Arthur Miller on trial

Arthur Miller wrote 'The Crucible' in response to the McCarthy hearings of the Fifties. As the play is revived, David Thacker, who worked closely with the late playwright, introduces an extract from Miller's grilling at the hands of Congress
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The Independent Culture

The first Miller play I directed was The Crucible in 1986; the last play he sent me to read was Resurrection Blues. Revivals of both open this week. In Remembering Arthur Miller (edited by Christopher Bigsby), I wrote that Miller was "a moral and spiritual touchstone for me, a source of wisdom, a purveyor of sanity, a beacon of truth, a fount of hope, a lover of humanity".

A year after his death, I was reflecting again on the fact that there is no politician to whom one would look for guidance on any political or moral issue. Politicians have invented the euphemism "spin" for "lie", and our leaders continue to "deny" the reasons for the current war against Iraq and the torture of soldiers and civilians in our name. We're struggling to find meaning in all the chaos and contradictions that arise over the right to freedom of expression and the right of people to have their own spiritual and cultural identity respected.

Miller will be missed, but a glance at the films and plays produced this past year (and attracting awards) suggests that writers and artists are continuing "to uphold liberty and to speak". It is to artists that we must look for insights in a such a world.

Recently, I found myself reading transcripts of Miller's testimony when he was summoned to appear before the House Un-American Activities Committee, almost exactly 50 years ago. Miller believed productions of The Crucible often took place in countries where freedoms were under threat. It is worth reminding ourselves, in these adapted transcripts, of the climate that led to the writing of The Crucible.

'The Crucible', RSC, Stratford-upon-Avon (0870 609 1110), to 18 March; 'Resurrection Blues', Old Vic, London SE1 (0870 060 6628), to 22 April

Committee member Gordon H Scherer: Let us go into literature. Let me ask you, do you believe that today a Communist who is a poet should have the right to advocate the overthrow of this Government by force and violence in his literature?

Arthur Miller: I tell you frankly, sir, I think if you are talking about a poem I would say that a man should have the right to write a poem just about anything.

Scherer: All right.

Member Donald L Jackson: I understand your position is that freedom in literature is absolute?

Miller: Well, I recognise that these things, sir, are not; the absolutes are not absolute.

Jackson: My interpretation [of that] is that it is absolute that a writer must have, in order to express his heart, absolute freedom of action?

Miller: That would be the most desirable state of affairs, yes... My point is simple. I think, once you start to cut away, there is a certain common sense in mankind that makes these limits automatic. There are risks which are balanced. The Constitution is full of those risks. We have rights, which, if they are violated, are rather used in an irresponsible way, can do damage. Yet they are there and the common sense of the people of the United States has kept this in a balance...

Scherer: Do you consider those things that you have written in The New Masses as an exercise of your literary rights?

Miller: Sir, I never advocated the overthrow of the United States Government. I want that perfectly clear.

Scherer: I did not say you did. I want to get what you consider literature.

Miller: I didn't advocate that. I wouldn't call it especially an exercise in freedom. It was simply an effusion of mind...

Scherer: Then you believe we should allow the Communists to start actual violence in the overthrow of this Government before they are prosecuted?

Miller: No, sir, you are importing... You fail to draw a line between advocacy and essence. Our law is based upon acts, not thought. How do we know? Anybody in this room might have thoughts of various kinds that could be prosecuted if they were carried into action, but that is an entirely different story.

Member Bernard W Kearney: You are putting the artist and literature in a preferred class.

Miller: I thought we were going to get to this and it places me in a slightly impossible position. I would be lying if I said I didn't think the artist was, to a certain degree, in a special class.

Scherer: He has special rights?

Miller: I am not speaking of rights... The artist is inclined to use certain rights more than other people because of the nature of his work. Most of us may have an opinion. We may have a view of life. That is the artist's line of work.

Kearney: In other words, your thought is that the artist lives in a different world from anyone else.

Miller: No, he doesn't, but there is a conflict I admit. I think there is an old conflict that goes back to Socrates between the man who is involved with ideal things and the man who has the terrible responsibility of keeping things going, protecting the state.


Member Richard Arens: Now, your application for a passport pending in the Department of State is for the purpose of travelling to England, is that correct?

Miller: To England, yes.

Arens: What is the objective?

Miller: I have a production in the talking stage in England of A View from the Bridge, and I will be there to be with the woman who will then be my wife.

Arens: Have you had any difficulty in connection with your play A View from the Bridge in its presentation in England?

Miller: It has not got that far. I have had the censor in England giving us a little trouble, yes, but that is general. A lot of American plays have that difficulty...

Arens: Do you know or have you known a person by the name of Arnaud D'Usseau?

Miller: I have met him.

Arens: What has been the nature of your activity in connection with Arnaud D'Usseau?

Miller: Just what is the point?

Arens: Have you been in any Communist Party session with Arnaud D'Usseau?

Miller: I was present at meetings of Communist Party writers in 1947, about five or six meetings.

Arens: Where were those meetings held?

Miller: They were held in someone's apartment. I don't know whose it was...

Arens: Was anyone there who, to your knowledge, was not a Communist?

Miller: I wouldn't know that.

Arens: Have you ever made application for membership in the Communist Party?

Miller: In 1939 I believe it was, or in 1940, I went to attend a Marxist study course in my neighbourhood in Brooklyn. I signed some form or another.

Arens: That was an application for membership in the Communist Party, was it not?

Miller: I would not say that. I am here to tell you what I know.

Arens: Tell us what you know.

Miller: This is now 16 years ago. I don't recall. If I could, I would tell you the exact nature of that application. I understood that this was to be, as I have said, a study course. I was there for about three or four times perhaps. It was of no interest to me and I didn't return...

Arens: Tell us, if you please, sir, about these meetings with Communist Party writers you said you attended in New York City.

Miller: I was by then a well-known writer. I attended these meetings in order to locate my ideas in relation to Marxism because I had been assailed for years by all kinds of interpretations of what Communism was, what Marxism was, and I went there to discover where I stood finally and completely, and I listened and said very little, I think.

Arens: ... What occasioned your presence? Who invited you there?

Miller: I couldn't tell you. I don't know.

Arens: Who was there when you walked into the room?

Miller: Mr Chairman, I understand the philosophy behind this question and I want you to understand mine. When I say this I want you to understand that I am not protecting the Communists or the Communist Party. I am trying to and I will protect my sense of myself. I could not use the name of another person and bring trouble on him. These were writers, poets, as far as I could see... I asked you not to ask me that question.

(Confers with his counsel)

I will tell you anything about myself, as I have.

Arens: These were Communist Party meetings?

Miller: I will be perfectly frank with you in anything relating to my activities. I take the responsibility for everything I have done, but I cannot take responsibility for another human being.

Arens: This record shows that these were Communist Party meetings?

(Confers with his counsel)

Arens: Is that correct?

Miller: I understood them to be Communist writers who met regularly.

Arens: Mr Chairman, I respectfully suggest that the witness be ordered and directed to answer the question as to who it was that he saw at these meetings.

Jackson: May I say that moral scruples, however laudable, do not constitute legal reason for refusing to answer the question.

Chairman Francis E Walter: You are directed to answer the question, Mr Miller.

(Confers with his counsel)

Miller: Could I ask you to postpone this question until the testimony is completed and you can gauge for yourself?

Chairman: Of course, you can do that...

Miller: ... to complete this picture, [I] decided in the course of these meetings that I had finally to find out what my views really were in relations to theirs, and I decided I would write a paper in which I would set forth my views on art, on the relation of art to politics, on the relation of artists to politics... I read this paper to the group and I discovered that I had no real basis in common either philosophically or, most important to me, as a dramatist. I can't make it too weighty a thing to tell you that the most important thing to me in the world is my work, and I was resolved that, if I found that I was in fact a Marxist, I would declare it; and that, if I did not, I would say that I was not.

(Miller goes on to talk about 'All My Sons'. He concludes...)

Miller: Had the play opened when it was supposed to... it would have been attacked as an anti-Communist play. The same happened with Death of a Salesman; in New York [it] was condemned by the Communist press.


Scherer: There is a question before the witness; namely, to give the names of those individuals who were present at this meeting of Communist writers... We do not accept your reasons for refusing to answer the question and it is the opinion of the committee that, if you do not answer the question, you are placing yourself in contempt.

(Miller confers with counsel)

Scherer: ... Now, Mr Chairman, I ask that you again direct the witness to answer the question.

(Miller insisted that he had given the answer he felt he must give. Later...)

Member Clyde G Doyle: With your recognised ability... let me ask; why do you not direct some of that magnificent ability to fighting against well-known Communist subversive conspiracies in our country and the world? Why do you not direct your magnificent talents to that, in part?

Miller: I understand what you mean. I think it would be a disaster if the Communist Party ever took over this country. That is an opinion that has come to me out of long thought... I reflect what my heart tells me from the society around me. There is great uncertainty in this country. It is not a Communist idea. Pick up a book review section and you will see everybody selling books on peace of mind because there isn't any...

I believe in democracy, that it is the only way for myself and anybody I care about; it is the only way to live; but my criticism, such as it has been, is not to be confused with a hatred. I love this country, I think, as much as any man, and it is because I see things that I think traduce its values that I speak...

Kearney: Do I get from your answer now that you consider yourself more or less a dupe in joining these Communist organisations?

Miller: I wouldn't say so, because I was an adult. I wasn't a child. I was looking for the world that would be perfect. I think it is necessary that I do that to develop as a writer. I am not ashamed of this. I learnt a great deal.

The House voted 373 to 9 to cite Miller for contempt. He was convicted, fined $500 and given a 30-day suspended jail sentence. He appealed, and on 7 August 1958, won his case.