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Friday, June 8, 2018

June 8, 2018: McCarthyism Contexts: The Crucible and The Front

[On June 9th, 1954 laywer Joseph Welch famously asked Senator Joseph McCarthy, “Have you no sense of decency?” So this week I’ll AmericanStudy a handful of contexts for McCarthyism, leading up to a weekend post on that moment and historical turning points!]
On one historically symbolic and one very literal cultural engagement with McCarthyism.
As I wrote in this post, allegory can be a tough genre for audiences (and all of us) to figure out, or at least an ambiguous and uncertain one; sometimes it’s not even clear whether a text is allegorical at all. But I’m not sure any potentially allegorical work has had a more shared and agreed-upon interpretation than Arthur Miller’s play The Crucible (1953). Miller’s play focuses entirely on its fictionalized depiction of a two-and-a-half-century past historical event, the Salem Witch Trials, with no reference of any kind to contemporary issues. But that hasn’t stopped critics and audiences, from 1953 down to 2018, from reading the play as a clear commentary on the era of McCarthyism and its own versions of witch hunts. Sealing the deal for that interpretation was Miller’s questioning three years later by the House of Representatives’s Committee on Un-American Activities, where he was convicted of contempt of Congress because he refused to name names. The Crucible certainly contributes interesting ideas to our narratives of the Salem Witch Trials, but there’s little doubt that it’s also an allegorical cultural work from and of the McCarthy era.
There weren’t a lot of direct cultural engagements with McCarthyism in its own era, but a couple decades later a film was released that offers a striking such engagement: director Martin Ritt and screenwriter Walter Bernstein’s The Front (1976). Both Bernstein and Ritt had been blacklisted from working in the industry during the McCarthy era, as were multiple actors involved in the production; the film’s closing credits highlight these figures and identify the year that they were added to the blacklist. The movie itself tells the story of a bookie and cashier (played by Woody Allen in a rare serious turn) who finds himself impersonating a screenwriter in order to help a blacklisted friend get his films made; without spoiling all the plot twists, the film portrays with painful accuracy the life-altering and even fatal effects of the blacklist (including a tragic, acclaimed performance from one of those formerly blacklisted actors, the great Zero Mostel [SPOILERS in that clip]), and certainly considers the broader histories and stakes of McCarthyism as well: it ends with one of its characters facing the House Un-American Activites Committee and exiting in handcuffs.
I’m not gonna try in this third and final paragraph to make the case that one of these ways of engaging with a historical moment like McCarthyism is necessarily more productive or meaningful; there is of course a place for both allegory and realism in how we deal with any topic and theme. But I will say that I believe very few 21st century Americans know about the blacklist at all (even in the 1970s Mostel made the case for The Front’s existence by arguing that “a lot of kids don’t even realize that blacklisting ever existed”), and thus that realistic cultural works like The Front can do important work in highlighting such histories. The Crucible’s broader themes of social hysterias and witch hunts, of their origins and effects, of how they can destroy individual lives and entire communities, are of course crucial ones to engage with at any time, and likewise have a great deal to tell us about the McCarthy era in specific terms. So there’s a role for both these kinds of cultural works (among many others) in how we engage with the past—but I would add that it might help to view The Front first, to add to our knowledge and perspective about the moment allegorized so powerfully in Miller’s play.
Special post this weekend,
PS. What do you think?

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