Witch Hunt: A Cold War Allegory With Nominal Basis in True Events

by Mark Goldstein

The term “witch hunt” is thrown around a lot in American discourse.  In its modern usage, the term is often used to unfounded allegations leveled against innocent individuals as a form of political theater.  As of late, it has been a very politically loaded term.   In response to the Special Counsel investigation into his 2016 campaign’s cooperation with the Russian government, outgoing president Donald Trump tweeted the term “WITCH HUNT” over 120 times (Cassese, 2018).  A more commonly accepted use of the term is in relation to the second Red Scare: when Senator Joseph McCarthy accused numerous public servants, academics, writers and entertainers of being communists.  Arthur Miller’s iconic 1953 play, The Crucible, is a large reason that this comparison persists in the public memory.  This review relates to the 1996 film adaptation, also written by Miller, and directed by Nicholas Hytner.  Spoilers ahead!

Arthur Miller testifying before the House Un-American Activities Committee (HOAC)

Miller was famously accused by the “House Un-Americans Activities Committee,” along with various right-wing ideologues, of being a Communist on multiple occasions. For example, after his refusal to altar his screenplay The Hook after the initial draft was accused of being too “pro-communist,” with a film executive from Columbia Pictures sending him a telegram reading “IT’S INTERESTING HOW THE MINUTE WE TRY TO MAKE THE SCRIPT PRO-AMERICAN YOU PULL OUT!”  (Abrams, 2012, 15)  And this was the context in which The Crucible was born.  While the play is a portrayal of true events that occurred in Salem in 1696, the narrative is heavily dramatized.  Miller saw himself and many of his fellow writers as victims of a witch-hunt, and the story was intended to draw clear parallels to his own situation, as he detailed himself in a 2000 column he wrote for The Guardian (Miller, 2000).  Miller has also stated that he altered many factual details for theatrical purposes.  In the Viking Critical Library edition of the play, contains a “Note on the Historical Accuracy of this Play” written by Miller:

This play is not history in the sense in which the word is used by the academic historian. Dramatic purposes have sometimes required many characters to be fused into one; the number of girls involved in the ‘crying out’ has been reduced; Abigail’s age has been raised; while there were several judges of almost equal authority, I have symbolized them all in Hathorne and Danforth. However, I believe that the reader will discover here the essential nature of one of the strangest and most awful chapters in human history. The fate of each character is exactly that of his historical model, and there is no one in the drama who did not play a similar – and in some cases exactly the same – role in history.

As for the characters of the persons, little is known about most of them except what may be surmised from a few letters, the trial record, certain broadsides written at the time, and references to their conduct in sources of varying reliability. They may therefore be taken as creations of my own, drawn to the best of my ability in conformity with their known behavior, except as indicated in the commentary I have written for this text (Burns, 2015). 

In other words, Miller’s intention was to capture the broad spirit of the events.  But he believes he accurately captured the roles and fates of each of the characters,  With that said, he took liberties on the specifics in order to tell a more compelling story.  And to a large extent, that is an accurate statement, but I would argue that the narrative liberties Miller took regarding the relationship of Abigail Williams and John Proctor severely changes the dynamics of the situation that made the witch trials possible to begin with.

The main storyline of The Crucible is quite well-known.  Abigail Williams is a niece to prominent Massachusetts clergyman Samuel Parris. and former maid to local businessman John Proctor who was recently dismissed from her post after an affair between the two of them was revealed to his wife Elizabeth.  After Williams, her uncle’s slave Tituba, and some other town-girls were discovered by Parris dancing naked and taking part in some sort of pagan ritual, his daughter Betty falls unconscious, and similar afflictions affected towns-children.  As paranoia of witchcraft takes hold of Salem, Williams and her friends begin to accuse various townspeople of witchcraft in order to divert attention away from their own indiscretions.  Feeling jealous after being jilted by John Proctor, Williams embroils him and his wife Elizabeth into the witch-hunt.  After refusing to give in and repent, Proctor is eventually broken and coerced into giving a false confession in order to save the life of his wife.  The film and play end with Proctor’s execution.

In his personal writings, Arthur Miller claimed to have performed historical research which led him to reach certain conclusions about the Salem Witch trial.  He claimed to have viewed contemporaneous paintings at the New England Historical Society allegedly by witnesses to the trial.  However, there were no paintings produced by real-time witnesses of the trial, meaning that these paintings themselves were dramatizations (Burns, 2015).  

Many plot devices were contrived for narrative purposes.  For example, there is no evidence that Abigail Williams had ever met John Proctor prior to the trial.  (New England Historical Society, 2020)  In fact, a romantic relationship between them would have been a quite disturbing prospect, as Abigail Williams was born in 1681, and thus would have been an 11-year-old girl at the time of the Salem Witch trials, while Proctor was in his 60s.  The ages of a few other characters including Mary Warren were also changed (Brooks, 2020).  The opening scene where Tituba and Williams led a pagan ritual involving naked dancing was also not  known to have happene..  However, there were reports that some of the mass hysteria about witchery had been prompted by reports of “experiments in the occult among a group of young girls, curious about their romantic futures (McGill, 1981, 259-260).”  

Abigail Williams and John Proctor having a confrontation re: their affair

Other changes include the comatose condition of Betty Parris, who was instead experiencing periodic seizures.  Proctor’s profession is altered from innkeeper to farmer.    Additionally, John Proctor was never successfully pressured into making a confession; he maintained his innocence until his death.  Furthermore, John Hale is depicted as becoming critical of the trials after John Proctor’s death, but in reality he only changed his tune after his own wife had been accused (Brooks, 2020). But for the most part, these minor changes don’t impact the sequence of events.

The changing of the relationship between Proctor and Williams, however, is a  far more important historical deviation.  Miller claims that he added the detail of the affair based on court records showing Williams reluctant to implicate John (McGill, 1981, 259-260).  Adding this detail ascribes some measure of psychological guilt to Proctor, rather than making him a totally innocent character, and gives him very different motivations for both his and William’ actions during and leading up to the trial.

All-in-all, The Crucible gets most of the material details of Salem correct including the players involved, the roles each of the characters played in the trials, and their fates.  With that said, Miller changed certain historical details both as a result of his own misunderstandings and extrapolations of historical events, along with intentional changes made for dramatic and satirical purposes.  Miller intended The Crucible to serve as a parable for contemporary events, not as a historical record, and in that he certainly succeeded.  But The Crucible serves as a very effective warning as to how history tends to repeat itself again and again.

Rating (10/13 Stripes)


Abrams, N. (2012). An Unofficial Cultural Ambassador: Arthur Miller and the Cultural Cold War. In Divided Dreamworlds?: The Cultural Cold War in East and West (p. 15). Amsterdam University Press. https://www.jstor.org/stable/j.ctt6wp6mh.5

Brooks, R. (2020, May 28). Is The Crucible Based on a True Story? History of Massachusetts Blog. https://historyofmassachusetts.org/the-crucible-story/

Burns, M. (2015, October 15). Arthur Miller’s The Crucible: Fact & Fiction (or Picky, Picky, Picky…). 17th Century Colonial New England With Special Emphasis on the Essex County Witch-Hunt of 1692. http://www.17thc.us/docs/fact-fiction.shtml

Cassese, E. (2018, October 31). A political history of the term “witch hunt”. Vox. https://www.vox.com/mischiefs-of-faction/2018/10/31/18047208/trump-witch-hunt

McGill, W. (1981). The Crucible of History: Arthur Miller’s John Proctor. The New England Quarterly, 54(2), 258-264. doi:10.2307/364974

Miller, A. (2000, June 16). Are you now or were you ever…? The Guardian. https://www.theguardian.com/books/2000/jun/17/history.politicsNew England Historical Society. (2020). The Crucible, or How Arthur Miller Got the Salem Witch Trials Wrong. New England Historical Society. https://www.newenglandhistoricalsociety.com/crucible-arthur-miller-got-salem-witch-trials-wrong/#comments

Leave a Reply