It was America, in its earliest days. The settlers were religious and community-minded, good people who cared for their children and worked desperately to survive in a forbidding environment.
They were settlers of the Massachusetts Bay Colony, and in 1692, these righteous citizens accused, tried and hanged 14 women, five men and two dogs for practicing witchcraft.
Recently I read both Stacy Schiff’s “The Witches of Salem,” a nonfiction history of the time, along with Arthur Miller’s play “The Crucible.” It has been noted that no historian has ever fully explained what fever possessed the people of Salem. Even Schiff’s remarkable history doesn’t answer the question of how the community’s paranoia achieved the critical mass that led to hangings.
There were “eyewitness” accounts of teenage girls dancing naked in the woods, and reports of broomsticks found high in trees. Daughters accused mothers, and husbands accused wives. Once accused, you either confessed and implicated others or were hanged for not telling the truth. What finally shined a light on that dark summer of 1692, what pried the deeper meaning out of the cold foundations of old Salem, was Miller’s play, which he wrote more than 250 years after the fact.
In writing a work of fiction, Miller revealed the true hearts and minds of the accusers, the victims and the bystanders. He knew them because he knew human nature, and because he was living through a time of another witch hunt: the great Red Scare of the early 1950s when thousands of Americans were accused of ties to communism.
Miller was one of the accused artists, and in a 1996 essay titled “Why I Wrote ‘The Crucible,’” he wrote, “the play was an act of desperation.” The accusations from Sen. Joseph McCarthy’s House Un-American Activities Committee, Miller wrote, had “paralyzed a whole generation and in a short time dried up the habits of trust and toleration in public discourse.”
He went on: “In 1948-51, I had the sensation of being trapped inside a perverse work of art . . . in which it is impossible to make out whether a stairway is going up or down. Practically everyone I knew stood within the conventions of the political left of centre; one or two were Communist party members . . . I have never been able to believe in the reality of these people being actual or putative traitors any more than I could be, yet others like them were being fired from teaching or jobs in government or large corporations . . .
“The surreality of it all never left me . . . In today’s terms, the country had been delivered into the hands of the radical right . . . It is always with us, this anxiety, sometimes directed towards foreigners, Jews, Catholics, fluoridated water, aliens in space, masturbation, homosexuality, or the Internal Revenue Department . . . And if this seems crazy now, it seemed just as crazy then, but openly doubting it could cost you . . .
“. . . ‘The Crucible’ was an attempt to make life real again, palpable and structured. One hoped that a work of art might illuminate the tragic absurdities of an anterior work of art that was called reality, but was not. It was the very swiftness of the change that lent it this surreality.”
Thousands of Americans were forced to answer the question, “Are you now or have you ever been a communist?”
Miller’s play became a metaphor, even a cliché, for that era, when friends betrayed friends, people lost jobs and secret accusations could lead to public humiliation and worse. Miller said he wrote it because it was what a writer could do to get to the underlying truth of a moment in history. In writing about 1692, he was also writing about 1952.
And now, when we read his play, we’re also reading about our time, this moment in history when truth and facts have become unfixed concepts. Once again, America has lost its moorings, and no one can adequately explain or understand 2016-17 because we are in the midst of it. We have no perspective, just countervailing forces and disquieting change.
We won’t have a bead on our own time until the novelists and playwrights create the works that reveal us to ourselves.
Please, read “The Crucible” again. It speaks to the currents of evil that can sweep away an entire community: irrational fear of “the other,” jealousy, fundamentalist religion, isolation, panic and political manipulation. Miller was writing about Salem and, metaphorically, the Red Scare, but he might have been writing about Stalin’s Russia, Pinochet’s Chile, Mao’s China or the Khmer Rouge. Or he might have been writing about today.
In America in 2017, we are running off the rails, again. But, apparently, we need to wait for those who write fiction to find the truth of this moment.
Copyright © 2017 Randi Kreiss. Randi can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.