In the early 1950s, at the height of the Cold War, the United States was in the throes of the paranoid, hysterical, communist witch-hunt we have come to call McCarthyism, named for the particularly zealous senator, Joseph McCarthy, who spurred the movement on. Among the most frequent targets of congressional, FBI, and other investigations were artists and academics. It is no surprise, therefore, that playwright Arthur Miller and a composer on the faculty of Florida State University, Carlisle Floyd, were especially attentive to this situation. From 1952 to 1954, both men wrote works denouncing the Red Scare: Miller’s play, The Crucible (which composer Robert Ward would transform into an opera in 1961), and Floyd’s opera to his own libretto, Susannah. Neither story, though, is actually about Cold War America. Both works look back to older myths and other aspects of American history and society as the sources for their stories, and these stories contain striking similarities. This article will examine how these myths portray American culture, and how these works function as a denunciation of McCarthyism and of religious hypocrisy in general, by looking at both the libretto and some musical elements which convey the story.
For the source of his story, Arthur Miller looked back to the Salem witch trials of 1692. While not fictional, these events have been mythified in the American consciousness, representing the dark side of the nation’s Puritan ancestors, the consequences of extreme religious intolerance, and backward, pre-modern ways. Miller told a fictionalized version of this event based on historical research. For those readers not familiar with the story, in the small Puritan town of Salem, Massachusetts, 19 men and women (and two dogs) were convicted of and hanged for witchcraft in 1692. The “evidence” used to convict them was known as “spectral evidence,” in other words, an accuser merely had to contend that the accused sent his or her spirit to torment the victim. Suspicion itself and fantasy became the evidence in this theocracy.
Miller kept many, but not all, of the real-life characters, though he made some practical changes to simplify the story, and he interpreted and developed the motivations behind the accusations of witchcraft and different people’s choices to confess, and thereby be pardoned, or to maintain their innocence, and thereby be sentenced to death. Miller wrote his play in 1952, and it was first performed in January, 1953.
Later that same year, Carlisle Floyd began composing the opera Susannah to a libretto he wrote himself. The story is a loose adaptation of the biblical tale of Susanna and the Elders, which figures in the Jewish and Catholic Bibles in the Book of Daniel, but is regarded by Protestants (including Floyd, the son of a Methodist minister) as Apocrypha. Studying Floyd’s adaptation of the story is somewhat problematical, as Floyd did not actually read the text until after he had written his opera, and he freely adapted the story, changing its original happy ending (which revealed Daniel as a prophet and emphasized the importance of faith) to a tragedy of alienation and the loss of innocence. The choice of the story of Susanna and the Elders was suggested to Floyd by a friend. The composer was not, therefore, initially attracted to it by background knowledge or a long-term familiarity. Instead, the story simply spoke to him as drama that contained all the right elements for a successful opera. In addition, Floyd saw in the tale of a woman falsely and viciously accused of a crime in a primitive theocratic society a parallel to the fear engendered in America by McCarthyism. Floyd thus retained aspects of the original plot, but adapted them to a contemporary isolated town in the Appalachian Mountains of Tennessee, removed the divine intervention which was at the biblical story’s heart, and replaced it with human weakness and tragedy.
It would be useful at this point to look at the original story and what Floyd knew of it when he wrote the libretto. In the biblical version of the story, Susanna is a beautiful, Hebrew wife living in Babylon. Two elders of the community, who serve as its judges, begin to desire Susanna, and they become obsessed with her and lose sight of God and justice. One day, as they are spying on Susanna in her garden, she sends her servants away so she can bathe. The men take this opportunity to attempt to blackmail her, saying that if she will not sleep with them, they will condemn her to death, claiming that they caught her committing adultery in the garden with an unknown young man. Susanna states that she would rather be true to God’s law, and die innocent, than commit a sin. The judges testify against her, and she is sentenced to death. Susanna prays, telling God that she is innocent. Her prayer is answered. As the community is proceeding to the site where the execution will take place, God moves Daniel the prophet, at this point a young child, to speak out against this injustice, demanding an investigation. At Daniel’s instruction, the two men are separated, and in front of the townspeople, Daniel asks each man individually under what sort of tree he saw the illicit lovers. As the men contradict each other, their lie is revealed, Susanna is exonerated (to the joy of the community), and the dishonest judges are executed instead, in keeping with the Law of Moses.
In 1953, a writer friend of Floyd’s suggested that the composer write an opera based on the story of Susanna, for which the friend had already developed a basic plot. Here is what Floyd said he knew of the story when he began working on it: “the innocent and virtuous Susanna’s being spied upon while bathing by lustful Elders who, when she refuses their advances, falsely accuse her of being an adulteress.” His friend then suggested “departing from the Apocryphal version, Susanna, after the Elders had stirred up the community against her, would dispatch them with derisive laughter at the final curtain.”
This is, indeed, the general outline of Floyd’s story, however there are some significant changes. Floyd saw in the character of Susanna(h) the archetype of a victim of McCarthyism. Floyd has said of McCarthyism, and the fear it created, that it “permeated everything at that time […] It took all kinds of forms: suspicion, and the idea that accusation was all that was needed as proof of guilt. It terrified and enraged me.” Floyd was also drawn to the fact that Susannah withstood the pressure of accusation, despite the difficulties and risks of doing so, and thereby triumphed, in a way, alone against her community, which was quick to condemn her without evidence.
This reasoning is quite similar to that of Miller. Like Floyd, Miller also wished to explore the nature of the personalities of those who refused to admit to something they had not done, when confessing would have saved their lives. He also saw this refusal to lie as heroic, demonstrating strength of character in being true to oneself against terrible pressure. For instance, Miller wrote in his essays: “The sense of a terrible marvel again; that people could have such a belief in themselves and in the rightness of their consciences as to give their lives rather than say what they thought was false. Or, perhaps, they only feared Hell so much? Yet, Rebecca said, and it is written in the record, ‘I cannot belie myself.’ And she knew it would kill her. They knew who they were.” (29-30)
Beyond these similarities in the authors’ choices of protagonist, there are many other parallels in the ways that both sets of stories and myths denounce McCarthyism. Both Miller’s and Floyd’s stories are set among fanatical sects in remote, backward areas that are surrounded by wilderness. These communities are characterized by harsh living conditions and a lack of entertainment. Both communities are also sexually and ideologically repressive and intolerant, and this repressed sexuality plays a central role in both works. Sexuality is, of course, a key element in the original Biblical version of Susanna and the Elders, but Miller added it to the story of Salem, based on his own interpretations. He suspected that John Proctor and Abigail Williams had had an affair. He places this affair at the heart of the play’s drama, and also adds an erotic dimension to the young girls’ dancing in the woods that sets off the first accusations of mischief and witchcraft. Beyond logical and theatrical reasons for choosing to have sexuality play such an important role in both stories (it does, after all, make for more exciting theatre), the relationship of sexuality to the devil in the fundamentalist religions depicted also provides an allegory of McCarthyism. As Puritans and the Christians of Floyd’s story saw sexuality (especially women’s sexuality) as frightening and demonic, as it is both enticing and cause for damnation, 1950s America also saw communism as allied both with sexual deviancy and with the devil. As Miller has written elsewhere, “Witch hunts are always spooked by women’s horrifying sexuality awakened by the superstud Devil.”
In both Miller’s Salem and Floyd’s New Hope Valley, desire or lust in itself already constitutes a sin, much as “communists” in the 1950s were arrested not for having committed dangerous or illegal acts, but merely for having communist “thoughts.” And so it is that, in order to deny their own guilty feelings, the girls who danced in the woods and practiced voodoo in Miller’s Salem, and the Elders who coveted Susannah accused others of the crimes they themselves had in fact committed. There is, again, an unmistakable parallel with the former communists who denounced others as being more deeply implicated in communism in order to obtain absolution for themselves. This transference of guilt in both stories also serves as a means of denouncing the hypocrisy of repression in general and of McCarthyism in particular.
Furthermore, for both Susannah and those accused of witchcraft, to deny the validity of the accusation is to deny authority and the community’s entire belief system, which was also the case with accusations of communism in the 1950s. In the theocratic societies depicted, atheism would have been the ultimate rejection of the accepted world view and was thus seen as diabolical (in fact, the fight against witchcraft was also a fight against atheism, as the existence of witchcraft was seen as proof of the Puritans’ cosmology). Similarly, in the rhetoric of the Cold War, communism was a “diabolical conspiracy” which amounted to “denial of God.”
Finally, the religious parallel takes on what is perhaps its greatest significance in that in Salem, as in New Hope Valley, as before the House Un-American Activities Committee, public confession was the only means of obtaining forgiveness. As Miller scholar Christopher Bigsby has said, HUAC “offered what religion offers: the opportunity for confession and the grace of redemption.” Miller himself stated that in the mid-twentieth century, “the rituals of guilt and confession followed all the forms of a religious inquisition.” Indeed, for admitting to communist ties in 1950s America gave absolution; those who went to jail were those who would not repent. The same was true in Salem – people were not hanged because they were witches, but because they refused to repent of the sin of witchcraft. In Floyd’s fundamentalist community, the highlight of the week-long revival is the prayer meeting which features public confessions. Both Miller (and later Ward, in the opera version of The Crucible) and Floyd capture the voyeuristic, dramatic, trance-like, orgiastic, and overall sinister flavor of these confessions. In both Ward’s and Floyd’s operas – as in Miller’s play – the chorus exerts pressure to confess on Mary Warren and Susannah, respectively, with a leader (Abby and Blitch) standing out from the chorus and being accompanied by it. In both cases, the music as well as the text are eerie. In Miller’s text, Abigail accuses Mary Warren of witchcraft, pretending to see a bird-spirit that Mary has sent to attack Abby. As Mary protests, Abby, followed by the other girls, mimic her every word and gesture, as if under her spell, until the girl breaks under the pressure. Ward develops this idea musically, and he writes a richly textured scene, in which the girls’ interaction overlaps with the interjections of the judges and of John Proctor, who tries to make everyone see reason. Floyd’s musical structure is simpler, but both works use similar techniques to build to the dramatic climax of the scene: the vocal tessituras rise, both progress from piano to forte, and Floyd further accelerates the tempo. Interestingly, both scenes are in ternary time (6/8 for Floyd, 12/8 for Ward), which gives the music the feel of a waltz — lilting, dancing, hypnotic — while helping to drive the music (and the scene) forward by creating a sense of movement below the surface tempo. Floyd also mounts the tension through an increasing use of ostinato, dissonance, and jarring brass.
It is also worth noting that Floyd makes the sexual parallel of the public confession explicit in his stage directions. He writes: “Blitch fixes his gaze upon Susannah. Slowly into his eyes and face comes an expression of intense desire bordering on lust. His voice also reflects what is happening inside him: instead of its heretofore peremptory and commanding quality, it now possesses a distinctly cajoling, almost caressing sound.” Then, on the verge of confession, a “triumphant smile” from Blitch breaks Susannah’s trance and she runs from the church, screaming “no,” the stage direction says: “Blitch’s initial reaction is one of shock. He immediately regains control of himself, however, and the situation. Raising his hand and with a new note of anger, born of frustration, in his voice, he pronounces the benediction.” Though Floyd does not specify what type of frustration Blitch experiences, it finds its outlet in the next scene, where he seduces the exhausted and vulnerable Susannah.
Thus Floyd and Miller both represent similar aspects of American society which serve to condemn McCarthyism through several parallel processes. Much of the strength of each work’s discourse comes from its anchoring in symbol and myth. Floyd somewhat indirectly reaches back to the Old Testament, to a story that has filtered down through the ages (most notably as a frequent subject for paintings). Miller reaches to the early American past. While the events that took place in Salem in 1692 are historical, and not mythical, in nature, one might argue that they form part of the national consciousness, and that Miller himself has contributed to anchoring this story in the national mythology. Unlike many other national myths, this is one of the few that highlight a negative aspect of American character — the same traits that Floyd brings out. While both Miller’s and Floyd’s stories are good theater, with strong characters and plots that can be read differently throughout time (hence their staying power), both also act as parables and turn McCarthyism into a parable. Both explicitly show the United States’ theocratic roots, and both imply that the intolerant, backward forces that have been with Americans since early European colonization and that continue to thrive in certain regions of the US are, in fact, characteristic of the national temperament, at least at the particular historic moment relating to McCarthyism. In addition, these stories show the majority of Americans as being conformist in the extreme, closed-minded, obsessed with sin and purity (whether sexual, spiritual, religious or political), which thus makes them prone to becoming voyeuristic hypocrites, and as a result, in order to protect their own self-image and sense of righteousness, quick to transfer blame to others. In both stories, however, the hero — an archetype of strength and common sense — stands up for truth and integrity and opposes the ruling mob, even at great personal cost. Beyond the obvious, timely denunciation of McCarthyism, these works also represent contributions to the body of national literature, such as Hawthorne’s The Scarlet Letter, which deals with similar themes. Thus transposed on several levels, older myths of intolerance, power, conformity and individual opposition, are integrated into the American national mythology, serving as a warning, a lesson, and an exhortation to fight against the dark side of the American experience.
- See Arthur Miller, “Why I wrote The Crucible,” The Observer, 2 Feb. 1997, 3, regarding parallels in the use of “spectral evidence” in Salem and in McCarthyist accusations.
- Carlisle Floyd, “Recalling Susannah’s Beginnings,” Liner notes, Susannah, by Carlisle Floyd, Virgin Classics, 1994, 13-14.
- Quoted in Jonathan Abarbanel, “Carlisle Floyd’s Susannah,” Liner notes, Susannah, op. cit., 9.
- See, for example, Brenda Murphy, Congressional Theater: Dramatizing McCarthyism on Stage, Film, and Television, Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1999, 48.
- Arthur Miller, “Comment: Behind the Lewinsky affair, some may discern the work of the Devil,” The Guardian, 16 Oct. 1998, 20.
- See Michael Billington, “After its first performance, The Crucible was rubbished. So why is it now regarded as one of the century’s greatest plays?”, The Guardian, 28 Feb. 1997, 4, regarding the transference of guilt in The Crucible.
- Arthur Miller, “Why I wrote The Crucible,” The Observer, 2 Feb. 1997, 3.
- Perry Miller, The New England Mind: From Colony to Province, Boston: Beacon, 1953, 180.
- Christopher Bigsby, Introduction to The Crucible, by Arthur Miller, New York: Penguin Books, 1952; 1995, xi.
- Ibid., xii.
- Quoted in Stephen J. Whitfield, The Culture of the Cold War, 2nd ed., Baltimore; London: Johns Hopkins UP, 1991; 1996, 118.
- ABARBANEL Jonathan, “Carlisle Floyd’s Susannah: an Introduction”, Liner notes, Susannah, by Carlisle Floyd, Virgin Classics, 1994, 8-13.
- BIGSBY Christopher, Introduction to The Crucible, by Arthur Miller, vii-xxv.
- BILLINGTON Michael, “After its first performance, The Crucible was rubbished. So why is it now regarded as one of the century’s greatest plays?” The Guardian, 28 Feb. 1997, 4.
- EDMUNDS June, Generations, Culture and Society, Buckingham; Philadelphia: Open UP, 2002.
- FLOYD Carlisle, “Recalling Susannah’s Beginnings”, Liner notes, Susannah, by Carlisle Floyd, Virgin Classics, 1994, 13-15.
- MILLER Arthur, “Comment: Behind the Lewinsky affair, some may discern the work of the Devil”, The Guardian, 16 Oct. 1998, 20.
—–, The Crucible, New York: Penguin Books, 1952; 1995.
—–, “Why I wrote The Crucible”, The Observer, 2 Feb. 1997, 3.
- MILLER Perry, The New England Mind: From Colony to Province, Boston: Beacon, 1953.
- MURPHY Brenda, Congressional Theater: Dramatizing McCarthyism on Stage, Film, and Television, Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1999.
- WHITFIELD Stephen J., The Culture of the Cold War, 2nd ed., Baltimore; London: Johns Hopkins UP, 1991; 1996.
Originally published by Revue LISA/LISA e-journal VI-n°2, (2008, 140-148), DOI:10.4000/lisa.1140, under the terms of a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives 4.0 International license.