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Miller Recounts McCarthy Era, Origins of "The Crucible"

By Kevin E. Meyers, Crimson Staff Writer

Arthur Miller, the world-renowned playwright widely regarded as a pioneer of American drama, recounted his experiences with the anti-Communist hysteria of the 1940s and 1950s and the creation of "The Crucible" in a lecture Monday afternoon.

Miller's lecture, titled "History Around the Crucible" and delivered to a standing-room-only audience in the Science Center, focused on Congress's investigation of his personal life and his sense that he was living in "a perverse work of art."

"In one sense," he said, "'The Crucible' was an attempt to make life real again."

"The Crucible," a dramatization of the 1692 Salem witch trials, was written as an allegory for the "witch-hunt" atmosphere that pervaded America when Joseph McCarthy, a Republican representative from Wisconsin, led the nation on a search for communists in the American government. Miller said the search "paralyzed the nation."

"Suffice it to say, it was a time of great--no doubt unprecedented--fear," he said.

Miller, who also wrote the Pulitzer Prize-winning "Death of a Salesman," called McCarthy and the anti-communist forces "silly."

His experience with the so-called McCarthy era began, Miller said, when Columbia Pictures was preparing to release the film version of "Death of a Salesman." Because many executives considered the play anti-capitalist, Columbia asked Miller to sign an anti-communist declaration. He refused.

"The air of terror was heavy," he said. "I was sure the whole thing would soon go away."

But it didn't, and as anti-communist "paranoia" swept the nation, Miller said he grew increasingly enraged by the rising hysteria.

The military banned performances of his plays on army bases, and his request for a passport renewal was denied--forcing him to miss the European premiere of "The Crucible."

"Rather than physical fear, there was a sense of impotence," he said.

In 1956, McCarthy's House Committee on Un-American Activities subpoenaed him to testify. But Miller said the subpoena was only because of his impending marriage to movie star Marilyn Monroe--and that House prosecutors were only seeking publicity in the waning years of the McCarthy era.

When he refused to identify writers that he had met at a conference organized by socialists, Miller was cited for contempt of Congress.

"I began to despair of my own silence," he said. "I longed to respond to this climate of fear."

"The Crucible," he said, was his response.

When he realized that the witch trials bore a direct connection to McCarthy's communist hunt, Miller spent three days in Salem's library reviewing court transcripts. He said he was most struck by the preponderance of "spectral" and circumstantial evidence in the proceedings.

"You could be at home asleep in bed, but your spirit could be out at your neighbor's home, feeling up his wife," Miller said.

Because of the connection he made to Salem, Miller said he more clearly understood the actions of the government in the 1950s.

"Salem...had taught me...that a kind of built-in pestilence has nestled in the human mind," he said.

In his introduction to Miller's speech, Director of the Loeb Drama Center Robert S. Brustein called Miller "our theater's elder statesman."

"For 50 years now, ever since 'Death of a Salesman,' the name of Arthur Miller has been synonymous with, indeed inseparable from, American drama," he said.

Miller's lecture was the opening of the William E. Massey Sr. Lectures in the History of American Civilization. Past lecturers in the series include Toni Morrison, Eudora Welty and Gore Vidal.

Miller, who is 83, received an honorary degree from Harvard at the 1997 Commencement exercises.

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