"The play is about hysteria, public mass hysteria, and the attempts by certain interested parties to exploit that hysteria for their own profit," says the renowned playwright, the recipient in November 2001 of the National Book Foundation's medal for distinguished contribution to American literature. "The threat of this kind of hysteria is never really gone. It's with us always."
Now The Crucible is back on Broadway at the Virginia Theatre, nearly 50 years after winning the Tony Award in 1953 as the best play of the season. The production stars Liam Neeson and Laura Linney and is directed by Sir Richard Eyre.
The Crucible, says the Pulitzer Prize-winning author of Death of a Salesman and A View From the Bridge, became his most frequently produced play, both abroad and at home. It was written in a time of hysteria, of witch hunting by Senator Joseph R. McCarthy and the House Committee on Un-American Activities against Communists and suspected Communists, a time of blacklisting, ruined lives, naming names and guilt by association.
Miller, as he wrote in his 1987 autobiography Timebends, was so upset by what he saw happening in America that he wanted to create a play that would be "a metaphor, an image that would spring out of the heart" and "penetrate to the center of this miasma." He strongly feared, he wrote, that the crisis might worsen to the point that "we could no longer be a democracy, a system that requires a certain basic trust in order to exist." "There were moments in those days," the playwright says now, "when there was no way to respond logically or reasonably to what was happening. Yes, we were in a cold war with the Soviets, and the Communists had taken over China, and there was the fear of nuclear destruction. But the cure for the fears was false, taking people who had no connection to sabotage and throwing them all together and calling them traitors and destroying a lot of lives."
He had known since his college days about the Salem witch trials, during which more than 150 people were jailed, 19 men and women were hanged, one man was crushed to death and others died in prison. "But I had always thought they were this strange event that had no relevance to anything else," he says.
But when he began to study them, he says, he saw an "astonishing reflection of what was happening in the States at the time. The witch trials suggested to me that these kinds of things were not new, that they had been going on for a long time in human history. Even right now there is a tendency for people to throw overboard certain civil protections against unreasonable acts by the government."
The focus of the play, "the central image," as Miller wrote in his autobiography, is "a guilt-ridden man, John Proctor, who, having slept with his teen-age servant girl, watches with horror as she becomes the leader of the witch-hunting pack and points her accusing finger at the wife he has himself betrayed."
"Proctor was a man with tremendous faults," Miller says now, "the so-called common man, and I felt that his mistakes and his fear were probably the best image of what a human being went through inthat time."
And yet, says Sir Richard Eyre, the play's director, Proctor turns out to be "a real hero." The character, portrayed by Neeson in the revival, "is like all of us," Eyre says, "and he does something we would all like to think we could do, something so courageous — he goes to his death because he is not prepared to sign up for a lie. It's an extraordinarily courageous thing to do, and I find that courage enormously inspiring."
For Eyre, The Crucible will "always be pertinent to any society of whatever political leanings, because it's about something fundamental — the tension between freedom and repression."
"The further it gets from the McCarthy era, the more the play seems to be essentially about the individual in society, so it has a sort of eternal relevance," says Eyre, 58, who was artistic director of Britain's Royal National Theatre from 1988 to 1995 and directed Judi Dench in Iris, the recent film about the novelist Iris Murdoch.
Eyre considers The Crucible an "indisputably great play. One of the great things about it is its essential humanity," he says. "It doesn't make judgments. Yes, it says that these people do terrible things, but it doesn't say that they are evil people, or that they are good people. In certain circumstances people do bad things, sometimes for the best of reasons, sometimes out of cowardice."
Sometimes writers looking back on their work of 50 years ago will feel regret, may wish they had done at least a few things differently. But not Miller. When it comes to The Crucible, the playwright says, "I don't know what I would change in the play if I could or if I had to. I think it's pretty solid the way it stands." It's a good bet audiences at the Virginia Theatre will reach the same conclusion.