The play was first performed in 1953 at the time of Senator Joseph McCarthy’s witch hunts against supposed communists in America. Miller, who had attracted the senator’s attention, devised the play as a way of highlighting the injustice that was going on.The play charts what happened in Salem in Massachusetts in the 1690s, when there were trials involving hundreds of people accused of being witches. Many were executed having been processed through the courts.
In, the Crucible, a girl seeking revenge manages to manipulate a situation where by whole numbers of innocent people are named as being witches and in league with the devil.These people are brought before courts, with many hanged on little if any evidence. The idea of an evil being out there that threatens all God fearing people was enough to bring about this hysteria - much injustice resulted. It only came to an end when enough people stood up and said no more...as did McCarthyism.
The Old Vic production comes at a timely moment as the government seeks to frighten the population with talk of terrorists threats. The scare being created is then used to bring in draconian measures that take away people’s most basic liberties on the back of a claim that it is the only way to ensure safety.
The threat is a perceived one rarely quantified – a bit like the witches. The result over recent years has been a number of individuals being detained for years on end, unaware of what they are accused of or their accusers.
They are kept out of the court system, in a state of almost perpetual limbo. The situation is perpetuated and justified by periodically stoking up a threat in the public mind.
Miller’s play - brilliantly performed by an Old Vic cast led by the excellent Richard Armitage - has many parallels with the present day. Frightening people enough, so that they are prepared to accept draconian action. What next – a helping of Franz Kafka’s the Trial?