Elia Kazan and Arthur Miller: On the Waterfront and The Crucible Essay

Elia Kazan and Arthur Miller: On the Waterfront and The Crucible Essay

During the McCarthy era of the 1950s, countless individuals, some innocent and some guilty, were subjected to a wide range of injustices and punishments, ranging from ridicule in society to the loss of their very lives (Peters). Two dramatic works, the play “The Crucible” by playwright Arthur Miller and “On the Waterfront”, a film directed by Elia Kazan can both be seen as parables that are illustrative of the events of the McCarthy Era itself. The works have both similarities and differences that capture the conscience and imagination of the people who respectively read or view the two works. Similarly, both works deal with power, corruption, executions, fear, hearings/trials and the like. As a personal aside, both works have their relative strengths and powers, each revealing different facets of McCarthyism. In this essay, both works will be compared and contrasted to ultimately show that both works, in their own unique ways, are strong and convincing as parable.

First, some insight into the McCarthy Era. This was a time, in 1950s America, when many people-both guilty and innocent-were accused of communist associations with scant evidence, based in large part to the fear and hysteria that communism and Soviet espionage spread across the nation. This fear was brought about by Senator Joseph McCarthy when he began a campaign of accusing individuals of affiliation with the American Communist Party. Because of McCarthy’s role as a powerful United States Senator, he had the connections and leverage to fabricate charges against individuals without the usual benefits of due process of law and the presentation of solid evidence and witnesses against them. Prominent examples of this which are still debated as valid convictions are those of Alger Hiss and Julius and Ethel Rosenberg, all of whom were convicted of Communist subversion and espionage against the United States of America. In the case of the Rosenberg’s, both husband and wife were executed for their crimes, and Hiss spent the rest of his life trying to overcome the stigma of his conviction.

For playwright Arthur Miller and director Elia Kazan, their experiences and reactions to the phenomenon of McCarthyism can be seen in their respective works of stage drama and film. As was stated earlier, in a personal expression of opinion, both works are examples of parable of McCarthyism because of the fact that in both the play and the film, the main characters, the environment in which they are placed and the situations/trials they endure are closely parallel to the events of 1950s America. As an example, “On the Waterfront” main character Terry Malloy, as a result of the circumstances in which he was placed, was forced to inform on a man with the ironic name of Johnny Friendly, the corrupt local organized labor leader, resulting in Friendly’s being brought before a congressional committee. In the time before Friendly’s indictment, he had committed a range of crimes, including the murder of Malloy’s brother. In the film when Malloy, in confronting Friendly after informing on him, said “I’m glad what I done to you”, he was expressing both relief for having unburdened his conscience and effectively doing the right thing in avenging his brother’s death in a legal and civilized way. This single, pivotal event from the film is in direct parallel to the McCarthy era’s wide range of informers from many different walks of life who either did the proper patriotic chore by telling authorities about communists in their midst, or unjustly ruined the lives of innocent people by fabricating evidence about these individuals and incorrectly informing on them. Both “On the Waterfront” and McCarthy era America contained individuals who were pure of heart and interested in true justice, as well as self-serving, brutal individuals who thought nothing of breaking the law and destroying others to the point of death in the gaining of personal advancement of one sort or another.

For Elia Kazan, the director of “On the Waterfront”, his personal experiences and sentiments were reflected in the parables portrayed in the film. Kazan himself was both angered and saddened by the effect that the American Communist Party was having on the American film industry; because of this anger and disappointment, Kazan testified before Senator McCarthy’s committee, naming names and giving details of people he knew were affiliated with the communist party. In fairness to Kazan, his testimony was given under pressure- as a Turkish immigrant, he was under suspicion himself, and if he had not volunteered what he knew, he himself would have very likely been brought up on trumped-up charges, and possibly executed like the tragic Rosenberg’s were (Vanmeenen).

An additional facet of “On the Waterfront” worth discussing is the issue of corruption; more precisely, the use of intimidation by some characters in the film at the hands of others, much like the intimidation used by McCarthy and his cohorts in the real-world environment of the 1950s. Just like the McCarthy Committee, the fictional Johnny Friendly in Kazan’s film used whatever means he had to in order to advance his own interests and keep his subordinates under control so that they would do exactly what he wished of them (Neve). The dock workers in Kazan’s film, relying on Friendly for the ability to earn a living and feed their families, are symbolic of the thousands of American citizens who cowered under the bright lights of the McCarthy hearings, fearing that at the very least, their ability to earn money and take care of themselves and their families would be stripped away and at worst, they would in fact be killed all of which without the slightest amount of solid evidence.

For Arthur Miller, his renowned play “The Crucible” is likewise an effective parable of the McCarthy era, showing once again how false accusations, hysteria, and hatred can spread like wildfire across a small town or a huge nation. It has been said that Miller wrote “The Crucible” to both illustrate and critique the extremes and evils of McCarthyism, and to show how hysteria can destroy a community. As an example, in the play, after the entire town became trapped in allegations of witchcraft, Mary Warren, one of the main characters said “the whole country’s talking witchcraft!” (Miller, p. 17). These accusations began as a group of teenage girls, after being caught dancing (which was strictly forbidden in colonial New England), made the suggestion that their behavior was induced by witchcraft, which was forced upon them by others in the community. This type of false informing in order to save one’s self from punishment is exactly the type of thing which occurred in 1950s America. The fallout from such false accusations is almost impossible to fully measure at this late date, but did in fact result in many people being denied the ability to earn a living in their given professions, being thrown in prison, and in some cases, being executed.

Quite literally as well, many felt in the 1950s that Joseph McCarthy was in fact conducting its own sort of witch hunt, equating people accused of being communists with witches or demons, just like the situation of the Salem witch trials, which formed the backbone of “The Crucible” plot and action. Also, in this play as in “On the Waterfront”, abuse of power and the ensuing corruption was alive and well. A quote from “The Crucible” makes this point quite well: “A person is either with the court or he must be counted against it-there be no road in between” (Miller, p.87). These words were directly from the lips of Judge Danforth, another main character in the play. Like McCarthy, it would seem that Danforth became so filled with the idea of power and the retention of it that the facts and the truth often slipped into the background for the sake of personal enrichment. Danforth condemned countless people to death under the slim allegation that they were practicing witchcraft and were in fact witches and McCarthy branded many as communists and spies. The common theme to be realized is that in both cases, fiction and real life, people were accused of crimes that by all appearances, they did not commit.

There is also a modern-day parallel to McCarthy, Miller and Kazan that can be seen in the fallout from the tragic events of September 11, 2001. While certainly there have been many individuals fairly tried and convicted of terrorist acts in the post- 9/11 world, some were questionable, as evidenced by the many individuals who are still being held in federal prisons without due process of law, under the premise of protecting national security (Peters).

In conclusion, both “The Crucible” and “On the Waterfront” showed a strong parable of the McCarthy era in America, as both works illustrate injustice and oppression. Likewise, for Arthur Miller and Elia Kazan, their art served as a means for them to express their fear and outrage for what was happening in America in the form of the McCarthy hearings and their results. Therefore, finally, what we see in these works is art commenting on life.

Works Cited

Miller, Arthur. The Crucible. Penguin, 1995.Print. (p.3-134).

Neve, Brian. “On the Waterfront.” History Today June 1995: 19+.

Peters, Charles. “McCarthyism: Myth and Reality.” Washington Monthly May 2006: 8.

Vanmeenen, Karen. “Elia Kazan, 1909-2003.” Afterimage 31.3 (2003): 2.

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