Honesty, Dignity, and Integrity

Arthur Miller's play The Crucible was first staged in 1953. A fictionalized re-telling of the events leading to the Salem, Massachusetts trials for witchcraft in 1692, the play is an extended comment by Miller on the social context of the 1950s. He suggests, at least implicitly, that the witch hunts of 1692 paralleled the efforts of Sen. Joe McCarthy of Wisconsin to discover and expose the influence of communism in the United States. The implied parallel is only partially successful, but no doubt the fear of communism formed a context for the play that contributed to its power as theater.

In December 1996, some 40-plus years after the play was completed, the movie version opened in theaters across the United States. Its hopes for critical and commercial success were enhanced by the fact that Miller himself had adapted his play for the screen and by a strong cast led by Daniel Day-Lewis, Joan Allen, Paul Scofield, and Winona Ryder.

The movie also benefited from the lack of the stage’s physical restrictions. A reconstructed Salem village gives an authenticity to the characters, the period, and the setting not as easily achieved on the stage. The changed social context—the absence of the "communist menace"—meant that the story would not benefit from any relationship to current events, but the intrinsic power of the drama itself thus could become all the more evident.

Despite strong performances by the lead characters and some laudatory reviews, the movie did not achieve the anticipated critical nor commercial success. Scant attention was paid when Academy Award nominations were handed out. And within two months of its release, The Crucible was relegated to the bargain theaters. Why did a story so powerfully told have such a short life among us?

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Sojourners Magazine July-August 1997
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