Sixty years ago, on January 22, 1953, Arthur Miller’s The Crucible premiered at the Martin Beck Theater on New York’s Broadway. The events of the drama were based on those that occurred in Salem, Massachusetts, in 1692.
Miller was liberal in his fictionalization of those historical events. Many accusations of witchcraft in the play are driven by an affair between John Proctor and the minister's niece, Abigail Williams. In real life, however, Williams was about 11 at the time of the accusations, and Proctor was over 60, which made it unlikely there was a romantic link.
"The play is not reportage of any kind,” Miller said. “Nobody can write a tragedy and make it reportage. What I was doing was writing a fictional story about an important theme."
Appearing at the height of the "Red Scare," the play was seen as a thinly veiled indictment of Wisconsin Senator Joseph McCarthy as well as the House Un-American Activities Committee's crusade against alleged "Communists and Communist sympathizers" in America.
Despite the obvious political ideas contained within the drama, many critics felt that it was "a self-contained play about a terrible period in American history," the Salem witch trials. It was a success at the box office and popular with audiences, but The New York Times claimed “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, released in 1996. But the film was changed from the play: 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 not performed onstage.
Though hailed by some, the movie was not as well-received as 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 critique of Senator McCarthy's crusade against supposed Communist sympathizers, falls flat in the '90s."
However, 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.”