When The Crucible premiered on Broadway in 1953, the country was in the midst of troubling and frightening period known as McCarthyism, or the Red Scare, which directly informed the play. Following the end of World War II the Soviet Union was a powerful enemy of the United States, and both countries were engaged in mutual distrust and amassment of nuclear power that came to be called the Cold War. During the Cold War, the United States government was extremely fearful of Soviet communism, subversion, and espionage, and many Americans believed Russia posed a “Red Scare” – an imminent and grave threat to democracy. A senator named Joseph McCarthy exploited fears of communist takeover to consolidate his own political power, fanning the flames of hysteria by collecting names of suspected communists, often without evidence. Though McCarthy initially targeted government employees, thousands of Americans were accused and interrogated during the Red Scare, especially in the entertainment industry. The McCarthy-led House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC) focused heavily on Hollywood and interrogated masses of actors, directors, writers, and musicians.
Miller wrote The Crucible after seeing dozens of his colleagues called before HUAC, most importantly Elia Kazan, a director who had staged Miller’s play All My Sons in 1952. Though he initially refused to name names, Kazan, who was a communist, ultimately implicated several of his communist party-affiliated colleagues. Other peers of Miller’s, such as playwright Clifford Odets and actor Lee J. Cobb, also testified. As the trials wore on, Miller traveled between Massachusetts and New York, researching what he saw as a clear correlation between the Red Scare and the Salem witch trials, both of which depended on a mass hysteria propelled by fear. But unlike the Salem witch trials, in which all the accused were clearly innocent, many of those accused of communism, like Kazan, were in fact members of the communist party or were communist sympathizers. Just as in The Crucible, the HUAC promised clemency in exchange for condemning others, leading to many false accusations and creating terrible guilt for those who did testify. Twenty years after testifying, Kazan said, “Anybody who informs on other people is doing something disturbing and even disgusting.”
Though The Crucible was written in response to McCarthyism in Hollywood, Miller was not writing about his own persecution, but the culture of fear and intolerance he saw victimizing his friends and coworkers. He had attended communist meetings and supported communist causes, but he only attracted HUAC’s attention after writing The Crucible. When he tried to attend the play’s Belgian premiere in 1954, the State Department denied his passport renewal application due to his potential communist sympathies, and HUAC subpoenaed Miller when he tried to renew his passport again in 1956. Though promised he would not be asked to name names during his hearing, the committee asked Miller to reveal those who attended meetings with him. When Miller refused, he was charged with contempt of Congress and convicted, but he was acquitted on appeal a year later. Even before his hearing, Miller recognized a parallel between the 1692 Salem witch trials and HUAC’s methods that encouraged citizens to betray each other. In writing the play, though, Miller betrayed himself, and his own trial is one of the strongest testaments to The Crucible’s power and the dangers of mass hysteria.