On a lucky afternoon I happened upon The Devil in Massachusetts, by Marion Starkey, a narrative of the Salem witch-hunt of 1692. I knew this story from my college reading, but in this darkened America it turned a completely new aspect toward me: the poetry of the hunt. Poetry may seem an odd word for a witch-hunt but I saw there was something of the marvellous in the spectacle of a whole village, if not an entire province, whose imagination was captured by a vision of something that wasn’t there.
In time to come, the notion of equating the red-hunt with the witch-hunt would be condemned as a deception. There were communists and there never were witches. The deeper I moved into the 1690s, the further away drifted the America of the 50s, and, rather than the appeal of analogy, I found something different to draw my curiosity and excitement.
Anyone standing up in the Salem of 1692 and denying that witches existed would have faced immediate arrest, the hardest interrogation and possibly the rope. Every authority not only confirmed the existence of witches but never questioned the necessity of executing them. It became obvious that to dismiss witchcraft was to forgo any understanding of how it came to pass that tens of thousands had been murdered as witches in Europe. To dismiss any relation between that episode and the hunt for subversives was to shut down an insight into not only the similar emotions but also the identical practices of both officials and victims.
There were witches, if not to most of us then certainly to everyone in Salem; and there were communists, but what was the content of their menace? That to me became the issue. Having been deeply influenced as a student by a Marxist approach to society, and having known Marxists and sympathisers, I could simply not accept that these people were spies or even prepared to do the will of the Soviets in some future crisis. That such people had thought to find hope of a higher ethic in the Soviet was not simply an American, but a worldwide, irony of catastrophic moral proportions, for their like could be found all over the world.
But as the 50s dawned, they were stuck with the past. Part of the surreality of the anti-left sweep was that it picked up people for disgrace who had already turned away from a pro-Soviet past but had no stomach for naming others who had merely shared their illusions. But the hunt had captured some significant part of the American imagination and its power demanded respect.
Turning to Salem was like looking into a petri dish, an embalmed stasis with its principal moving forces caught in stillness. One had to wonder what the human imagination fed on that could inspire neighbours and old friends to emerge overnight as furies secretly bent on the torture and destruction of Christians. More than a political metaphor, more than a moral tale, The Crucible, as it developed over more than a year, became the awesome evidence of the power of human imagination inflamed, the poetry of suggestion, and the tragedy of heroic resistance to a society possessed to the point of ruin.
In the stillness of the Salem courthouse, surrounded by the images of the 1950s but with my head in 1692, what the two eras had in common gradually gained definition. Both had the menace of concealed plots, but most startling were the similarities in the rituals of defence, the investigative routines; 300 years apart, both prosecutions alleged membership of a secret, disloyal group. Should the accused confess, his honesty could only be proved by naming former confederates. The informer became the axle of the plot’s existence and the investigation’s necessity.
The witch-hunt in 1692 had a not dissimilar problem, but a far more poetic solution. Most suspected people named by others as members of the Devil’s conspiracy had not been shown to have done anything, neither poisoning wells, setting barns on fire, sickening cattle, aborting babies, nor undermining the virtue of wives (the Devil having two phenomenally active penises, one above the other).
To the rescue came a piece of poetry, smacking of both legalistic and religious validity, called Spectral Evidence. All the prosecution need do was produce a witness who claimed to have seen, not an accused person, but his familiar spirit – his living ghost – in the act of throwing a burning brand into a barn full of hay. You could be at home asleep in your bed, but your spirit could be crawling through your neighbour’s window to feel up his wife. The owner of the wandering spirit was obliged to account to the court for his crime. With Spectral Evidence, the air filled with the malign spirits of those identified by good Christians as confederates of theBeast, and the Devil himself danced happily into Salem village and took the place apart.
I spent 10 days in Salem courthouse reading the crudely recorded trials of the 1692 outbreak, and it was striking how totally absent was any sense of irony, let alone humour. I can’t recall if it was the provincial governor’s nephew or son who, with a college friend, came from Boston to watch the strange proceedings. Both boys burst out laughing at some absurd testimony: they were promptly jailed, and faced possible hanging.
Irony and humour were not conspicuous in the 1950s either. I was in my lawyer’s office to sign some contract and a lawyer in the next office was asked to come in and notarise my signature. While he was stamping pages, I continued a discussion with my lawyer about the Broadway theatre, which I said was corrupt; the art of theatre had been totally displaced by the bottom line, all that mattered any more. Looking up at me, the notarising lawyer said, “That’s a communist position, you know.” I started to laugh until I saw the constraint in my lawyer’s face, and I quickly sobered up.
I am glad that I managed to write The Crucible, but looking back I have often wished I’d had the temperament to do an absurd comedy, which is what the situation deserved. Now, after more than three-quarters of a century of fascination with the great snake of political and social developments, I can see more than a few occasions when we were confronted by the same sensation of having stepped into another age.
A young film producer asked me to write a script about what was then called juvenile delinquency. A mystifying, unprecedented outbreak of gang violence had exploded all over New York. The city, in return for a good percentage of profits, had contracted with this producer to open police stations and schools to his camera. I spent the summer of 1955 in Brooklyn streets with two gangs and wrote an outline. I was ready to proceed with the script when an attack on me as a disloyal lefty opened in the New York World Telegram. The cry went up that the city must cancel its contract with the producer so long as I was the screenwriter. A hearing was arranged, attended by 22 city commissioners, including the police, fire, welfare and sanitation departments, as well as two judges.
At the conference table there also sat a lady who produced a thick folder of petitions and statements I had signed, going back to my college years, provided to her by the Huac. I defended myself; I thought I was making sense when the lady began screaming that I was killing the boys in Korea [this was during the Korean war]. She meant me personally, as I could tell from the froth at the corners of her mouth, the fury in her eyes, and her finger pointing straight into my face.
The vote was taken and came up one short of continuing the city’s collaboration, and the film was killed that afternoon. I always wondered whether the crucial vote against me came from the sanitation department. But it was not a total loss; the suffocating sensation of helplessness before the spectacle of the impossible coming to pass would soon help in writing The Crucible.
That impossible coming to pass was not an observation made at a comfortable distance but a blade cutting directly into my life. This was especially the case with Elia Kazan’s decision to cooperate with the Huac. The surrounding fears felt even by those with the most fleeting of contacts with any communist-supported organisation were enough to break through long associations and friendships.
Kazan had been a member of the Communist party only a matter of months, and even that link had ended years before. And the party had never been illegal, nor was membership in it. Yet this great director, left undefended by 20th Century Fox executives, his longtime employers, was told that if he refused to name people whom he had known in the party – actors, directors and writers – he would never be allowed to direct another picture in Hollywood, meaning the end of his career.
These names were already known to the committee through other testifiers and FBI informants, but exactly as in Salem – or Russia under the Czar and the Chairman, and Inquisition Spain, Revolutionary France or any other place of revolution or counter-revolution – conspiracy was the name for all opposition. And the reformation of the accused could only be believed when he gave up the names of his co-conspirators. Only this ritual of humiliation, the breaking of pride and independence, could win the accused readmission into the community. The process inevitably did produce in the accused a new set of political, social and even moral convictions more acceptable to the state whose fist had been shoved into his face, with his utter ruin promised should he resist.
I had stopped by Kazan’s house in the country in 1952 after he had called me to come and talk, an unusual invitation – he had never been inclined to indulge in talk unless it concerned work. I had suspected from his dark tone that it must have to do with the Huac, which was rampaging through the Hollywood ranks .
Since I was on my way up to Salem for research on a play that I was still unsure I would write, I called at his house, which was on my route. As he laid out his dilemma and his decision to comply with the Huac (which he had already done) it was impossible not to feel his anguish, old friends that we were. But the crunch came when I felt fear, that great teacher, that cruel revealer. For it swept over me that, had I been one of his comrades, he would have spent my name as part of the guarantee of his reform. Even so, oddly enough, I was not filling up with hatred or contempt for him; his suffering was too palpable. The whole hateful procedure had brought him to this, and I believe made the writing of The Crucible all but inevitable. Even if one could grant Kazan sincerity in his new-found anti-communism, the concept of an America where such self-discoveries were pressed out of people was outrageous, and a contradiction of any concept of personal liberty.
Is all this of some objective importance in our history, this destruction of bonds between people? I think it may be, however personal it may appear. Kazan’s testimony created a far greater shock than anyone else’s. Lee J Cobb’s similar testimony and Jerome Robbins’s cooperation seemed hardly to matter. It may be that Kazan had been loved more than any other, that he had attracted far greater affection from writers and actors with whom he had worked, and so what was overtly a political act was sensed as a betrayal of love.
It is very significant that in the uproar set off by last year’s award to Kazan of an Oscar for life achievement, one heard no mention of the name of any member of the Huac. One doubted whether the thought occurred to many people that the studio heads had ignominiously collapsed before the Huac’s insistence that they institute a blacklist of artists, something they had once insisted was dishonourable and a violation of democratic norms. Half a century had passed since his testimony, but Kazan bore very nearly the whole onus of the era, as though he had manufactured its horrors – when he was surely its victim.
The trial record in Salem courthouse had been written by ministers in a primitive shorthand. This condensation gave emphasis to a gnarled, densely packed language which suggested the country accents of a hard people. To lose oneself day after day in that record of human delusion was to know a fear, not for one’s safety, but of the spectacle of intelligent people giving themselves over to a rapture of murderous credulity. It was as though the absence of real evidence was itself a release from the burdens of this world; in love with the invisible, they moved behind their priests, closer to that mystical communion which is anarchy and is called God.
Evidence, in contrast, is effort; leaping to conclusions is a wonderful pleasure, and for a while there was a highly charged joy in Salem, for now that they could see through everything to the frightful plot that was daily being laid bare in court sessions, their days, formerly so eventless and long, were swallowed up in hourly revelations, news, surprises. The Crucible is less a polemic than it might have been had it not been filled with wonder at the protean imagination of man.
The Crucible straddles two different worlds to make them one, but it is not history in the usual sense of the word, but a moral, political and psychological construct that floats on the fluid emotions of both eras. As a commercial entertainment the play failed [it opened in 1953]. To start with there was the title: nobody knew what a crucible was. Most of the critics, as sometimes does happen, never caught on to the play’s ironical substructure, and the ones who did were nervous about validating a work that was so unkind to the same sanctified procedural principles as underlay the hunt for reds. Some old acquaintances gave me distant nods in the theatre lobby on opening night, and even without air-conditioning the house was cool. There was also a problem with the temperature of the production.
The director, Jed Harris, a great name in the theatre of the 20s, 30s and 40s, had decided that the play, which he believed a classic, should be staged like a Dutch painting. In Dutch paintings of groups, everyone is always looking front. Unfortunately, on a stage such rigidity can only lead an audience to the exits. Several years after, a gang of young actors, setting up chairs in the ballroom of the McAlpin Hotel, fired up the audience, convinced the critics, and the play at last took off and soon found its place. There were cheering reviews but by then Senator McCarthy was dead. The public fever on whose heatwaves he had spread his wings had subsided.
The Crucible is my most-produced play. It seems to be one of the few surviving shards of the so-called McCarthy period. And it is part of the play’s history that, to people in so many parts of the world, its story seems to be their own. I used to think, half seriously, that you could tell when a dictator was about to take power, or had been overthrown, in a Latin American country, if The Crucible was suddenly being produced in that country.
The result of it all is that I have come, rather reluctantly, to respect delusion, not least of all my own. There are no passions quite as hot and pleasurable as those of the deluded. Compared to the bliss of delusion, its vivid colours, blazing lights, explosions, whistles and liberating joys, the search for evidence is a deadly bore. My heart was with the left. if only because the right hated me enough to want to kill me, as the Germans amply proved. And now, the most blatant and most foul anti-semitism is in Russia, leaving people like me filled not so much with surprise as a kind of wonder at the incredible amount of hope there once was, and how it disappeared and whether in time it will ever come again, attached, no doubt, to some new illusion.
There is hardly a week that passes when I don’t ask the unanswerable question: what am I now convinced of that will turn out to be ridiculous? And yet one can’t forever stand on the shore; at some point, filled with indecision, scepticism, reservation and doubt, you either jump in or concede that life is forever elsewhere. Which, I dare say, was one of the major impulses behind the decision to attempt The Crucible.
Salem village, that pious, devout settlement at the edge of white civilisation, had displayed – three centuries before the Russo-American rivalry and the issues it raised – what can only be called a built-in pestilence in the human mind; a fatality forever awaiting the right conditions for its always unique, forever unprecedented outbreak of distrust, alarm, suspicion and murder. And for people wherever the play is performed on any of the five continents, there is always a certain amazement that the same terror that is happening to them or that is threatening them, has happened before to others. It is all very strange. But then, the Devil is known to lure people into forgetting what it is vital for them to remember – how else could his endless reappearances always come as such a marvellous surprise?
© 2000 Arthur Miller
• The crucible in history and Other Essays by Arthur Miller is published by Methuen on 13 July 2000 @ £10.00
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