The Crucible is one of the most well-known examples of political theater, with the witch hunt functioning as a direct allegory for the anti-communist hysteria of the period when Miller wrote the play. Political theater refers to theater that addresses and condemns political institutions to incite change. After premiering on Broadway in 1953, the play only ran for 197 performances, and Miller was subsequently called for questioning by Senator Joseph McCarthy. While today the play is celebrated as one of the strongest and most enduring indictments of McCarthyism, at the time Miller faced professional and personal ostracism for speaking out. He said of the period, “I was just out of sync with the whole country.” Other playwrights including Lillian Hellman, Bertolt Brecht, and Langston Hughes had also been targeted by McCarthy, but Miller was the only one to openly critique the current political climate. In comparing McCarthyism to a tragic, troubling, and shameful period in the crucial first years of the country, Miller presented an unapologetic indictment of the nation’s most powerful figures.
One of the earliest popular examples of political theater in the United States is Royall Taylor’s 1787 play The Contrast, which satirizes socialites as snobby and trivial in contrast to genuine and hardworking Americans. Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin adaptations, or “Tom shows,” and Dion Boucicault’s 1859 play The Octoroon both directly addressed slavery and are often credited as contributing to the abolitionist movement as the nineteenth century’s most successful plays. As vaudeville increased in popularity through the twentieth century, American theater remained highly political. Musical theater embedded social issues in popular entertainment even in early musicals like Show Boat (1927), which explored issues of race and discrimination in American society. South Pacific (1949), describing the experiences of military during World War II, features a song about racial intolerance called “You Have to be Carefully Taught,” which caused initial controversy for its overt political message. The Vietnam-era musical Hair (1967) had a strong anti-war message, as well as songs celebrating then-controversial subjects like interracial romance and homosexuality.
In the years after The Crucible, audiences became increasingly receptive to political theater, and many playwrights began to see it as their duty to draw attention to the issues of the day through drama. Two years after The Crucible, Jerome Lawrence and Robert Edwin Lee’s 1955 play Inherit the Wind was a more subtle critique of McCarthyism. More recent examples include Tony Kushner’s Angels in America (1993) and John Patrick Shanley’s Doubt (2004). Angels in America condemned the government’s response to the AIDS crisis, and included Ethel Rosenberg as an angel. Rosenberg and her husband were executed for Soviet espionage in 1953, and the inclusion of her as a character aligns Kushner’s play with Miller’s work. Shanley’s Doubt, which follows a Bronx priest accused of molestation, premiered two years after the Boston Globe published a report on decades-long sexual abuse in the Boston archdiocese. Recent plays have explored the Iraq wars (Stuff Happens), the Enron scandal (Enron), the experiences of Muslims in America (Disgraced), and abortion rights (Roe.) Immediately after the 2016 presidential election, the cast of the musical Hamilton broke character to address Vice President-elect Mike Pence, connecting their historical drama to the impending Trump administration.