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Fear as Governance: Arthur Miller’s The Crucible as Contemporary Reflection

by Douglas Lavanture

When Arthur Miller finished The Crucible in 1952, the United States was embroiled in the post-World War II Red Scare, bolstered and spearheaded by the fiery Joseph McCarthy. McCarthy began to rule America’s conscious with an iron fist, weeding out accused communists with his extensive use of the House Un-American Activities Committee, originally established in 1938 to condemn Nazi sympathizers in World War II. McCarthy’s primary tactic of control was fear—fear fed by the dangerous power of unfounded accusations, secret evidence and testimony, and unfair trial practices. When The Crucible was first produced, McCarthy’s cronies singled out members in the theater and in Hollywood as leftists and communist sympathizers. Indeed, many critics and audience members, and even McCarthy himself, pointed the finger at Miller as spearheading his own attack against what was then perceived to be the very core of American values. Miller and others in the entertainment industry were blacklisted by the federal government, and the internal battle against communism continued to rage. Miller, however, had been drawn to the story in Salem for quite some time, and was adamant that his play was not a direct attack on McCarthy. Miller wrote, “It was not only the rise of ‘McCarthyism’ that moved me, but something which seemed much more weird and mysterious. It was the fact that a political, objective, knowledgeable campaign…was capable of creating not only a terror, but a new subjective reality, a veritable mystique which was gradually assuming even a holy resonance.” What interested Miller was not the singular effect of one man launching a series of calculated, efficient attacks on an idea, but rather how the American people themselves began to revel in the fear which was being used to rule their minds. This is how The Crucible was born. The narrative of The Crucible is firmly planted in America’s colonial origins. Miller employs the tragedy of Salem as an allegorical lens that brings into focus the similarities of 1692 Salem to the increasingly dangerous social realm of 1952. The power of Miller’s allegory lies both in direct criticism of the pervasive fear of both ages and in utilizing the tragic figure of John Proctor as a man deeply embedded, desperately fighting, and eventually discarded from the society he inhabits. Miller himself said that once he was blacklisted as a communist by the US government, people with whom he would have chatted on the street suddenly turned a suspicious eye on him. Was each American at that time convinced that communism was an evil force to be reckoned with? Or, like the girls and the townfolk in Salem, were they afraid of losing their status, their position in society, their very identity, by not playing the game? To Miller, his plays, especially The Crucible, were an attempt to coax people into asking these questions. Miller writes, “These plays, in one sense, are my response to what was ‘in the air,’ they are one man’s way of saying to his fellow men, ‘This is what you see every day, or think or feel; now I will show you what you really know but have not had the time, or the disinterestedness, or the insight, or the information to understand consciously.” The quote above reveals how powerfully Miller’s project resonates with the thrust of Steppenwolf’s 2007-2008 season—What does it mean to be American? How do we as Americans define ourselves, our culture, our sense of humanity in a world that pervasively encroaches our borders and becomes, to some, ever more threatening? To pinpoint an exact answer to these questions is impossible, but the lens which Miller provides in The Crucible can offer a valuable insight into the governing powers of fear in American culture--whether in 1692, 1952, or 2007. It also poses a very potent question—how does living in an atmosphere of fear jeopardize our identity as a people and as individuals? Miller himself states, “We are aware as no generation was before of the larger units that help make us and destroy us. The city, the nation, the world, and now the universe are never far beyond our most intimate sense of life.” In an era of globalization and the constant fear of terrorism, we are more aware than ever of both the internal and external forces which shape us as human beings. Even though we may temporarily suspend reality while sitting in this theater, everything in the world around us is still happening. As we see personal dramas unfold on the stage in front of us, we cannot help but get the impression that there is something larger, scarier, more pervasive that governs the actions of these characters. These characters are scared—scared of themselves, of each other, and especially of things which they are unable to control. This is the backbone of fear. Just like the Americans of 1692 and of the McCarthy era, our fear governs us, forces us to ask who we are in an increasingly widening scope. We are at times ruled by the collective fear of each other and of those who may take away our rights and persecute us. We live in fear of losing our identities. This is something which Arthur Miller wants us to be conscious of.