Updated: Dec 13, 2020
Lesson 10: The USA and Communism in the 1950s
So why would a playwright in 1950s America decide to write a play about witch-hunts from 300 years ago? It's all to do with communist witch-hunts. Wait, more witch-hunts? Which witch-hunts? Oh dear...
The USA was afraid of communism
The USA is capitalist. In capitalist countries, most businesses are privately owned and mainly free from government interference. People work to make their own money and can build their own businesses.
Communism is the opposite of capitalism. The theory of communism is that everyone is equal and private ownership isn't allowed.
In the first half of the 20th century, many Americans feared communism. They saw it as a threat to their freedom and their ability to own and control their property.
The Cold War increased people's fears
After World War Two, the USSR (which included modern-day Russia) had become a communist superpower. America was afraid that the USSR would try to spread communist ideas around the world.
The USA had also become a superpower, so the USSR feared worldwide American influence. These tensions lead to the Cold War.
What makes a country a superpower?
What countries today would you consider to be a superpower?
The Cold War was a period of intense rivalry and competition between the USA and the USSR (and their allies) which lasted for over 40 years. They competed with each other to have the best economy, strongest military and greatest political influence.
It was a period of great worry and suspicion - both countries had nuclear weapons capable of causing mass destruction, and they lived in constant fear of being attacked by the other side.
Each side used propoganda (one-sided information designed to mislead others) to build hysteria that the other side was lurking everywhere. In the USA, this increased panic about communism.
America carried out real-life 'witch-hunts'
As anti-communist hysteria grew in America, the government wanted to find potential communists and stop them from spreading their views.
The House Un-American Activities Community (HUAC) was a US government body that was very influential at the time. It investigated people and organisations that were believed to have links to communism - including Arthur Miller (more on that later...).
HUAC used intimidation and the threat of imprisonment to try to make people to confess.
In the 1950s, Senator Joseph McCarthy campaigned against communism in America, claiming that communists had secretly entered the US government.
McCarthy hunted out communists and was supported by many influential politicians. Like HUAC, he was known for his aggressive questioning techniques and for accusing people with little evidence.
Naming someone as a communist could ruin their reputation - most of the people who were accused lost their jobs or were imprisoned.
Those arrested were encouraged to accuse friends and colleagues in return for their release, which created distrust and paranoia.
These proceedings were labelled 'witch-hunts' because people were accused of crimes and punished with little or no evidence.
The play has a lot of parallels with McCarthyism
Miller wrote The Crucible during the Cold War and McCarthy's anti-communist campaign. He portrays the injustice of the McCarthy era through the way Salem responds to witchcraft.
In the McCarthy era, people sometimes used an accusation of communism as a way to get revenge on someone they had a grudge against, just like Abigail uses her accusations to punish people who have been gossiping about her.
It was very difficult to prove that you weren't a communist once you'd been accused, in the same way that it's difficult for the characters in the play to prove they aren't witches.
People's reputations were often ruined by communist accusations. Similarly, both Elizabeth and Rebecca Nurse have good reputations at the start of the play, but are treated like criminals by the judges once they have been accused.
Lots of people in 1950s America also received fines and prison sentences for refusing to accuse others - this is what happens to Giles in Act Three. He refuses to tell Danforth who testified agains the Putnams in case the accuser gets into trouble too, so Danforth arrests Giles for defying the court.
This gives the director a contextual dilemma
Miller would have expected his initial audiences to recognise the similarities between the witch-hunts in the play and the witch-hunts in 1950s America.
However, many modern audiences have not lived through McCarthyism, and might not know enough about the era to recognise the connection.
This presents a director of the play with a challenge.....