Academic journal article Comparative Drama

"Another Play on Salem Witch Trials": Lion Feuchtwanger, Communists, and Nazis

Academic journal article Comparative Drama

"Another Play on Salem Witch Trials": Lion Feuchtwanger, Communists, and Nazis

Article excerpt

The Crucible (1953), by pre-eminent American playwright Arthur Miller (1915-2005), has become widely acknowledged as a timeless play about the hunt for "witches" and other supposed evildoers, and about mass hysteria. According to a popular introduction to this work, the inspiration for Arthur Miller's play was The Devil in Massachusetts (1949), a historical study, albeit not without fictional elements, about the Salem witch trials by Marion Starkey. (1) It is a little-known fact that the German-Jewish emigre writer Lion Feuchtwanger (7 July 1884, Munich-21 December 1958, Los Angeles) published a play about the Salem trials before Arthur Miller did. It was published in German under the title Wahn oder Der Teufel in Boston (Mania or The Devil in Boston) in 1948 in Los Angeles. (2) A first sketch is dated 22 October 1945. (3) Feuchtwanger began writing the play in the final months of 1946 and finished it in late 1947.

I. The Devil in Boston

The play premiered in Germany in March 1949, in the "Kleines Theater im Zoo" in Frankfurt am Main, directed by Fred Schroer. Feuchtwanger wrote a short statement about his play for the program, "Zu meinem Stuck" (About My Play). (4) The premiered version was slightly revised from the first American edition in German, and subsequent performances (Deutsches Theater Berlin, March 1949; Nurnberg, 1949) and book editions followed. (5)

Several stages of typescript translations in English are extant in the Feuchtwanger Archive at the University of Southern California, the first dated August 1947. The titles vary slightly from Delusion to Boston to Devil in Boston, which appears to have met Feuchtwanger's final approval, and a corrected copy is marked "Copyright 1948"). (6) Feuchtwanger wanted to have the play performed in the United States in English, but was not immediately successful. (7) The American-language premiere did not take place until February 1952 at the Circle Theatre in Hollywood (directed by Benjamin Zemach), where it remained in the repertoire for only half a year. (8) Another staging, of a Yiddish translation by N[athaniel] Buchwald, took place the next year in New York by the Yiddish Theater Ensemble, in Barbiyon Plaza. Morris Carnovsky directed and performed in this production. (9)

Arthur Miller's Crucible (1953) premiered on Broadway on 22 January 1953 and was published that same year. Initially, it was not as sweepingly successful as it later became. Feuchtwanger's drama had its New York premiere in February 1953. The audience, including the critics, did not know of its earlier publication in German and its staging on the West Coast, leading one critic to label it as "Another Play On Salem Witches." (10) Reviews of the New York performance immediately compared the two: Vernon Rice pointed out that Feuchtwanger's play had fewer dramatic high points, while his simpler plot and setting fared favorably with John Chapman. It is not important for the following argument whether the two writers knew about each other's plays and whether one might have influenced the other, (11) although it remains a valid question. Both draw attention to the mechanisms and dynamics of suspicion, denunciation, persecution, and extermination. Their approaches are very different in that Miller shows trial scenes onstage, while Feuchtwanger has them reported. Both fictionalize one of the "bewitched" girls and main plaintiffs, and incorporate love interests in her characterization, but these choices result in decisive plot differences. However, my goal is not to compare the two plays, but rather to examine the specific perspective of a stateless immigrant on this "American" topic, which the German-Jewish writer here applies to postwar, post-Nazi Germany.

Even Feuchtwanger scholarship tends to bypass this play. For example, a recent study on the reception of Feuchtwanger's works in Germany since 1945 only briefly touches on the play, stating as evident that it represented the author's reaction to the beginning of the McCarthy era and intended to draw parallels between persecutions of "witches" and leftists. …

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