When The Crucible opened in 1953 the play’s political message was impossible to miss. Whatever were one’s politics at the time, Miller’s use of the witch hunts of seventeenth-century New England to express the anxieties and fear unleashed by the House Un-American Activities Committee was “red hot.” Reading the lukewarm reviews of that first production is revealing. Few words are spent on the play’s political metaphor and most of the criticism took the play to task on certain dramaturgical deficiencies – perhaps safer ground for the theater critics of the time.
The play has always been popular among audiences, however, and its reputation has improved over time. When I was in high school, it was a favorite – as it still is – with enough distance from the “red scare” for the play to be seen as an American classic. Now, the HUAC hearings and Joseph McCarthy have to be explained in program notes or classrooms like some bizarre sideshow of American history; they are as much a peculiarity of the past as the witch trials in Salem. Even so, productions of the play are persistent, expressing something important and vital in our national character.
The play’s relevance seems to be recently rediscovered, as indicated by a very successful Broadway revival. There may be several reasons for this renewed interest: the anger generated by our current political divisions, the heightened fear that there are enemies within, the extreme tones of the presidential campaign, and other conditions that make the play’s cautionary themes worth hearing again. Still, the play moves audiences for reasons other than political. John and Elizabeth Proctor have become as much a part of our national character as they are a part of our national history. Perhaps this is because of our familiarity with the guilt they feel, or because the question “what is John Proctor” has a familiar American ring, or perhaps because the struggles and strengths of John and Elizabeth’s faith in each other has deeply familiar aspirations.
John and Elizabeth Proctor’s crucible is personal and political. Politics may cause their personal anguish, but their victory is in the power of their personal relationship. Proctor does not find justice, but with Elizabeth’s help he does find himself. Whatever the politics, it is the journey toward self-respect that is the crucible that most fires Miller’s passions.