Arthur Miller and the HUAC investigations

Kevin Brianton

Senior Lecturer, La Trobe University

Arthur Miller with Marilyn Monroe. Miller defined the word witch hunt with his play The Crucible released in 1953.
Image courtesy of eMoviePoster.

Marilyn Monroe was never considered political, yet her image would be entwined with the acclaimed playwright Arthur Miller. A year before DiMaggio and Monroe, began their ill-fated marriage, on January 22, 1953 the play The Crucible held its premiere at the Martin Beck Theatre in New York. It was a groundbreaking play and it defined the HUAC investigations as a witch hunt and cemented the reputation of Miller, who had been acclaimed for Death of A Salesman in 1949, when he had won the Pulitzer prize for drama. The Crucible, represents the paranoia about communism that pervaded America in the 1950s. There are clear and obvious parallels between the House Committee on Un-American Activities investigation rooting out of real and suspected communists and the seventeenth-century witch-hunt mania that hit Salem. Clearly, the necessity to “name names” was another link between the two periods. Miller wrote in his autobiography that the main point of the hearings was to have the accused make a public confession, to damn their confederates as well as the Devil.  The accused would then guarantee their new allegiance by breaking ‘disgusting old vows’ in public.[i]  The Crucible remains one of Miller’s most acclaimed plays and its continued revivals have painted an indelible image of the ‘witch-hunt’ as part of the hysteria of the McCarthyite period. As recently as 2015, the Melbourne Theatre Company was reviving the play to great popular and critical success. It is played all over the world to this day.


Miller certainly did not invent the term witch hunt. From at least the 1930s, the term witch-hunt has been used allegorically to describe investigations by governments to seek out and expose perceived and real political enemies, fostering a degree of social fear. One of the first to use it in terms of Hollywood in the Red Scare period was actually an arch-conservative in Cecil B. DeMille. After the 1947 HUAC hearings, the media reported that: “DeMille said he thought Reds were neither more or less active in Hollywood than in other major American cities … ‘Hollywood is a convenient target for so-called witch hunters … I sometimes think these hunters are actually hunting headlines while the real witch sits in her little red tent and laughs at them.’”


The playwright Arthur Miller handled the HUAC investigations in a far different way to Kazan.  He was called long after the early investigations and he believed that his marriage to Hollywood’s most popular actress Marilyn Monroe helped spark the interest of the HUAC investigators.  At his hearing, Miller talked quite openly about himself and his political beliefs.  He had never been a member of the communist party, but had been active in left circles for many years.  Miller refused to name any other person and his approach earned him a contempt citation from Congress.  The charge was later quashed by the Circuit Court of Appeals in 1958.

Miller made several artistic responses to the HUAC investigations through his plays A View From the Bridge (1955) and The Crucible (1953).  A View From the Bridge cannot be considered to be a direct rebuttal of On the Waterfront, but there are strong similarities.  In the play, a longshoreman informed immigration authorities of wife’s two relatives who were illegal immigrants.  His actions were not terribly evil, but he was destroyed by them nonetheless.

The Crucible was a powerful play which linked the HUAC investigations to the Salem witch-hunts.  Miller wrote in his autobiography that the main point of the hearings was to have the accused make a public confession, to damn their confederates as well as the Devil.  The accused would then guarantee their new allegiance by breaking ‘disgusting old vows’ in public.[1]  The Crucible remains one of Miller’s most acclaimed plays and its continued revivals have painted an indelible image of the ‘witch-hunt’ as part of the hysteria of the McCarthyite period.[2]


[1] Miller, Timebends, p. 331.

[2] As recently as June 2016, the Melbourne Theatre Company was reviving the play to great popular and critical success.  The play was 48 years old.

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