Fifty-eight years ago, on January 22, 1953, Arthur Miller’s “The Crucible” opened at the Martin Beck Theater on New York’s Broadway. The events of the drama were based on those that occurred in 1692 in Salem, Massachusetts.
Miller was liberal in his fictionalization of those historical events. Many accusations of witchcraft in the play are driven by an affair between farmer John Proctor and the minister’s teenage niece, Abigail Williams.
In real life, however, Williams was probably about eleven at the time of the accusations, and Proctor was over sixty, which made it highly unlikely there was ever a romantic relationship.
“The play is not reportage of any kind,” Miller said. “Nobody can start to write a tragedy and hope to make it reportage. What I was doing was writing a fictional story about an important theme.”
Appearing at the height of the McCarthy era, the play was perceived as a thinly veiled indictment of Wisconsin Senator Joseph McCarthy and the House Un-American Activities Committee’s crusade against so-called Communist sympathizers in America.
Despite the obvious political criticisms contained within the play, many drama critics felt that “The Crucible” was “a self-contained play about a terrible period in American history.”
It was a success at the box office and popular with audiences, but Brook Atkinson of The New York Times wrote that “the theme does not develop with the simple eloquence of ‘Death of a Salesman.'”
The production won the 1953 “Best Play” Tony Award. And a year later, with a new production, “The Crucible” became an American classic. It was also adapted into an opera, first performed in 1961, and received the Pulitzer Prize.
More than 40 years after the debut of the drama, Miller, 81, wrote the screenplay for the movie version of “The Crucible,” released in 1996. The film was changed from the play in a few ways.
It opens with a scene of the girls sneaking into the woods and participating in a ritualistic dance with the slave woman Tituba until they are caught by the minister. This scene was referred to, but not performed in the play.
Although hailed by some, the movie was not as well-received as was the play. One critic wrote: “This filmic redux of Miller’s theatrical parable is somewhat out of place on the modern landscape.
“What was no doubt a powerful and emotive effort in the 1950s, when it was written as a scathing critique of Senator McCarthy’s crusade against supposed Communist sympathizers, falls flat in the ’90s.”
The star-studded cast, which included Winona Ryder and Daniel Day-Lewis, saved the film for one reviewer, who wrote: “With a head on its shoulders and the rawest emotions in its craw, Miller’s stage hit “The Crucible” has become a cinematic grabber for grown-ups.”