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October 18, 2017

The Crucible and Our Town

On this day, fifteen years apart, Arthur Miller's The Crucible (1953) and Thornton Wilder's Our Town (1938) premiered. Although both were poorly reviewed to start, The Crucible would win a Tony and Our Town a Pulitzer; and both would become not only classics of American theater, but classic, opposite statements on the idea of community living.

Miller's researches into the Salem witch trials of 1692 were conducted during a time when he and many of his colleagues were under investigation by the House of Representatives Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC). Though still young, Miller had the success of All My Sons (1947) and Death of a Salesman (1949) behind him, and the courage to pursue a conviction that he knew could bring ruin to his professional and personal life. In his autobiography, Timebends, Miller describes how even these apprehensions left him unprepared for the cold shoulder he got from the opening night audience in New York:
    . . . an invisible sheet of ice formed over their heads, thick enough to skate on. In the lobby at the end, people with whom I had some fairly close professional acquaintanceships passed me by as though I were invisible.
Despite the indifferent reviews and dwindling audiences, the production struggled on for some months as "an act of resistance" by many of the actors, many of whom soon worked for little or no pay. Miller recalls one memorable performance when, just at John Proctor's execution, the audience stood up and bowed their heads for several minutes; the puzzled cast were finally informed that the Rosenbergs were at that moment being electrocuted in Sing Sing. But both play and author won their reprieve: when The Crucible was revived in 1955 it ran for two years, and has since become Miller's most produced play; and though Miller was convicted in 1956 of contempt by the HUAC, he appealed and won.

Thornton Wilder described himself as "temperamentally undiscourageable" and Our Town as an attempt "to find a value above all price for the smallest events of our daily life." At the beginning of Act III the Our Town Stage Manager admires the Salem folk who found their way to Grover's Corners, New Hampshire -- admires them compared to the tourists and city-slickers, at any rate:
    Over there are the old stones -- 1670, 1680. Strong-minded people that come a long way to be independent. Summer people walk around there laughing at the funny words on the tombstones ... it don't do any harm. And genealogists come up from Boston -- get paid by city people for looking up their ancestors. They want to make sure they're Daughters of the American Revolution and of the Mayflower.... Well, I guess that don't do any harm, either. Wherever you come near the human race, there's layers and layers of nonsense....
The "nonsense" in Salem is on various levels, and has been explained in various ways. One biochemical theory ties the hysteria to rye bread mold, which can cause LSD-type visions; one social theory (Mary Beth Norton, In the Devil's Snare) ties it to the political and economical fall-out from the Indian Wars. Certainly war and politics had much to do with the popularity of both The Crucible and Our Town: they premiered as the world was going into and trying to come out of WWII, and so became statements about what can cause and cure such events. It is as easy to imagine George Rockwell, the "American Fuehrer," feeling at home in Arthur Miller's Salem as it is to see Norman Rockwell sitting before his easel in Grover's Corners.

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