Tuesday, June 21, 2011

Notes For June 21st, 2011

This Day In Writing History

On June 21st, 1956, the legendary American playwright Arthur Miller defied the United States Congress, refusing to inform on his friends and colleagues whom a Congressional committee had suspected of being communists.

At the time of his Congressional hearing, Miller, born in Harlem, New York, in 1915, had established himself as one of America's greatest playwrights. An outspoken liberal who openly supported leftist causes, he was long suspected of being a communist himself. There is no evidence to prove that he belonged to the American Communist Party; some biographers have speculated that he may have joined under a pseudonym, but that's pure conjecture.

As the Red Scare swept through the American landscape of the 1950s - the height of the Cold War between the United States and the Soviet Union - a Congressional committee was tasked to weed out suspected communists. The House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC), founded in 1938, became notorious for its methods.

To extract confessions from suspected communists, the HUAC would resort to coercion, deception, and false testimony by so-called witnesses. Another tool in the committee's arsenal was guilt by association - if the defendant's relatives and / or friends were communists, then the defendant must be as well, or he wouldn't associate with them.

Worst of all, when no evidence existed to prove beyond a reasonable doubt the HUAC's often false and slanderous accusations of communism, the committee simply manufactured it. In those days, being convicted of communism meant not only jail time, but also the blacklisting of the defendant from his trade, the loss of his civil rights, and public ostracism.

In the famous Hollywood Blacklist, actors, directors, writers, and producers could not find work after doing their time in prison, as the Hollywood studios refused to hire convicted or even suspected communists, for fear of governmental interference in the movie business.

Three years before he found himself brought before the HUAC, Arthur Miller had written a play inspired by what happened to his close friend, legendary filmmaker Elia Kazan. Brought before the HUAC and accused of being a communist, Kazan, wishing to avoid the Hollywood Blacklist, informed on several of his friends, including legendary playwright Lillian Hellman and actor John Garfield. Kazan avoided the Blacklist, but his reputation would take a huge hit. He was rightfully regarded as a rat willing to ruin the lives of others for the sake of his own self interest. Miller didn't speak to him for ten years.

In his classic play The Crucible (1953), Arthur Miller presented a scathing satirical indictment of the HUAC, likening its hearings to the infamous 17th century Salem witch hunts, where innocent lives were also destroyed by false accusations, national hysteria, and pompous, self-righteous judges more interested in extracting confessions than in uncovering the truth and delivering justice.

The Crucible became a huge hit on Broadway and would go on to be Miller's most often produced play. It infuriated the HUAC. So, in 1956, when Miller applied for a renewal of his passport, the HUAC took advantage of the routine request to haul Miller in for questioning, as it was against the law to issue passports to known or suspected communists.

Having nothing to hide, Miller told the committee that he would gladly provide testimony about his own political beliefs and activities, so long as he was not asked to inform on others. The chairman agreed and promised that he would not have to inform on others. Miller kept his end of the deal and gave the HUAC a detailed account of his own political activities.

The committee then reneged on the chairman's promise and ordered Miller to give them the names of all of his friends and colleagues who shared in his political beliefs and activities. He refused to comply, so he was charged with contempt of Congress. His case later came to trial, and in May of 1957, a judge found him guilty.

Miller was fined $500, sentenced to thirty days in jail, blacklisted, and, of course, denied a renewal of his passport. Fortunately, his conviction was overturned on appeal. The Court of Appeals found that he had been deliberately deceived by the HUAC chairman and tricked into incriminating himself, which was a violation of the Fifth Amendment.

Arthur Miller's experience with the HUAC would haunt him for the rest of his life. In the 1970s, he took a personal interest in the famous Barbara Gibbons murder case, where the victim's son, Peter Reilly, was convicted of her murder based on what most people believed was a coerced confession. The was little, if any, actual evidence to prove his guilt.

Miller, believing that Reilly was innocent and had been railroaded by the Connecticut State Police and the state Attorney General who had prosecuted the case, used his celebrity to draw attention to Reilly's plight. The case reminded him of his own railroading by the House Un-American Activities Committee, which would become the House Committee on Internal Security in 1969 and finally be abolished in 1975.

Quote Of The Day

"I know that my works are a credit to this nation and I dare say they will endure longer than the McCarran Act." - Arthur Miller

Vanguard Video

Today's video features a three-part interview with Arthur Miller, where he discusses his classic play The Crucible and his ordeal at the hands of the House Un-American Activities Committee. Enjoy!

No comments:

The Craft of Writing in the Blogosphere


News from the World of Writing