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10 Powerful Facts About The Crucible

In 1692, around 150 people were arrested in Salem and imprisoned on suspicion of being a witch. Twenty people were killed, while many more died in prison. In his 1953 play The CrucibleArthur Miller brings this shameful period of American history to life on stage, in an allegory for the witch hunt of his era: McCarthyism. 

1. THE FBI WANTED ARTHUR MILLER TO CHANGE ONE OF HIS SCREENPLAYS. 

Hollywood was a willing participant in Senator Joseph McCarthy's efforts to crack down on alleged Soviet sympathizers, blacklisting artists who weren't cleared by the government. In 1950, Miller was in L.A., shopping around a script for The Hook, about union corruption on the Brooklyn waterfront. The head of Columbia Pictures, Harry Cohn, showed the script to the FBI—who, along with union head Roy Brewer—came back with ideas to make it more “American," namely by making the gangsters Communists. Miller refused on the grounds that there were no Communist gangsters on the Brooklyn waterfront and withdrew the script. The next morning, he received an ominous telegram: "IT’S INTERESTING HOW THE MINUTE WE TRY TO MAKE THE SCRIPT PRO-AMERICAN YOU PULL OUT. HARRY COHN.”

2. MILLER'S PALS WERE TARGETED, TOO.

As McCarthyism progressed, a number of Miller’s friends and colleagues were scrutinized by the House Un-American Activities Committee. Miller knew of two actors who committed suicide because of the investigation. Other people, like Charlie Chaplin, fled to Europe. Elia Kazan—who directed Miller’s play Death of a Salesman—was called before the committee and asked to name people he knew to be Communists. He did, and Miller stopped talking to him. In response, Miller was inspired to explore Salem’s literal witch as a means of describing the metaphorical one that was happening around him.

3. MILLER (MOSTLY) STUCK TO THE FACTS …

The Crucible is taken from history,” Miller wrote in The New York Times. “No character is in the play who did not take a similar role in Salem, 1692.” Miller did take some liberties, however. For example, the writer changed Abigail’s age to 17 years old instead of 11 years old, and imagined a doomed romance between her and John Proctor.

4. … AND DID HIS BEST TO MIMIC THE ERA'S SPEECH PATTERNS.

To pick up the nuances of 17th-century speech, Miller went to Salem and read the trials' original testimony in the Essex County courthouse. After days of poring over the documents, the language started to click for him. “I felt a bit encouraged that I might be able to handle it, and in more time I came to love its feel, like hard burnished wood,” he said.

5. THE FIRST BROADWAY PRODUCTION WASN'T WELL-RECEIVED.

The Crucible opened on Broadway in January 1953. The unusual staging—in which the actors faced forward without interacting with each other—was viewed as too stylized and lacking emotional depth. "Arthur Miller is a problem playwright in both senses of the word," wrote Walter Kerr of the New York Herald Tribune, adding that the play was "a step backward into mechanical parable." (The New York Times' critic, for his part, disagreed, calling the play "powerful.") Despite mixed reviews, The Crucible won the 1953 Tony for best play. A year later, a new production fared better with both critics and audiences, and the show became a hit.

6. WHEN HE TRIED TO GO TO EUROPE, MILLER'S PASSPORT WAS DENIED. 

In 1953, Arthur Miller was invited to attend the first European production of The Crucible in Brussels. But when he attempted to get his passport renewed, he was denied. His lawyer contacted the Passport Division of the State Department and learned that the government felt it was “not in the national interest” for Miller to leave the country. Miller missed the debut. However, at the end of the performance, the audience, believing he was there, began to applaud and call for the author to stand up. Finally, someone did: the American ambassador, who even took a bow. A bitter Miller later wrote, “Here was the ambassador, an officer of the State Department, acknowledging applause for someone deemed by that department too dangerous to be present.”

7. ARTHUR MILLER WAS EVENTUALLY QUESTIONED BY THE HUAC.

That was just the beginning of Miller’s trouble with the government. In 1956—just before his wedding to Marilyn Monroe—HUAC questioned Miller about his supposed Communist ties. (One committee member offered to waive the hearing if Monroe would pose with him in a photograph. Miller refused the offer.) While Miller answered all questions about himself, he wouldn’t name other people, saying, "I could not use the name of another person and bring trouble on him." He was sentenced to a $500 fine and a 30 day suspended jail sentence. The sentence was overturned after a court of appeals hearing in 1958.

8. JEAN-PAUL SARTRE WROTE THE FIRST SCREENPLAY OF THE CRUCIBLE

In the 1950s, Hollywood wouldn’t touch the text, so the first film adaptation was a joint Franco-East German production. Directed by Raymond Rouleau, a Belgian actor and filmmaker, Jean-Paul Sartre was enlisted to adapt the play for the big screen.

Miller himself wrote the screenplay for the 1996 remake, which starred Daniel Day-Lewis and Winona Ryder. He received an Oscar nomination for Best Adapted Screenplay, but lost to Billy Bob Thornton for Sling Blade.

9. THE PLAY TURNED SALEM INTO A TOURIST DESTINATION.

The Salem of today, boasting wax museums and gift shops full of witch tchotchkes, didn’t exist when Miller penned his drama. He writes in Timebends: “Salem in those days was in fact not eager to talk about the witchcraft, not too proud of it, and only after The Crucible did the town began exploiting it with a tourist attraction, the Witch Trial.” Today, the tourism industry in Salem makes more than $100 million a year.

10. THE CRUCIBLE MADE HISTORY. 

In 2000, Miller wrote that The Crucible was “one of the most heavily demanded trade-fiction paperbacks” in the U.S. “It is only a slight exaggeration to say that, especially in Latin America, The Crucible starts getting produced wherever a political coup appears imminent, or a dictatorial regime has just been over-thrown," he added. At the time of Miller's writing, the play had sold more than 6 million copies and had been staged steadily since it came out, in productions all over the world. It's just as popular today: the play is even coming back to Broadway in 2016.

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12 Facts About Joseph Conrad's Heart of Darkness
George C. Beresford/Getty Images
George C. Beresford/Getty Images

Joseph Conrad’s 1899 novella about venturing into the moral depths of colonial Africa is among the most frequently analyzed literary works in college curricula.

1. ENGLISH WAS THE AUTHOR’S THIRD LANGUAGE.

It’s impressive enough that Conrad wrote a book that has stayed relevant for more than a century. This achievement seems all the more impressive when considering that he wrote it in English, his third language. Born Józef Teodor Konrad Korzeniowski in 1857, Conrad was a native Polish speaker. French was his second language. He didn’t even know any English—the language of his literary composition—until age 21.

2. HEART OF DARKNESS BEGINS AND ENDS IN THE UK.

Though it recounts Marlow's voyage through Belgian Congo in search of Kurtz and is forever linked to the African continent, Conrad’s novella begins and ends in England. At the story’s conclusion, the “tranquil waterway” that “seemed to lead into the heart of an immense darkness” is none other than the River Thames.

3. THE PROTAGONIST MARLOW IS CONRAD.

The well-traveled Marlow—who appears in other Conrad works, such as Lord Jim—is based on his equally well-traveled creator. In 1890, 32-year-old Conrad sailed the Congo River while serving as second-in-command on a Belgian trading company steamboat. As a career seaman, Conrad explored not only the African continent but also ventured to places ranging from Australia to India to South America.

4. LIKE KURTZ AND MARLOW, CONRAD GOT SICK ON HIS VOYAGE.

Illness claimed Kurtz, an ivory trader who has gone mysteriously insane. It nearly claimed Marlow. And these two characters almost never existed, owing to their creator’s health troubles. Conrad came down with dysentery and malaria in Belgian Congo, and afterwards had to recuperate in the German Hospital, London, before heading to Geneva, Switzerland, to undergo hydrotherapy. Though he survived, Conrad suffered from poor health for many years afterward.

5. THERE HAVE BEEN MANY ALLEGED KURTZES IN REAL LIFE.

The identity of the person on whom Conrad based the story’s antagonist has aroused many a conjecture. Among those suggested as the real Kurtz include a French agent who died on board Conrad’s steamship, a Belgian colonial officer, and Welsh explorer Henry Morton Stanley.

6. COLONIZING WAS ALL THE RAGE WHEN HEART OF DARKNESS APPEARED.

Imperialism—now viewed as misguided, oppressive, and ruthless—was much in vogue when Conrad’s novella hit shelves. The "Scramble for Africa" had seen European powers stake their claims on the majority of the continent. Britain’s Queen Victoria was even portrayed as the colonies' "great white mother." And writing in The New Review in 1897, adventurer Charles de Thierry (who tried and failed to establish his own colony in New Zealand) echoed the imperialistic exuberance of many with his declaration: “Since the wise men saw the star in the East, Christianity has found no nobler expression.”

7. CHINUA ACHEBE WAS NOT A FAN OF THE BOOK.

Even though Conrad was no champion of colonialism, Chinua Achebe—the Nigerian author of Things Fall Apart and other novels—delivered a 1975 lecture called “An Image of Africa: Racism in Conrad’s Heart of Darkness” that described Conrad as a “thoroughgoing racist” and his ubiquitous short classic as “an offensive and deplorable book.” However, even Achebe credited Conrad for having “condemned the evil of imperial exploitation.” And others have recognized Heart of Darkness as an indictment of the unfairness and barbarity of the colonial system.

8. THE BOOK WASN’T SUCH A BIG DEAL—AT FIRST.

In 1902, three years after its initial serialization in a magazine, Heart of Darkness appeared in a volume with two other Conrad stories. It received the least notice of the three. In fact, not even Conrad himself considered it a major work. And during his lifetime, the story “received no special attention either from readers or from Conrad himself,” writes Gene M. Moore in the introduction to Joseph Conrad's Heart of Darkness: A Casebook. But Heart of Darkness managed to ascend to immense prominence in the 1950s, after the planet had witnessed “the horror”—Kurtz's last words in the book—of WWII and the ramifications of influential men who so thoroughly indulged their basest instincts.

9. T.S. ELIOT BORROWED AN IMPORTANT LINE.

Though Heart of Darkness wasn’t an immediate sensation, it evidently was on the radar of some in the literary community. The famous line announcing the antagonist’s demise, “Mistah Kurtz—he dead,” serves as the epigraph to the 1925 T.S. Eliot poem “The Hollow Men.”

10. THE STORY INSPIRED APOCALYPSE NOW.

Eighty years after Conrad’s novella debuted, the Francis Ford Coppola film Apocalypse Now hit the big screen. Though heavily influenced by Heart of Darkness, the movie’s setting is not Belgian Congo, but the Vietnam War. And though the antagonist (played by Marlon Brando) is named Kurtz, this particular Kurtz is no ivory trader, but a U.S. military officer who has become mentally unhinged.

11. HEART OF DARKNESS HAS BEEN MADE INTO AN OPERA.

Tarik O'Regan’s Heart of Darkness, an opera in one act, opened in 2011. Premiering at London’s Royal Opera House, it was reportedly the first operatic adaptation of Conrad’s story and heavily inspired by Apocalypse Now.

12. THE BOOK ALSO SPARKED A VIDEO GAME.

In a development not even Conrad’s imagination could have produced, his classic inspired a video game, Spec Ops: The Line, which was released in 2012.

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11 Haunting Facts About Beloved

Toni Morrison—who was born on February 18, 1931—made a name for herself with The Bluest Eye, Sula and Song of Solomon, but it wasn’t until 1987’s Beloved, about a runaway slave haunted by the death of her infant daughter, that her legacy was secured. The book won the Pulitzer Prize and was a key factor in the decision to award Morrison the Nobel Prize in 1993. All the awards aside, Beloved is a testament to the horrors of slavery, with its narrative of suffering and repressed memory and its dedication to the more than 60 million who died in bondage. Here are some notable facts about Morrison’s process and the novel’s legacy.

1. IT’S BASED ON A TRUE STORY.

While compiling research for 1974's The Black Book, Morrison came across the story of Margaret Garner, a runaway slave from Kentucky who escaped with her husband and four children to Ohio in 1856. A posse caught up with Garner, who killed her youngest daughter and attempted to do the same to her other children rather than let them return to bondage. Once apprehended, her trial transfixed the nation. "She was very calm; she said, 'I’d do it again,'" Morrison told The Paris Review. "That was more than enough to fire my imagination."

2. MORRISON CAME UP WITH THE CHARACTER BELOVED AFTER SHE STARTED WRITING.

The book was originally going to be about the haunting of Sethe by her infant daughter, who she killed (just as Garner did) rather than allow her to return to slavery. A third of the way through writing, though, Morrison realized she needed a flesh-and-blood character who could judge Sethe’s decision. She needed the daughter to come back to life in another form (some interpret it as a grief-driven case of mistaken identity). As she told the National Endowment for the Arts’ NEA Magazine: "I thought the only person who was legitimate, who could decide whether [the killing] was a good thing or not, was the dead girl."

3. SHE WROTE THE ENDING EARLY IN THE WRITING PROCESS.

Morrison has said she likes to know the ending of her books early on, and to write them down once she does. With Beloved, she wrote the ending about a quarter of the way in. "You are forced into having a certain kind of language that will keep the reader asking questions," she told author Carolyn Denard in Toni Morrison: Conversations.

4. MORRISON BECAME FASCINATED WITH SMALL HISTORICAL DETAILS.

To help readers understand the particulars of slavery, Morrison carefully researched historical documents and artifacts. One particular item she became fascinated with: the "bit" that masters would put in slaves' mouths as punishment. She couldn’t find much in the way of pictures or descriptions, but she found enough to imagine the shame slaves would feel. In Beloved, Paul D. tells Sethe that a rooster smiled at him while he wore the bit, indicating that he felt lower than a barnyard animal.

5. SHE ONLY RECENTLY READ THE BOOK HERSELF.

In an appearance on The Colbert Report last year, Morrison said she finally got around to reading Beloved after almost 30 years. Her verdict: "It’s really good!"

6. THE BOOK INSPIRED READERS TO BUILD BENCHES.

When accepting an award from the Unitarian Universalist Association in 1988, Morrison observed that there is no suitable memorial to slavery, "no small bench by the road." Inspired by this line, the Toni Morrison Society started the Bench by the Road Project to remedy the issue. Since 2006, the project has placed 15 benches in locations significant to the history of slavery and the Civil Rights movement, including Sullivan’s Island, South Carolina, which served as the point of entry for 40% of slaves brought to America.

7. WHEN BELOVED DIDN’T WIN THE NATIONAL BOOK AWARD IN 1987, FELLOW WRITERS PROTESTED.

After the snub, 48 African-American writers, including Maya Angelou, John Edgar Wideman and Henry Louis Gates, Jr., signed a letter that appeared in the New York Times Book Review. "For all of America, for all of American letters," the letter addressing Morrison read, "you have advanced the moral and artistic standards by which we must measure the daring and the love of our national imagination and our collective intelligence as a people."

8. IT’S ONE OF THE MOST FREQUENTLY CHALLENGED BOOKS.

Between 2000 and 2009, Beloved ranked 26th on the American Library Association’s list of most banned/challenged books. A recent challenge in Fairfax County, Virginia, cited the novel as too intense for teenage readers, while another challenge in Michigan said the book was, incredibly, overly simplistic and pornographic. Thankfully, both challenges were denied.

9. MORRISON ALSO WROTE AN OPERA BASED ON GARNER’S LIFE.

Ten years ago, Morrison collaborated with Grammy-winning composer Richard Danielpour on Margaret Garner, an opera about the real-life inspiration behind Beloved. It opened in Detroit in 2005, and played in Charlotte, Chicago, Philadelphia and New York before closing in 2008.

10. MORRISON DID NOT WANT IT MADE INTO A MOVIE.

Although she publicly claims otherwise, according to a New York magazine story, Morrison told friends she didn’t want Beloved made into a movie. And she didn’t want Oprah Winfrey (who bought the film rights in 1988) to be in it. Nevertheless, the film came out in 1998 and was a total flop.

11. THERE'S AN ILLUSTRATED VERSION.

The Folio Society, a London-based company that creates fancy special editions of classic books, released the first-ever illustrated Beloved in 2015. Artist Joe Morse had to be personally approved by Morrison for the project. Check out a few of his hauntingly beautiful illustrations here.

This article originally appeared in 2015.

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