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Playwright Arthur Miller & The Crucible Demythologize American Exceptionalism

The Crucible Joan Allen Elizabeth Proctor: Playwright Arthur Miller screenplayThe Crucible 1996 with Joan Allen. Playwright Arthur Miller wrote The Crucible (1953) – about the witchcraft trials held in late-17th-century Salem, Mass. – as a political allegory against the HUAC hearings held in mid-20th-century Washington, D.C.
  • Part two of this three-part post about notable movies based on the works of/written by playwright Arthur Miller offers a brief look at two big-screen versions of his Tony Award-winning 1953 play The Crucible: Raymond Rouleau’s mostly French-made The Witches of Salem (1957) and Nicholas Hytner’s U.S.-made box office bomb The Crucible (1996).

Playwright Arthur Miller vs. director Elia Kazan & the House Un-American Activities Committee

Ramon Novarro biography Beyond Paradise

Playwright Arthur Miller and Broadway director/filmmaker Elia Kazan were not only artistic collaborators but also friends. Besides having directed the stage productions of All My Sons and Death of a Salesman, Kazan was to have joined forces with Miller on the filming of the latter’s 1947 screenplay “The Hook,” the real-life-inspired, Brooklyn-set tale of an Italian-American longshoreman, Marty Ferrara, at war with his corrupt, mafia-linked union leaders.[1]

That all changed in 1952, when Miller and Kazan found themselves at war with one another the year after their failed attempt to get “The Hook” off the ground at Columbia Pictures.

At a House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC) hearing, Kazan had named several people – most of them Jewish – as either current or former members of the Communist Party, including playwright Clifford Odets, actor Morris Carnovsky, and actress Paula Miller (a.k.a. Paula Strasberg, drama teacher Lee Strasberg’s wife and Marilyn Monroe’s future acting coach and confidante).

In his 1987 autobiography, Timebends: A Life, Miller recalled talking to Kazan before his testimony:

“Listening to him I grew frightened. There was a certain gloomy logic in what he was saying; unless he came clean he could never hope, in the height of his creative powers, to make another film in America, and he would probably not be given a passport to work abroad, either. If the theater remained open to him, it was not his primary interest anymore. … But I was growing cooler with the thought that as unbelievable as it seemed, I could still be up for sacrifice if Kazan knew I attended meetings of the Communist Party years ago and had made a speech at one of them.”

Miller also recalled Kazan’s wife, Molly, exclaiming upon learning that he was going to spend some time in Salem, Massachusetts: “You’re not going to equate witches with this!”

Less than a year after her husband’s HUAC testimony, The Crucible opened on Jan. 22, 1953, at Broadway’s Martin Beck Theatre.

1690s Salem as mirror to 1950s Washington

Set amidst New England’s Puritans and featuring characters inspired by and named after real-life individuals, The Crucible used the Salem witch trials of the 1690s as a mirror to the Washington HUAC hearings of the 1950s.[2]

Suspected of witchcraft, the local minister’s teenage niece, Abigail Williams (the real-life Abigail was about 11), and a couple of female cohorts point fingers at dozens of Salem denizens, asserting that they are black magic practitioners. Like in Lillian Hellman’s The Children’s Hour, the lying accusers are duly believed by the powers-that-be; the accused are thus arrested and imprisoned.

The play’s eventual hero is late-17th-century “everyman” John Proctor, a no-nonsense farmer in his 30s (the real-life Proctor was a well-to-do 60-year-old businessman) with a wife, Elizabeth, and three children. John knows that Abigail is lying; nonetheless, he is afraid to expose her because that might bring to light their past affair – and nothing is more important in a sanctimonious society than one’s public image.

His ultimate fate is no less drab than what befalls All My Sons’ Joe Keller and Death of Salesman’s Willy Loman, but with one key difference: John Proctor’s ending is supposed to be redemptive, turning him into a cross between The Scarlet Letter’s Arthur Dimmesdale and A Tale of Two Cities’ Sydney Carton.

HUAC strikes back

Directed by veteran Jed Harris (The Front Page, The Heiress), The Crucible featured All My Sons and Death of a Salesman co-lead – and by then two-time Academy Award nominee – Arthur Kennedy as John Proctor, Madeleine Sherwood as Abigail Williams, and future Oscar winner Beatrice Straight (Best Supporting Actress for Network, 1976) as Elizabeth Proctor.

In his April 1967 New York Times essay “It Could Happen Here – and Did,” Arthur Miller remembered this highly personal work being “generally dismissed as a cold, anti-McCarthy tract,[3] more an outburst than a play.”

Even so, The Crucible ran for a respectable 197 performances – thanks to a “small band of rooters,” as per Miller – along the way winning two Tony Awards: Best Play and Best Supporting/Featured Actress (Beatrice Straight).

Not at all rooting for the play’s success was the House Un-American Activities Committee’s flag-wavers, who had Miller’s passport confiscated in 1954, thus preventing him from attending the London opening of his witch-hunt play.

Two years later, the playwright was subpoenaed to face the HUAC tribunal. Unlike Elia Kazan, he refused to name those involved in left-wing activities or who were present at meetings he had attended, telling his interrogators, “I could not use the name of another person and bring trouble on him.”

Miller was convicted of contempt of Congress in 1957, receiving a fine and a prison sentence, and once again being denied a U.S. passport. The following year, however, a court of appeals overturned his conviction.

The Witches of Salem Simone Signoret Yves MontandThe Witches of Salem with Simone Signoret and Yves Montand. Bypassed by Hollywood, playwright Arthur Miller’s anti-HUAC drama The Crucible became a big-screen release in France.

The Witches of Salem: Timely Broadway play becomes opportune French film

In contrast to All My Sons and Death of a Salesman, there would be no forthcoming Hollywood adaptation of Arthur Miller’s latest Tony winner at a time when those accused of being/having been Reds (or “Pinkos”) could be barred from working in the American motion picture industry.

Not helping matters, both movie adaptations of Miller’s plays had been commercial underperformers. Moreover, unlike its family-focused big-screen predecessors, a film version of The Crucible – which shows most inhabitants of the future United States as anything but “exceptional” – would need to execute some intricate pirouettes to avoid indicting American society, its leaders, and its very framework.

That’s how, four years after its debut, Miller’s timely Broadway drama became Raymond Rouleau’s still opportune French film: The Witches of Salem / Les sorcières de Salem (1957), with a screenplay by Jean-Paul Sartre, and starring two performers known back then for their pro-socialist stance, the wife and husband team of Simone Signoret and (future right-winger) Yves Montand, reprising their Paris stage roles as the Proctor couple. Sultry Mylène Demongeot was cast as Abigail Williams.[4]

French audiences aware of The Crucible’s background could easily make the connection to the HUAC hearings of a few years earlier; others could just as easily be reminded of the épuration sauvage (“savage purge”) that took place as World War II came to a close, when those accused of having been Nazi collaborators in occupied France were summarily executed.

French makeover of ‘explicitly American play’

When The Witches of Salem reached U.S. shores in late 1958, the New York Times’ Bosley Crowther, while making no Red Scare or épuration sauvage allusions, expressed satisfaction with how the French had handled Miller’s “explicitly American play”:

“For now Mr. Miller’s somewhat cramped and peculiarly parochial account of the workings of vengeance, fear, suspicion, injustice and finally bravery comes forth as a sort of timeless drama of the unwholesome misplacement of zeal and the consequent moral corruption of a painfully restricted social group. It is a piercing penetration of all intellectual night.”

The Witches of Salem was not a contender in the American awards season, but on the other side of the Atlantic the film did earn Simone Signoret a British Academy Award in the Best Foreign Actress category. Previously, it had earned its three leads a joint acting award at the Karlovy Vary Film Festival.

Hollywood would wait nearly four decades to come up with its own take on The Crucible.

The Crucible 1996: To each generation its own hysteria

Directed by British filmmaker Nicholas Hytner (The Madness of King George) and written by Arthur Miller himself, Twentieth Century Fox’s $25 million-budget The Crucible adaptation was released in November 1996, in time for awards season consideration. Headlining the prestigious cast were Oscar winners Daniel Day-Lewis (as John Proctor) and Paul Scofield, and nominees Winona Ryder (as Abigail Williams), Joan Allen (as Elizabeth Proctor), and Bruce Davison.

Nearly three decades earlier, Miller had written in “It Could Happen Here – and Did”:

“When irrational terror takes to itself the fiat of moral goodness, somebody has to die. I thought then that in terms of this process the witch hunts had something to say to the anti-Communist hysteria. No man lives who has not got a panic button, and when it is pressed by the clean white hand of moral duty, a certain murderous train is set in motion. Socially speaking this is what the play is and was ‘about,’ and it is this which I believe makes it survive long after the political circumstances of its birth have evaporated in the public mind.”

When it came to socially/politically engendered hysteria, U.S. audiences of the mid-1990s had plenty to choose from.

As found in a September 1996 New York Times piece by The Nation editorial director Victor Navasky, instead of the HUAC hearings, late 20th-century (U.S.-based) The Crucible audiences would make the connection between Puritanical paranoia to xenophobia and Christian extremism.

In addition, they would find it “virtually impossible … to see the close-ups of Devil-possessed children on the big screen … and not reconsider the incredible inventory of uncorroborated allegations – including, at their outer edge, tales of satanic cults, U.F.O. abductions and human and animal sacrifices – in the child molestation trials” held in previous years.

But would that be enough to lure moviegoers in the United States and elsewhere?

The Crucible Winona Ryder: Abigail WilliamsThe Crucible 1996 with Winona Ryder as Abigail Williams, a cross between Bonita Granville’s slanderous schoolgirl in The Children’s Hour and Glenn Close’s married-man stalker in Fatal Attraction.

Puritanical Fatal Attraction

Taking no chances, links between The Crucible and Adrian Lyne’s 1987 adultery thriller and box office smash Fatal Attraction were embedded in the marketing of the Fox release (and in reviews).

The strategy, however, didn’t work out as planned. Despite some – but by no means overwhelmingly – good notices, The Crucible took in a paltry $7.3 million in the U.S. and Canada.

Prior to its release, the Hytner-Miller collaboration had been expected to become one of the year’s top awards season contenders. Yet it ended up getting shortlisted for just two Oscars: 81-year-old first-timer Miller was up in the Best Adapted Screenplay category and Joan Allen was up for Best Supporting Actress.

Additionally, Allen and veteran Paul Scofield (Best Actor Oscar winner for A Man for All Seasons, 1966) received supporting Golden Globe nominations, while the latter was named the British Academy Awards’ Best Supporting Actor.

Ultimately, the by-then iconic playwright lost the Oscar to the heavily marketed actor-turned-filmmaker Billy Bob Thornton for Sling Blade. The Best Supporting Actress winner was Juliette Binoche for (her co-lead role in) The English Patient.

“Playwright Arthur Miller &The Crucible Demythologize American Exceptionalism” follow-up post:

Arthur Miller and Marilyn Monroe Collaboration + Anti-‘Waterfront’ Drama.”

“Playwright Arthur Miller & The Crucible” notes

‘The Hook’: From (almost) screen to stage

[1] “The Hook” was to remain unproduced after playwright Arthur Miller, now wearing the hat of screenwriter, refused to make the changes required by Columbia Pictures head Harry Cohn.

As a stage play, The Hook premiered in June 2015 in Northampton, England. Jamie Sives starred as the dockworker Marty Ferrara.

The Devil in Boston

[2] The Crucible has elements in common with Lion Feuchtwanger’s 1947 German play Wahn oder der Teufel in Boston, which premiered in Germany two years later and was presented as The Devil in Boston in Los Angeles in 1953.

Red-baiter Joseph McCarthy

[3] Republican Senator Joseph McCarthy from Wisconsin gained international infamy in the 1950s for his Red-baiting tactics. It should be noted that McCarthy wasn’t officially involved in the procedures of the House Un-American Activities Committee.

Arthur Miller + Jean-Paul Sartre collaboration

[4] The Witches of Salem was actually a (rare) French-East German coproduction, with interiors partly shot at the Babelsberg Studios in Potsdam.

According to Simone Signoret in her 1978 book of memoirs La nostalgie n’est plus ce qu’elle était, “Sartre’s screenplay was … totally faithful to Miller’s play. In fact, it had been the fruit of a lengthy correspondence between Miller and Sartre during the preparation period.”

“Playwright Arthur Miller” endnotes

In his New York Times article, Victor Navasky mentions the marketing connection between Fatal Attraction and 20th Century Fox’s 1996 version of The Crucible.

Joan Allen and Winona Ryder The Crucible images: 20th Century Fox.

Simone Signoret and Yves Montand The Witches of Salem image: Pathé.

“Playwright Arthur Miller &The Crucible Demythologize American Exceptionalism” last updated in September 2021.

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1 comment

KenR -

Another interesting and helpful article on a work that has been underappreciated.

Arthur Miller’s hard-hitting study of the Salem witch-hunts makes its American debut on the cinema screen with a strong screenplay penned by the author himself and directed by British-born Nicholas Hytner. Hytner is also known for his stage works and perhaps this shows in his screen approach. It’s lavishly photographed in muted tones by Award-winning British cinematographer Andrew Dunn.

Essential production values are very good and it’s laced with truly outstanding performances. While it may be a thinly camouflaged statement about the McCarthy, Hollywood witch-hunts, it serves as a riveting study of human behavior – in situations where pressure is mounted against individuals – who attempt to save themselves by transferring their guilt to others, innocent or otherwise.
The Fox DVD offers good image a sound and is recommended as a fine study of history both modern (allegorical) and old.


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