The Crucible Returns and We’re Still Pointing Fingers

On February 29, a young girl will spread the most seismic gossip on Broadway. Keep your eyes open, and you’ll see repressed, seemingly bewitched children flailing arms and throwing blame at the alleged sources of their hysterias. Keep your ears open, and you may hear the echoing vibrations of Arthur Miller’s cautionary tale from when The Crucible first debuted in 1953.

The Crucible is about to see its fifth revival on the Great White Way — its sixth productions in sixty years. This time, avant-garde guru Ivo van Hove directs Miller’s morality play, which also features Saoirse Ronan as the precocious Abigail Williams whose malicious rumors turn a Massachusetts colony upside down.

Concerning more than just the Salem witch trials, The Crucible was written as an allegory for McCarthyism. Just as townspeople in 1692 were spared their lives if they turned on their neighbors, 1950s politicians avoided social and political ostracism by naming Communist sympathizers. Now, Miller’s play pops up again in the midst of a modern-day witch-hunt.

The Crucible has an interesting history of returning to Broadway right when society seeks scapegoats — though initial reviews didn’t promise any revivals, let alone five. New York Times theatre critic Brooks Atkinson compared The Crucible to Miller’s Pulitzer Prize winner in his review: “After the experience of Death of a Salesman we probably expect Mr. Miller to write a masterpiece every time. The Crucible is not of that stature and it lacks that universality.” 

two actors on stage
Laura Linney and Liam Neeson in the 2002 Broadway revival of The Crucible. Photo by Joan Marcus.

It is possible Atkinson had higher hopes for the United States, predicting she would learn from the Red Scare and be wary of communities built on mistrust. And yet, political leaders continue to capitalize on fear and The Crucible continues to be revived.

The Crucible returned in late 1991, near the height of the AIDS crisis, to a city where 31,000 people had died of the disease in the previous decade. AIDS victims, particularly gay men, became the witches of a new century. Afflicted children were barred from attending school and healthy homosexuals were known to contaminate upon contact. Political leaders like Patrick Buchanan exploited national alarm, claiming the AIDS crisis was due to “the willful refusal of homosexuals to cease indulging in the immoral, unnatural, unsanitary, unhealthy, and suicidal practice of anal intercourse.” The Lavender Scare of the 1950s evolved into the AIDS paranoia of the 1990s.

ROKE creates a whirlpool of video evidence to substantiate the theory that, while the Internet and mass media were invented as a means of communication they have, more clearly, brought about growing social alienation and the loss of physical intimacy.

Ten years later, 9/11 catapulted another cultural epidemic —Islamophobia became synonymous with fear of terrorism after the Twin Towers fell. According to the FBI’s annual report, 481 Muslims suffered hate crimes in 2001, a drastic increase from twenty-eight the year before. The Crucible returned in early 2002.

Now, Miller’s play returns again to a similarly volatile climate: A recent poll revealed support for bombing a fictional city with a Middle Eastern-sounding name. Within a month of the terrorist shootings in Paris, NBC reported thirty-eight anti-Muslim attacks in the US, including girls wearing hijabs harassed and mosques defaced and targeted. And, a leading presidential candidate not so different from the senator who first inspired Miller’s work gains supporters by manipulating cultural ignorance and exacerbating national terror. The “vote for me and you’re safe” mentality resurfaces this election, but by this mantra somebody’s safety equals another’s persecution. The Crucible will for the second time this millennium be produced in a country coping with Islamophobia. Distortion of fear, as it did in Salem, turns terror homeward and corrodes from within.

Would Arthur Miller be happy that his play is still meaningful — decades after its Broadway debut — or would he comment on his country’s sluggish steps toward acceptance? Does society always need a scapegoat, a witch to hunt when intolerance boils into hate crimes and political extremism?

two actors being pulled apart by another actor
Liam Neeson, Brian Murray, and Laura Linney in the 2002 revival of The Crucible.

In his 1989 New York Times essay “Again They Drink From the Cup of Suspicion,” Miller reflected: The truth is that the more I worked at this dilemma the less it had to do with Communists and McCarthy and the more it concerned something very fundamental in the human animal: the fear of the unknown, and particularly the dread of social isolation.” Long after Salem first executed twenty of its own, Miller’s work resonates again sixty years after his pen hit the page.

Maybe it’s too optimistic to claim that this production of The Crucible will finally be Miller’s comeback kid, a posthumous victory should intolerance cease. Based off of the pattern, we should expect another revival around the quarter century. Or maybe the fact that his play is still pertinent is success enough; Sophocles’ work did not become insignificant after Oedipus solved the sphinx’s riddle, nor did Shakespeare’s tragedies lose relevance after the wars that influenced them ceased. 

In his aforementioned essay, Miller later wrote,

“At [Laurence] Olivier’s fabulous 1965 National Theatre production, I overheard a young woman in front of me whispering to her escort, ‘Didn’t this have something to do with that American Senator — what was his name?’ I have to admit that it felt marvelous that McCarthy was what’s-his-name while The Crucible was The Crucible still.”

May we all find a time when the name of art outlives the fear that inspired it.

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I find the wording of Mr. McEntee’s question interesting. Had the question simply been “would Arthur Miller be happy that his play is still meaningful decades after its Broadway debut?” I believe the answer would be a simple yes. As most other artists, he had a very specific message to convey about McCarthyism, and that message is still effective today, no matter the current circumstances of our society. So, when the question is extended, “Or would he comment on his country’s sluggish steps toward acceptance,” I find this to be very limiting to not only Miller’s accomplishments, but how he feels about our country. The way the question is phrased as an either/or scenario makes it seem as though Miller cannot be happy his play is still relevant because our country still has social awareness issues. I think the opposite is true, and that Miller would be very proud, not only that his play was so effective in it’s debut, but that it has continued to serve as a lesson to the audience for each revival and the new demographic of misunderstood or stigmatized people who need help regaining their place in our society.

How delicious to be the first to comment here. Mr. Atkinson's comment that The Crucible lacked universality is simply not true. Various societies through the ages have always utilized the need to have and create scapegoats to avoid their own fear about something. Sounds pretty universal to me. Also, in my opinion, outside of comparing the plays significance to various historical chapters of specific types of scapegoating, the play in its story and structure stands up as an enlivening and compelling piece of theatre. Dramatically, in some ways, I think it is a stronger play than 'Salesman'. I had the honor of directing a production 8 years ago. It will endure and be revived as all great plays are.