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The Crucible - Setting and Background

An exploration of the historical background to 'The Crucible' by Arthur Miller, connecting the key themes of superstition, fear and injustice with the political context of the play - the anti-Communist McCarthy era of the 1950s

Gregory Steptowe

on 16 August 2011

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Transcript of The Crucible - Setting and Background

An historical
The following link will allow you to experience what it was like to have been accused of witchcraft in Salem during the Salem Witch Trials....
For hundreds of years throughout Europe there was a belief in...
This belief often developed into hysterical fear, leading to campaigns of persecution against suspected witches.
Superstitious people would assume they had magical powers or were in league with the devil.
In a time of fear it would be easy to accuse someone you did not like and very difficult for the accused to prove their innocence
Many thousands of people accused of being witches were tortured and executed throughout the Middle Ages and up to the seventeenth century (including at Salem, Massachusetts in 1692).
Authorities used the text from Exodus,
22: 18 to justify these killings:
'Thou shalt not suffer a witch to live'
An outbreak of accusations of witchcraft in the Puritan colony of Salem, Massachusetts
Who were the Puritans?
The following web link will provide
an insight into life as a Puritan in
Salem in the year 1692...
So who were the Puritans???
In summary:
The Puritans believed they were chosen by God for a special purpose.
Puritans were required to read the Bible and attend Church, or they risked being accused of worshiping the devil.
The Puritan lifestyle was reserved and rigid and people were expected to work hard and repress their emotions
Puritans believed that any misfortune (e.g. disease, drought) was the work of the devil.
As a result, a powerful belief in the Devil helped them make sense of that which they could not explain
Puritans believed that witches preyed on the weakest or most vulnerable, hence women, children, slaves were often the first to be accused of witches.
In January of 1692, Reverend Parris' daughter Elizabeth, age 9, and niece Abigail Williams, age 11, started having "fits."
On February 29, under pressure from magistrates, the girls blamed three women for afflicting them: Tituba, the Parris' Caribbean slave; Sarah Good, a homeless beggar; and Sarah Osborne, an elderly impoverished woman.
All three women were brought before the local magistrates and interrogated for several days
McCarthyism refers to a period of time in the 1950's. However, today it is a term used to describe distasteful practices - e.g.
Using accusations of disloyalty to pressure a person to adhere to conformist politics
Subverting civil rights in the name of national security.
Making poorly supported / unsubstantiated accusations
Who was Senator McCarthy?
Throughout the 1940s and 1950s America was overwhelmed with concerns about the threat of communism growing in Eastern Europe and China.
Capitalizing on those concerns, a young Senator named Joseph McCarthy made a public accusation that more than two hundred “card-carrying” communists had infiltrated the United States government.
"I have here in my hand a list of two
hundred and five [people] that were
known to the Secretary of State as
being members of the Communist Party
and who nevertheless are still working
and shaping the policy
of the State Department."
What is Communism?
There have been two major communist countries, the Soviet Union, and the People's Republic of China.
Communism is a theory and system of social and political organization that dominated much of the history of the 20th century. In theory, communism is a classless society in which all property is owned by the community as a whole and where all people enjoy equal social and economic status. As a political movement, communism sought to overthrow capitalism through a workers revolution and redistribute the wealth in the hands of the proletariat, or working class.
Why were Americans so afraid of Communism?
In 1949, the Soviet Union tested an atomic bomb and Mao Zedong's Communist army gained control of mainland China, increasing the sense of threat from Communism in the U.S.
he House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC) was the most prominent and active government committee involved in anti-Communist investigations. HUAC earned its fame and notoriety when it investigated the Hollywood film industry, searching for suspected members of the Communist Party
Many thousands of Americans were accused of being Communists or communist sympathizers.
Suspicions were often given credence despite inconclusive or questionable evidence and the level of threat posed by a person's real or supposed Communist beliefs were often greatly exaggerated.
The following YouTube clip reveals more details about the McCarthy and HUAC investigations
How does this all relate to 'The Crucible' you ask???
"The more I read into the Salem panic, the more it touched off corresponding images of common experience in the fifties."
Miller wrote:
Arthur Miller's play used the Salem witch trials as a metaphor (or symbol) for McCarthyism, suggesting that the process of McCarthyism-style persecution can occur at any time or place. The play highlights the fact that, once accused, a person would have little chance of exoneration (or chance to clear their name).
In short, McCarthy's anti-Communist campaign has clear parallels in the play:
Unsupported accusations
People encouraged to denounce their friends
A spiral of fear and suspicion
Full transcript