Witch hunts, political hysteria, and paranoia! Listen to previously unreleased interviews with Tony- and Pulitzer-winning playwright Arthur Miller and actresses Madeleine Sherwood and Lee Grant, who explore the themes of Miller’s landmark play The Crucible (1953). Published amidst the milieu of government persecution when McCarthyism struck Hollywood, the play is a stark and powerful allegory of the era with lasting implications. [“American Masters – Arthur Miller, Elia Kazan and the Blacklist: None Without Sin” (2003)].
Arthur Miller: There’s a far more inevitable sense one has later in life that our characters are our fate and there’s something you can do about it but not much but that can be terribly important. Could be the difference between divorcing and not divorce. It can be the difference between being a fool and being a wise man but it’s only that much.
Anna Drezen: That was playwright Arthur Miller. On this episode of the podcast, we’ll explore The Crucible, a play that feels just as relevant in 2017 as it was in 1953. I’m your host, Anna Drezen, on the American Masters podcast.
In the late 1940s and early ’50s, many of Arthur Miller’s close friends and colleagues had been targeted in what came to be known as the Red Scare. When Senator Joe McCarthy and the House Un-American Activities Committee, which is also my favorite boy band, attempted to root out US citizens who they believed were communists. By the end of this harrowing and public persecution, more than 300 artists were blacklisted from working in Hollywood. Out of this moment of extreme paranoia came the Crucible. Miller found the perfect allegory to McCarthyism in the Salem Witch Trials of 1692, when over a dozen people were infamously executed in Salem, Massachusetts after a series of false accusations surrounding supposed cases of witchcraft. But also, you know, maybe they were witches, I don’t, I wasn’t there. At the center of the Crucible is an adulterous relationship between John Proctor and his much younger counterpart Abigail Williams. To cover up the affair and protect herself against accusations, Abigail falsely accuses others in the town of witchcraft. In this episode, we’ll listen to interviews from the American Masters digital archive that explore both the themes of the play and the fearful times in the 1950s during the communist witch-hunt.
Arthur Miller: Society is denying its own nature its own viciousness which this trial opens up. The girls are trying to deny their own sexuality. It’s almost a rule. Most plays that we regard as being important are plays about denial. Which I think is true of life because what we’re faced with is a mystery and we can’t figure it out. And the great tension in life is to uncover what’s really happening and these plays reflect that tension.
Anna Drezen: In the Crucible’s Broadway debut in 1953, Madeleine Sherwood originated the role of Abigail.
Madeleine Sherwood: It’s difficult to separate how I felt about Abigail then and how I felt about myself then and how I now feel about myself and Abigail. I know from my training at the studio that you have to find something about the character that is part of you, and something that is good about you, something positive about you. To most people she was the, the evil person but I think she was a very bright young woman who was bored with life where she was living in Salem. And I think her opportunities were very negligible there to show her talent, you know, and you, she took her friends the other servant girls with Tituba the slave woman out to the woods and they danced and apparently dance naked some or all. They started to talk about witchcraft, but I mean she did, she started to instill that into their heads. But I think that probably came after John Proctor rejected her. And you know people will say she, Abigail, was seducing John Proctor. Well she was a young woman, John Proctor was married, had children. I think that he lusted after her and lay with her as they used to say in Bible times and in that time 6000s. And then when he rejected her out of his own enormous guilt, Abigail wanted revenge and she got it. She got it by turning the whole town on to a witch hunt. She had all the girls saying that they were being bedeviled literally by the upstanding members of the community, right. Especially Elizabeth Procter by sticking pins in a puppet. And that was hurting the girl’s. Blood was coming out of them and, and they weren’t menstruating, it was coming out of their head or their arms or whatever, you know, and they were they were bleeding and, and all sorts of things were happening. And so they brought in the clerics, they brought in the clergy, they brought in the politicians, the judge, and so on and certainly had trials, and they tried these innocent people. It was God and the devil. And you were either for one and against the other or you were for God and you’re against the devil. So it was a very restricted time certainly in the Puritan time. People are so quick, or were then and perhaps still are, but they were so quick to always lay the blame on the woman, on the girl. Newspaper articles and so on and so forth. You were written about it, you know, when people, when they talked about it they say, oh she was such a devil, she was such a mischief maker, she was so bad, but they don’t say anything bad about him, John Proctor. He struggled with confessing that he had done this, that he had been with Abigail. And it was a tremendous confession very difficult to confess certainly. And when someone is living with a woman as wife and has children and they’re having an affair with someone else who is living in the same house in a sense that’s heavy duty. And I rather imagine that Arthur Miller was dealing with somewhat the same agony around that time, the same guilt perhaps. I do believe that John Proctor, Arthur Miller, were not perfect human beings, but he wrote about a man who ultimately went to his death trying to protect his wife.
It was a dangerous time. Dangerous time. And also highly exciting. Wonderfully exciting. Risk was implicit in the in the material for many people. I didn’t understand it at first, at all. I was too naïve, newly in the United States but, as we went along I would hear a couple of remarks. And there was a sense that, “I wonder what’s going to happen when the critics see us. I wonder how they’re going to treat this play.” Well it’s about witchcraft in the sixteen hundreds presumably, but here we are in the middle of the HUAC. And people were being blacklisted from the entertainment business and probably from other professions and businesses too but particularly in the entertainment which was so out front, you know. When once we were open and the critics were so careful. Only Brooks Atkinson gave us a relatively good review. Many, many of them they dismissed the play that Arthur Miller had tried to recreate something here that didn’t really work very well. Not a mention, not one single connection between 1600 and the 1950s. Maybe they were afraid of their jobs. The newspaper men were getting blacklisted too. If you got into red channels or aware those magazines that came out once a week or once a month or whatever it was they had these columns, you know, that said fellow traveler pinko and known communist. So I know that eventually I was in the fellow traveler one when I was blacklisted. There was no leeway to be one thing or the other. You had to be either absolutely virulently against communism or anything that smacked of being leftist of any sort at all. Or you had to be a communist and a left wing person and in-between there was nothing. There was no gradation. It’s impossible to understand how difficult those times were for everybody. I think it was difficult for you whether you were whether you were left or right in a sense, you know, to know. Do you know that people, your friends, when you were walking down Broadway or Seventh Avenue or one of the side the theater streets, your friends would cross the street so that they would not have to say hello to you and be seen saying hello to you and associating with by just saying hello. You might be accused of being a fellow traveler because you were talking to somebody who had already been accused of being a communist or they were thought to be a fellow traveler or whatever. And so literally speaking you would see somebody, a friend, you knew it was a friend and it got to be so embarrassing, it was so sad and embarrassing. And it was a case of either you had to cross the street or they had to cross the street. And if you were brave enough you walk to see if maybe they’d be brave enough to walk and talk to you. But very often they would cross the street. Very good people that just couldn’t face the fact that they might lose their livelihood their families their, you know, their dignity because that’s what they’ve robbed you of. And they, the committee, people committed suicide, you know. No one knows what one would do if one was in that position, if one was called up before the committee. Nobody knows what one would say, whether one would name names of friends, of people who you knew for a long time and you name them as being a communist. And I know what I would like to believe that I would say or do. I would like to say what Arthur Miller said: nothing. He refused to cooperate. But I don’t know unless I was in that position. One day I decided to go to a union meeting, and I think it was after, and American Federation of Television and Radio Artists, and they were along with SAG but after particularly were the ones who were the most vociferous about naming people as communists and getting rid of them, or they would then if the producers didn’t get rid of somebody, they would pull their advertising and that way the program went down the drain, right. So they’re talking about what we can do to support the committee. That’s what the council members were talking about, what can we do to support the committee? More, more, we have to do more. And we’re there with a loyalty oath. They were putting this loyalty oath into effect so that if you did any kind of show you had to sign on loyalty saying you were loyal to the United States of America, you were not have you now and have never been a communist, right. Not now. Never have been. And I stood up and said, I think it’s unfair to do this. Lee Grant, we know, is a wonderful actor. It is unfair for us to aid the committee to blacklist somebody like a good actress like Lee Grant. They should be it’s in our talent not what are political. And anyway I don’t think that… and I felt somebody pulling on my arm and they pulled me down and set me on my chair. And there was a person beside me and the person said, are you crazy? You are nuts. Shut up. Do you want to be in red channels? The next week I was.
Anna Drezen: Lee Grant is an actress who made her Broadway debut in 1948. At the height of her fame in the early 1950s, she received an Oscar nomination and Best Actor award at Cannes for her work on a film called Detective Story. In this interview for American Masters, Grant talks about the moment she was first targeted by Red Channels after delivering a eulogy for fellow actor J. Edward Bromberg in 1951.
Lee Grant: J. Edward Bromberg was a veteran character actor who had been with the group’s theater, had gone out to Hollywood, became a very much used character actor in Hollywood. He becomes blacklisted. And he had a bad heart. And the committee kept calling him back. And he went to London and it had a success but he died. He had a heart attack in London. And so I was asked to be one of the many people who spoke at his memorial in New York. And at his memorial I said that I thought the Un-American Activities Committee had killed him. That the pressure on him had, had been too much for his heart, and it’s something that I believe today. And the next day I was blacklisted. I was in Red Channels. And I didn’t work again in television and film for 12 years. All they wanted was for me to name my husband. I think that they thought that that I probably was, you know, enough of a careerist or was so passionate about acting that I would turn in my own husband. I mean, you know, I don’t, I don’t know, you know the thinking was so Alice in Wonderland for me. I mean it was like going into, into this, you know, place with a white queen was saying off with their heads. It was so bizarre. And I told I told the lawyer I said, you know, if I did that I would have to be committed. I would be have to be put in an insane asylum. Because I couldn’t live with myself for the rest of my life. So is that the choice that they’re giving me? I mean, to say his name or go into an asylum. I mean, why would I do that? I don’t care that much about acting that I would compromise my whole life. And also it was the only thing that they had from me, was that I was married to a man who had been named by somebody out in Hollywood. That’s all. Only one other person named him and they wanted me to do it. It was, you know, it was so bizarre. Arnie died when he was 52 years old from a heart attack. And, and I might, you know, add that in the same way as Bromberg had died because of the Un-American Activities Committee. I certainly, you know, feel that that Arnie had suffered that way also. That the whole, you know, pressure and persecution and, and endless, uh. Well in ’64, in ’64 I was still asked to name my husband who by that time had died.
Arthur Miller: The Crucible is a play that grew out of the ’50s. It grew out of the wild so often uncontrolled accusations that were flying around and ruined a lot of people’s lives. I found a parallel in the terrible witch hunt which killed 19 people in Salem Massachusetts 1692. McCarthy’s motives were purely he wanted to be powerful. He had his, I think at certain point wanted to be president the United States and he had enough people running with him to make this a distinct possibility from time to time. But the un-American committee was a committee composed of independent people with various viewpoints. Some of them were very genuinely anxious about communist infiltration in the country. By the time two or three years have gone by it was obvious that they were simply using the subpoena power to squelch any liberal or left wing opinion in the country. By the time I got involved with it, it was really toward the last part of its power. Just to briefly and quickly give you an idea, I was offered a deal. I wouldn’t have to testify at all or come at all if the chairman of the Committee, Congressman Wallers from Pennsylvania, could be given, allowed to take a photograph with Marilyn Monroe who as I was just about to marry. Better call off the whole thing. Give us a quick idea of what their motives were. As soon as they made an accusation they got in the paper. And most of the time they couldn’t get in the paper. The methodology of the 17th century prosecution was not different in any significant way from that of the nineteen fifties in Washington. Same thing although people used to complain that there were no witches of course but they were communists. Well the answer to that is if you had stood up in Salem and 6092 and said there were no witches you’d hang. The Bible says there are witches. Saul said Thou shalt not suffer a witch to live. Was he lying? You would have to confound the Christian Bible. The Hebrew Bible. That could mean your life. A lot of teachers here and abroad regarded it as a kind of model for their situation in various societies. They are on trial half the time. They are being accused of teaching one or another subject which they allegedly shouldn’t be, and they were exposed to fanaticism in the society, and they used the play a lot, I think, to express their feelings in this regard. But there’s also that fact that, that various times in states of the United States and abroad, there is terrific repression sometimes by an outright dictatorship, sometimes simply by social habit, and people want to express their resistance to it.
Anna Drezen: For this episode of the American Masters podcast we offer special thanks to filmmaker Michael Epstein for his 2003 interviews with Madeleine Sherwood and Lee Grant. From American Masters: Arthur Miller, Elia Kazan and the Blacklist: None Without Sin. Also thanks to Michael Kantor for his interview with Arthur Miller, conducted for EGG, the Arts Show in 1998. I’m your host, Anna Drezen, and if you’re listening to this, um, you’re a witch, and we’re going to find you. Yeah, just know that.