With Banned Books Week at the end of this month, I’m reminded of a little permission slip from my sophomore honors English class.
In late summer 1998 my dad and I went to a new/transfer student orientation night at my new public high school. (Over the summer we had moved to Maryland because of my dad’s job transfer) While speaking with my sophomore honors English teacher, she told us about the novels that we’d be reading during the semester. (We were on a block schedule) One of them was Arthur Miller’s The Crucible. She added that a permission slip would be required to read it because the play was on a list of titles containing objectionable material; this list was maintained by the county board of education.
“What’s this? A Huck Finn deal?” my dad asked. He had read the play for an English class at his Connecticut public high school in the early 1960s. This was a first for me too. The only objection about reading material that I’d heard was why I was reading novels beyond my grade level at my parochial K-8 grade school in South Carolina. My teacher explained that several years earlier, a mother had been convinced there was witchcraft in the play and complained to the county board of education. What a contrast over time.
The late Arthur Miller wrote his third play The Crucible in 1953 against the backdrop of McCarthyism in the US. (In 1956 he was called to testify before the Committee of Un-American Activities and refused to testify against his friends) The play is set in 1692 Salem, MA and is based on the accounts of the infamous witch trials. Several Salem girls accuse some of the town’s citizens of witchcraft to cover up for some mischief. The accusations eventually spread to include prominent citizens. (Just like the McCarthyism period, there were plenty of accusations and hysteria) Bearing false witness against thy neighbor indeed! John Proctor, one of the townsmen, is confronted about an earlier adulterous affair with one of the girls—leading to a moment of high tension towards the end of the play. As for historical accuracy, Miller took several dramatic liberties as he explains in the preface to the play. He later wrote the screenplay for the 1996 movie of the same name, starring Daniel Day-Lewis and Winona Ryder.
Later that semester I brought home the play and the required permission slip. Dad looked at it and signed, commenting on the absurdity of it. As my class read the play, I failed to see what was with the complaint of witchcraft. I thought the play had a few important lessons for today’s society. After we read the play, we saw the 1996 movie which follows the play well.
Later in college, I went with a few friends on an organized evening trip to historic Salem, MA during Halloween weekend. As we walked about the town, we saw the building where the witch trials had occurred. Seeing the Salem Witch Museum helped me better visualize the setting.
At one time or another, we’ve read something that we have not liked or disagreed with the content. We should be able to read what we like, not have others tell us what we can or cannot. Like my dad, I thought the permission slip was a pointless exercise.
The Arthur Miller Society has information about the late playwright, The Crucible, and his other works.
For those planning to visit Salem, MA, there’s plenty to see beyond the Salem Witch Museum.