 1956 that Miller would divorce his wife to marry Monroe a month later. They divorced in 1961, and a year later he married Inge Morath, an Austrian-American photographer.
Arthur Miller is seen as one of the most prominent figures in the 20th century American theatre with a career that spanned over three decades. The Crucible won Miller a Tony award. He also earned an Emmy for Outstanding Writer and was honored at the Kennedy Center Honors in 1984. Many of Miller’s works were the products of his own experiences, and his criticisms of a particular era in America influenced his writing of The Crucible.
The play, which takes place in Salem, Massachusetts, opens as Reverend Parris is seen kneeling beside the bed where his ten-year old daughter Betty is lying, unconscious and seemingly ill. The cause of her condition is undeterminable. The previous night, Parris had discovered his niece Abigail (the main antagonist of the play), his slave girl Tibuta and his daughter Betty along with other girls, dancing in the woods when Betty collapsed unconscious. Talks of unnatural causes begin to swarm the village, as Mr. and Mrs. Putman, who lost seven of their children, reveal that their only surviving daughter is now also ill. Soon, a large crowd gathers outside the house and the whole town is filled with rumors of witchcraft. When confronted by her uncle, Abigail denies any wrongdoing or involvement in witchcraft, but points the finger at others. She threatens and persuades the other girls to stick to the script of denial and blaming others. Reverend Hale, an expert in witchcraft is then summoned to investigate the case. Pressure builds, and the girls are forced to face the facts as they emerge. They begin to somewhat confess, and in a bizarre thread of false and conflicting testimonies where everyone is motivated by either their desire for vengeance or their effort to save themselves, mass hysteria ensues.
Miller wrote The Crucible to bring to light the injustice and violation of liberty seen in the McCarthy trials; much like the Salem’s witch hunt, it resulted in an outbreak of paranoia, and relied on fearmongering to fit hidden agendas. His exposure to the McCarthy trials first started when he refused to sign an anti-communist declaration, consequently putting a target on his back; he drew suspicion on himself of being a covert communist. At the time, people suspected of being communists were prosecuted or blacklisted. Miller saw the paralysis that had set among people who, although they knew the violation of civil rights that stemmed from the McCarthy trials, would not strongly show their discomfort, for fear of being identified as communists. “The Crucible was an act of desperation”, says Miller who wanted to capture the prejudiced and menacing nature of the McCarthy trials in form of a play. Arthur Miller had read about the trials of the Salem’s witch hunt back in college. What sparked his creativity, however, was a thousand-page book he read about the trials published in 1867 and written by then mayor of Salem, Charles W. Upham. Miller knew he had to write about the period to get his message across; The Crucible was born, an allegory and critique on McCarthyism, influenced by Miller’s own treatment during that era. In 1952, Elia Kazan, Miller’s friend and director of one of his plays Death of a Salesman testified in front of the House Committee on Un-American Activities (HUAC), outing eight fellow members of the communist party.
The HUAC was a committee of the U.S. representatives established in 1938 with a sole purpose of investigating and prosecuting alleged disloyalty from private citizens and organizations suspected of having communist ties. Kazan’s testimony fractured the pair’s friendship, as Miller did not share the same sentiment of exposing fellow communists. The committee took interest in Miller and summoned him to testify before them. Accompanied by his then wife Marylin Monroe, Miller showed up to the hearings and shared with the committee details of his political activities but refused to share names of his friends and colleagues with whom he had been involved in communism. Fully embodying John Proctor, the protagonist of his play, Miller said to the chairman of the committee “I could not use the name of another person and bring trouble on him.” This mirrors Proctor’s attitude in the play when he refused to comply, thereby passing on a chance to save himself, “I have three children — how may I teach them to walk like men in the world if I sold my friends?”. Miller admits in his essay ‘Why I wrote The Crucible’– that he had not approached the case “from purely social and political considerations”. John Proctor who, though was guilty of sin for extramarital affairs with Abigail, became the most forthright voice in the midst of all the hysteria; Miller was amazed by the fact that such moral compass could still spring from such a sinner. Miller, whose twelve-year marriage was ruined because of his affair with Monroe, seemingly paints himself in the play as Mr. Proctor. In many ways, Miller likens the HUAC with the Salem witch hunt of 1962. Senator McCarthy and the other members of the HUAC committee are represented by Abigail and the other false accusers in the play, while the witches represent the communists who were prosecuted during the era. Like the protagonist in his play, Miller suffered consequences for refusal to help the committee in their own witch hunt; he was blacklisted, fined and sentenced to prison. His conviction would later be repealed, however.