Written in the early 1950s, Arthur Miller’s The Crucible takes place in Salem, Massachusetts in 1692. It recounts the events surrounding the Salem Witch Trials. This was a time when paranoia, hysteria, and deceit gripped the Puritan towns of New England.
The initial scenes take place in the home of Reverend Parris, the town’s spiritual leader. His ten-year-old daughter lies in bed, unresponsive. She, and the other local girls, spent the previous evening performing a ritual while dancing in the wilderness. Abigail, Parris’ seventeen-year-old niece, is the wicked leader of the girls.
Mr. and Mrs. Putnam, loyal followers of Parris, are very concerned for their own sickly daughter.
The Putnam’s are the first to openly suggest that witchcraft is plaguing the town. They insist that Parris root out the witches within the community. Not surprisingly, they suspect anyone who despises Rev. Parris, or any member who fails to attend church on a regular basis.
Halfway through Act One, the play's tragic hero, John Proctor, enters the Parris household to check on the still comatose Betty. He seems uncomfortable to be alone with Abigail.
Through dialogue we learn that young Abigail and seemingly humble farmer, John Proctor, had an affair seven months ago. When John's wife found out, she sent Abigail away from their home. Since then, Abigail has been scheming to remove Elizabeth Proctor so that she can claim John to herself.
Reverend Hale, a self-proclaimed specialist in the art of detecting witches, enters the Parris home. John Proctor is quite skeptical of Hale’s purpose, and soon leaves for home.
Hale confronts Tituba, pressuring her to admit her association with Satan. Tituba believes that the only way to avoid being executed is to lie, so she begins to invent stories about being in league with the devil. Then, Abigail sees her chance to stir up an enormous amount of mayhem. She behaves as though she is bewitched.
When the curtain draws on Act One, the audience realizes that every person mentioned by the girls is in severe danger.
Set in Proctor’s home, the act begins by showing the daily life of John and Elizabeth. The protagonist has returned from seeding his farmland. Here, their dialogue reveals that there is still much tension and frustration. Elizabeth cannot yet trust her husband. Likewise, John has not yet forgiven himself.
Their marital problems shift, however, when Rev. Hale appears at their door. We learn that many women, including the saintly Rebecca Nurse, have been arrested on the charge of witchcraft. Hale is suspicious of the Proctor family because they don’t go to church every Sunday.
Moments later, officials from Salem arrive. Much to Hale’s surprise, they arrest Elizabeth Proctor. Abigail has accused her of witchcraft and attempted murder via black magic and voodoo dolls. John Proctor promises to free her, but he is enraged by the injustice of the situation.
John Proctor convinces one of the “spellbound” girls, Mary Warren, to admit that all of their demonic fits have been pretend.
The court is overseen by Judge Hawthorne and Judge Danforth, two very serious men who righteously believe that they could never be fooled.
John Proctor brings forth Mary Warren who very timidly explains that she and the girls never saw any spirits or devils. Judge Danforth does not want to believe this.
Abigail and the other girls enter the courtroom. They defy the truth that Mary Warren tries to reveal. This charade angers John Proctor and in a violent outburst he calls Abigail a harlot. He reveals their affair. Abigail vehemently denies it. John swears that his wife can confirm the affair. He emphasizes that his wife never lies.
To determine the truth, Judge Danforth summons Elizabeth into the courtroom. Hoping to save her husband, Elizabeth denies that her husband had ever been with Abigail. Unfortunately, this dooms John Proctor.
Abigail leads the girls in a make-believe fit of possession. Judge Danforth is convinced that Mary Warren has gained a supernatural hold upon the girls. Frightened for her life, Mary Warren claims that she too is possessed and that John Proctor in the Devil’s Man. Danforth places John under arrest.
Three months later, John Proctor is chained in a dungeon. Twelve members of the community have been executed for witchcraft. Many others, including Tituba and Rebecca Nurse, sit in jail, awaiting hanging. Elizabeth is still incarcerated, but since she is pregnant she won’t be executed for at least another year.
The scene reveals a very distraught Reverend Parris. Several nights ago, Abigail ran away from home, stealing his life savings in the process.
He now realizes that if well loved townspeople such as Proctor and Rebecca Nurse are executed, the citizens might retaliate with sudden and extreme violence. Therefore, he and Hale have been trying to solicit confessions from the prisoners in order to spare them from the hangman’s noose.
Rebecca Nurse and the other prisoners choose not to lie, even at the cost of their lives. John Proctor, however, does not want to die like a martyr. He wants to live.
Judge Danforth states that if John Proctor signs a written confession his life will be saved. John reluctantly agrees. They also pressure him to implicate others, but John is unwilling to do this.
Once he signs the document, he refuses to hand over the confession. He doesn’t want his name to be posted to the door of the church. He declares, “How may I live without my name? I have given you my soul; leave me my name!” Judge Danforth demands the confession. John Proctor rips it to pieces.
The judge condemns Proctor to hang. He and Rebecca Nurse are taken to the gallows. Hale and Parris are both devastated. They urge Elizabeth to plead with John and the judge so that he might be spared. However, Elizabeth, on the verge of collapse, says, “He has his goodness now. God forbid I take it from him!”
The curtains close with the eerie sound of drums rattling. The audience knows that John Proctor and the others are moments away from execution.