While not fictional, these events have been mythified in the American consciousness, representing the dark side of the nation’s Puritan ancestors, the consequences of extreme religious intolerance, and backward, pre-modern ways.
Miller told a fictionalized version of this event based on historical research.
In addition, Floyd saw in the tale of a woman falsely and viciously accused of a crime in a primitive theocratic society a parallel to the fear engendered in America by Mc Carthyism.
Floyd thus retained aspects of the original plot, but adapted them to a contemporary isolated town in the Appalachian Mountains of Tennessee, removed the divine intervention which was at the biblical story’s heart, and replaced it with human weakness and tragedy.
Floyd saw in the character of Susanna(h) the archetype of a victim of Mc Carthyism.
Floyd has said of Mc Carthyism, and the fear it created, that it “permeated everything at that time […] It took all kinds of forms: suspicion, and the idea that accusation was all that was needed as proof of guilt.For instance, Miller wrote in his essays: “The sense of a terrible marvel again; that people could have such a belief in themselves and in the rightness of their consciences as to give their lives rather than say what they thought was false. Yet, Rebecca said, and it is written in the record, ‘I cannot belie myself.’ And she knew it would kill her.They knew who they were.” (29-30) Beyond these similarities in the authors’ choices of protagonist, there are many other parallels in the ways that both sets of stories and myths denounce Mc Carthyism.Both Miller’s and Floyd’s stories are set among fanatical sects in remote, backward areas that are surrounded by wilderness.These communities are characterized by harsh living conditions and a lack of entertainment.In the early 1950s, at the height of the Cold War, the United States was in the throes of the paranoid, hysterical, communist witch-hunt we have come to call Mc Carthyism, named for the particularly zealous senator, Joseph Mc Carthy, who spurred the movement on.Among the most frequent targets of congressional, FBI, and other investigations were artists and academics.In 1953, a writer friend of Floyd’s suggested that the composer write an opera based on the story of Susanna, for which the friend had already developed a basic plot.Here is what Floyd said he knew of the story when he began working on it: “the innocent and virtuous Susanna’s being spied upon while bathing by lustful Elders who, when she refuses their advances, falsely accuse her of being an adulteress.” His friend then suggested “departing from the Apocryphal version, Susanna, after the Elders had stirred up the community against her, would dispatch them with derisive laughter at the final curtain.”2 This is, indeed, the general outline of Floyd’s story, however there are some significant changes.For those readers not familiar with the story, in the small Puritan town of Salem, Massachusetts, 19 men and women (and two dogs) were convicted of and hanged for witchcraft in 1692.The “evidence” used to convict them was known as “spectral evidence,” in other words, an accuser merely had to contend that the accused sent his or her spirit to torment the victim.1 Suspicion itself and fantasy became the evidence in this theocracy.