As I watched “The Crucible” taking shape as a movie over much of the past year, the sheer depth of time that it represents for me kept returning to mind. As those powerful actors blossomed on the screen, and the children and the horses, the crowds and the wagons, I thought again about how I came to cook all this up nearly fifty years ago, in an America almost nobody I know seems to remember clearly. In a way, there is a biting irony in this film’s having been made by a Hollywood studio, something unimaginable in the fifties.
But there they are–Daniel Day-Lewis (John Proctor) scything his sea-bordered field, Joan Allen (Elizabeth) lying pregnant in the frigid jail, Winona Ryder (Abigail) stealing her minister-uncle’s money majestic Paul Scofield (Judge Danforth) and his righteous empathy with the Devil-possessed children, and all of them looking as inevitable as rain. I remember those years– they formed “The Crucible” ‘s skeleton–but I have lost the dead weight of the fear I had then. Fear doesn’t travel well; just as it can warp judgment, its absence can diminish memory’s truth.
What terrifies one generation is likely to bring only a puzzled smile to the next. I remember how in 1964, only twenty years after the war, Harold Clurman, the director of “Incident at Vichy,” showed the cast a film of a Hitler speech, hoping to give them a sense of the Nazi period in which my play took place. They watched as Hitler, facing a vast stadium full of adoring people, went up on his toes in ecstasy, hands clasped under his chin, a sublimely self-gratified grin on his face, his body swivelling rather cutely, and they giggled at his overacting.
Likewise, films of Senator Joseph McCarthy are rather unsettling–if you remember the fear he once spread. Buzzing his truculent sidewalk brawler’s snarl through the hairs in his nose, squinting through his cat’s eyes and sneering like a villain, he comes across now as nearly comical, a self-aware performer keeping a straight face as he does his juicy threat-shtick. McCarthy’s power to stir fears of creeping Communism was not entirely based on illusion, of course; the paranoid, real or pretended, always secretes its pearl around a grain of fact.
From being our wartime ally, the Soviet Union rapidly became a expanding empire. In 1949, Mao Zedong took power in China. Western Europe also seemed ready to become Red–especially Italy, where the Communist Party was the largest outside Russia, and was growing. Capitalism, in the opinion of many, myself included, had nothing more to say, its final poisoned bloom having been Italian and German Fascism.
McCarthy–brash and ill-mannered but to many authentic and true–boiled it all down to what anyone could understand: we had “lost China” and would soon lose Europe as well, because the State Department– staffed, of course, under Democratic Presidents-was full of treasonous pro-Soviet intellectuals. It was as simple as that. If our losing China seemed the equivalent of a flea’s losing an elephant, it was still a phrase–and a conviction–that one did not dare to question; to do so was to risk drawing suspicion on oneself.
Indeed, the State Department proceeded to hound and fire the officers who knew China, its language, and its opaque culture–a move that suggested the practitioners of sympathetic magic who wring the neck of a doll in order to make a distant enemy’s head drop off. There was magic all around; the politics of alien conspiracy soon dominated political discourse and bid fair to wipe out any other issue. How could one deal with such enormities in a play? “The Crucible” was an act of des- peration.
Much of my desperation branched out, I suppose, from a typical Depression–era trauma–the blow struck on the mind by the rise of European Fascism and the brutal anti-Semitism it had brought to power. But by 1950, when I began to think of writing about the hunt for Reds in America, I was motivated in some great part by the paralysis that had set in among many liberals who, despite their discomfort with the inquisitors’ violations of civil rights, were fearful, and with good reason, of being identified as covert Communists if they should protest too strongly.
In any play, however trivial, there has to be a still point of moral reference against which to gauge the action. In our lives, in the late nineteen-forties and early nineteen-fifties, no such point existed anymore. The left could not look straight at the Soviet Union’s abrogations of human rights. The anti-Communist liberals could not acknowledge the violations of those rights by congressional committees. The far right, meanwhile, was licking up all the cream. The days of “J’accuse” were gone, for anyone needs to feel right to declare someone else wrong.
Gradually, all the old political and moral reality had melted like a Dali watch. Nobody but a fanatic, it seemed, could really say all that he believed. President Truman was among the first to have to deal with the dilemma, and his way of resolving itself having to trim his sails before the howling gale on the right-turned out to be momentous. At first, he was outraged at the allegation of widespread Communist infiltration of the government and called the charge of “coddling Communists” a red herring dragged in by the Republicans to bring down the Democrats.
But such was the gathering power of raw belief in the great Soviet plot that Truman soon felt it necessary to institute loyalty boards of his own. The Red hunt, led by the House Committee on Un-American Activities and by McCarthy, was becoming the dominating fixation of the American psyche. It reached Hollywood when the studios, after first resisting, agreed to submit artists’ names to the House Committee for “clearing” before employing them. This unleashed a veritable holy terror among actors, directors, and others, from Party members to those who had had the merest brush with a front organization.
The Soviet plot was the hub of a great wheel of causation; the plot justified the crushing of all nuance, all the shadings that a realistic judgment of reality requires. Even worse was the feeling that our sensitivity to this onslaught on our liberties was passing from us-indeed, from me. In “Timebends,” my autobiography, I recalled the time I’d written a screenplay (“The Hook”) about union corruption on the Brooklyn waterfront.
Harry Cohn, the head of Columbia Pictures, did something that would once have been considered unthinkable: he showed my script to the F. B. I. Cohn then asked me to take the gangsters in my script, who were threatening and murdering their opponents, and simply change them to Communists. When I declined to commit this idiocy (Joe Ryan, the head of the longshoremen’s union, was soon to go to Sing Sing for racketeering), I got a wire from Cohn saying, “The minute we try to make the script pro-American you pull out. ” By then–it was 1951–I had come to accept this terribly serious insanity as routine, but there was an element of the marvellous in it which I longed to put on the stage.
In those years, our thought processes were becoming so magical, so paranoid, that to imagine writing a play about this environment was like trying to pick one’s teeth with a ball of wool: I lacked the tools to illuminate miasma. Yet I kept being drawn back to it. I had read about the witchcraft trials in college, but it was not until I read a book published in 1867–a two-volume, thousand-page study by Charles W. Upham, who was then the mayor of Salem–that I knew I had to write about the period.
Upham had not only written a broad and thorough investigation of what was even then an almost lost chapter of Salem’s past but opened up to me the details of personal relationships among many participants in the tragedy. I visited Salem for the first time on a dismal spring day in 1952; it was a sidetracked town then, with abandoned factories and vacant stores. In the gloomy courthouse there I read the transcripts of the witchcraft trials of 1692, as taken down in a primitive shorthand by ministers who were spelling each other. But there was one entry in Upham in which the thousands of pieces I had come across were jogged into place.
It was from a report written by the Reverend Samuel Parris, who was one of the chief instigators of the witch-hunt. “During the examination of Elizabeth Procter, Abigail Williams and Ann Putnam”–the two were “afflicted” teen-age accusers, and Abigail was Parris’s niece–“both made offer to strike at said Procter; but when Abigail’s hand came near, it opened, whereas it was made up, into a fist before, and came down exceeding lightly as it drew near to said Procter, and at length, with open and extended fingers, touched Procter’s hood very lightly. Immediately Abigail cried out her fingers, her fingers, her fingers burned …
In this remarkably observed gesture oil a troubled young girl, I believed, a play became possible. Elizabeth Proctor had been the orphaned Abigail’s mistress, ant they had lived together in the same small house until Elizabeth fired the girl. By this time, I was sure, John Proctor had bedded Abigail, who had to be dismissed most likely to appease Elizabeth. They was bad blood between the two women now. That Abigail started, in effect, to condemn Elizabeth to death with her touch, then stopped her hand, then went through with it, was quite suddenly human center of all this turmoil.
All this I understood. I had not proached the witchcraft out of nowhere or from purely social and political considerations. My own marriage of twelve years was teetering and I knew more than wished to know about where the blame lay. That John Proctor the sinner might overturn his paralyzing personal guilt and become the most forthright voice against the madness around him was a reassurance to me, and, I suppose, an inspiration: it demonstrated that a clear moral outcry could still spring even from an ambiguously unblemished soul.
Moving crabwise across the profusion of evidence, I sensed that I had at last found something of myself in it, and a play began to accumulate around this man. But as the dramatic form became visible, one problem remained unyielding: so many practices of the Salem trials were similar to those employed by the congressional committees that I could easily be accused of skewing history for a mere partisan purpose.
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. In the seventeenth century, however, the existence of witches was never questioned by the loftiest minds in Europe and America; and even lawyers of the highest eminence, like Sir Edward Coke, a veritable hero of liberty for defending the common law against the king’s arbitrary power, believed that witches had to be prosecuted mercilessly.
Of course, there were no Communists in 1692, but it was literally worth your life to deny witches or their powers, given the exhortation in the Bible, “Thou shalt not suffer a witch to live. ” There had to be witches in the world or the Bible lied. Indeed, the very structure of evil depended on Lucifer’s plotting against God. (And the irony is that klatches of Luciferians exist all over the country today, there may even be more of them now than there are Communists.
As with most humans, panic sleeps in one unlighted corner of my soul. When I walked at night along the empty, wet streets of Salem in the week that I spent there, I could easily work myself into imagining my terror before a gaggle of young girls flying down the road screaming that somebody’s “familiar spirit” was chasing them. This anxiety-laden leap backward over nearly three centuries may have been helped along by a particular Upham footnote.
At a certain point, the high court of the province made the fatal decision to admit, for the first time, the use of “spectral evidence” as proof of guilt. Spectral evidence, so aptly named, meant that if I swore that you had sent out your “familiar spirit” to choke, tickle, poison me or my cattle, or to control thoughts and actions, I could get you hanged unless you confessed to having had contact with the Devil. After all, only the Devil could lend such powers of visible transport to confederates, in his everlasting plot to bring down Christianity.
Naturally, the best proof of the sincerity of your confession was your naming others whom you had seen in the Devil company–an invitation to private vengeance, but made of official by the seal of the theocratic state. It was as though the court had grown tired of thinking and had invited in the instincts: spectral evidence–that poisoned cloud of paranoid fantasy–made a kind of lunatic sense to them, as it did in plot-ridden 1952, when so often the question was not the acts of an accused but the thoughts and intentions in his alienated mind.
The breathtaking circularity of the process had a kind of poetic tightness. Not everybody was accused, after all, so there must be some reason why you were. By denying that there is any reason whatsoever for you to be accused, you are implying, by virtue of a surprisingly small logical leap, that mere chance picked you out, which in turn implies that the Devil might not really be at work in the village or, God forbid, even exist. Therefore, the investigation itself is either mistaken or a fraud.
You would have to be a crypto-Luciferian to say that–not a great idea if l u wanted to go back to your farm. The more I read into the Salem panic, the more it touched off corresponding ages of common experiences in the fifties: the old friend of a blacklisted person crossing the street to avoid being seen talking to him; the overnight conversions of former leftists into born-again patriots; and so on. Apparently, certain processes are universal.