In 1692, around 150 people were arrested in Salem and imprisoned on suspicion of being a witch. Twenty people were killed, while many more died in prison. In his 1953 play The Crucible, Arthur Miller brings this shameful period of American history to life on stage, in an allegory for the witch hunt of his era: McCarthyism.
1. THE FBI WANTED ARTHUR MILLER TO CHANGE ONE OF HIS SCREENPLAYS.
Hollywood was a willing participant in Senator Joseph McCarthy's efforts to crack down on alleged Soviet sympathizers, blacklisting artists who weren't cleared by the government. In 1950, Miller was in L.A., shopping around a script for The Hook, about union corruption on the Brooklyn waterfront. The head of Columbia Pictures, Harry Cohn, showed the script to the FBI—who, along with union head Roy Brewer—came back with ideas to make it more “American," namely by making the gangsters Communists. Miller refused on the grounds that there were no Communist gangsters on the Brooklyn waterfront and withdrew the script. The next morning, he received an ominous telegram: "IT’S INTERESTING HOW THE MINUTE WE TRY TO MAKE THE SCRIPT PRO-AMERICAN YOU PULL OUT. HARRY COHN.”
2. MILLER'S PALS WERE TARGETED, TOO.
As McCarthyism progressed, a number of Miller’s friends and colleagues were scrutinized by the House Un-American Activities Committee. Miller knew of two actors who committed suicide because of the investigation. Other people, like Charlie Chaplin, fled to Europe. Elia Kazan—who directed Miller’s play Death of a Salesman—was called before the committee and asked to name people he knew to be Communists. He did, and Miller stopped talking to him. In response, Miller was inspired to explore Salem’s literal witch as a means of describing the metaphorical one that was happening around him.
3. MILLER (MOSTLY) STUCK TO THE FACTS …
“The Crucible is taken from history,” Miller wrote in The New York Times. “No character is in the play who did not take a similar role in Salem, 1692.” Miller did take some liberties, however. For example, the writer changed Abigail’s age to 17 years old instead of 11 years old, and imagined a doomed romance between her and John Proctor.
4. … AND DID HIS BEST TO MIMIC THE ERA'S SPEECH PATTERNS.
To pick up the nuances of 17th-century speech, Miller went to Salem and read the trials' original testimony in the Essex County courthouse. After days of poring over the documents, the language started to click for him. “I felt a bit encouraged that I might be able to handle it, and in more time I came to love its feel, like hard burnished wood,” he said.
5. THE FIRST BROADWAY PRODUCTION WASN'T WELL-RECEIVED.
The Crucible opened on Broadway in January 1953. The unusual staging—in which the actors faced forward without interacting with each other—was viewed as too stylized and lacking emotional depth. "Arthur Miller is a problem playwright in both senses of the word," wrote Walter Kerr of the New York Herald Tribune, adding that the play was "a step backward into mechanical parable." (The New York Times' critic, for his part, disagreed, calling the play "powerful.") Despite mixed reviews, The Crucible won the 1953 Tony for best play. A year later, a new production fared better with both critics and audiences, and the show became a hit.
6. WHEN HE TRIED TO GO TO EUROPE, MILLER'S PASSPORT WAS DENIED.
In 1953, Arthur Miller was invited to attend the first European production of The Crucible in Brussels. But when he attempted to get his passport renewed, he was denied. His lawyer contacted the Passport Division of the State Department and learned that the government felt it was “not in the national interest” for Miller to leave the country. Miller missed the debut. However, at the end of the performance, the audience, believing he was there, began to applaud and call for the author to stand up. Finally, someone did: the American ambassador, who even took a bow. A bitter Miller later wrote, “Here was the ambassador, an officer of the State Department, acknowledging applause for someone deemed by that department too dangerous to be present.”
7. ARTHUR MILLER WAS EVENTUALLY QUESTIONED BY THE HUAC.
That was just the beginning of Miller’s trouble with the government. In 1956—just before his wedding to Marilyn Monroe—HUAC questioned Miller about his supposed Communist ties. (One committee member offered to waive the hearing if Monroe would pose with him in a photograph. Miller refused the offer.) While Miller answered all questions about himself, he wouldn’t name other people, saying, "I could not use the name of another person and bring trouble on him." He was sentenced to a $500 fine and a 30 day suspended jail sentence. The sentence was overturned after a court of appeals hearing in 1958.
8. JEAN-PAUL SARTRE WROTE THE FIRST SCREENPLAY OF THE CRUCIBLE.
In the 1950s, Hollywood wouldn’t touch the text, so the first film adaptation was a joint Franco-East German production. Directed by Raymond Rouleau, a Belgian actor and filmmaker, Jean-Paul Sartre was enlisted to adapt the play for the big screen.
Miller himself wrote the screenplay for the 1996 remake, which starred Daniel Day-Lewis and Winona Ryder. He received an Oscar nomination for Best Adapted Screenplay, but lost to Billy Bob Thornton for Sling Blade.
9. THE PLAY TURNED SALEM INTO A TOURIST DESTINATION.
The Salem of today, boasting wax museums and gift shops full of witch tchotchkes, didn’t exist when Miller penned his drama. He writes in Timebends: “Salem in those days was in fact not eager to talk about the witchcraft, not too proud of it, and only after The Crucible did the town began exploiting it with a tourist attraction, the Witch Trial.” Today, the tourism industry in Salem makes more than $100 million a year.
10. THE CRUCIBLE MADE HISTORY.
In 2000, Miller wrote that The Crucible was “one of the most heavily demanded trade-fiction paperbacks” in the U.S. “It is only a slight exaggeration to say that, especially in Latin America, The Crucible starts getting produced wherever a political coup appears imminent, or a dictatorial regime has just been over-thrown," he added. At the time of Miller's writing, the play had sold more than 6 million copies and had been staged steadily since it came out, in productions all over the world. It's just as popular today: the play is even coming back to Broadway in 2016.