As the play opens, the Reverend Samuel Parris is questioning his niece, Abigail, about his daughter Betty’s mysterious illness. He discovered the girls dancing in the forest with Tituba, a slave from Barbados. Thomas Putnam’s daughter is similarly afflicted. Mrs. Putnam fears witchcraft, even though she had asked Tituba to conjure the spirits of her dead children.
Parris calls in a witchcraft expert, the Reverend John Hale. Despite the common sense challenges of John Proctor and others, Hale forces Tituba to confess to witchcraft. Soon the entire town is in an uproar, and hidden resentments and land disputes become the real basis for the accusations.
Proctor’s pious and unbending wife, Elizabeth, is accused of witchcraft. Mary Warren, their servant girl, is one of the accusers. Proctor makes her admit the truth: The girls had merely feigned possession by evil spirits. At the risk of disclosing his adultery with Abigail, the ringleader, Proctor forces Mary to testify.
By then Judge Danforth has arrived, who interprets any challenges or defenses as an attempt to overthrow the court’s authority. In trying to save Proctor, Elizabeth condemns them both. Because she is pregnant, she is given a stay of execution.
Hale, sickened by the realization that Proctor and Mary were telling the truth, resigns from the court and tries to persuade the convicted to confess and save their lives, even though they are innocent. Elizabeth desperately wants Proctor to live. But she finally forgives him for his adultery, admits her own faults, and leaves him free to choose. When he learns that his confession will be made public, he elects the scaffold with the others who refuse to compromise their consciences and their souls. His good name is all he has to leave his sons.
The drama is based upon contemporary sources noted within the text but omitted in performance, as are explanations of the political significance of witch hunts, past and present. On stage, it is the compelling human tragedy that has made the play an American classic.
Bigsby, C. W. E. “Arthur Miller.” Williams, Miller, Albee. Vol. 2 in A Critical Introduction to Twentieth-Century American Drama. Cambridge, England: Cambridge University Press, 1984.
Bonnet, Jean-Marie. “Society Versus the Individual in Arthur Miller’s The Crucible.” English Studies 63, no. 1 (February, 1982): 32-36. Solid analysis of the central themes. Contends that The Crucible explores the balance between social responsibility and individual freedom.
Budick, E. Miller. “History and Other Spectres in Arthur Miller’s The Crucible,” in Modern Drama. XXVIII (December, 1985), pp. 535-552.
Ferres, John H. “Still in the Present Tense: The Crucible Today,” in University College Quarterly. XVII (May, 1972), pp. 8-18.
Foulkes, A.P. Literature and Propaganda, 1983.
McGill, William J. “The Crucible of History: Arthur Miller’s John Proctor,” in New England Quarterly. LIV (June, 1981), pp. 258-264.
Martin, Robert A. “Arthur Miller’s The Crucible: Background and Sources.” Modern Drama 20, no. 3 (September, 1977): 279-292. Contends that the play transcends the topical parallel of the House Committee on Un-American Activities and stands on its own merits.
Martine, James J. The Crucible: Politics, Property, and Pretense. New York: Twayne, 1993.
Meserve, Walter J. “The Crucible: ’This Fool and I,’” in Arthur Miller: New Perspectives, 1982.
Miller, Arthur. Conversations with Arthur Miller. Edited by Matthew C. Roudane. Jackson: University Press of Mississippi, 1987. Miller discusses his work with various interviewers. Two useful discussions of The Crucible.
Miller, Arthur. Timebends: A Life. New York: Grove Press, 1987.
Morgan, Edmund S. “Arthur Miller’s The Crucible and the Salem Witch Trials: A Historian’s View,” in The Golden and the Brazen World: Papers in Literature and History, 1600-1800, 1985.
Nathan, George Jean. “Henrik Miller,” in Theatre Arts. XXXVII (April, 1953), pp. 24-26.
O’Neal, Michael J. “History, Myth, and Name Magic in Arthur Miller’s The Crucible,” in Clio. XII (Winter, 1983), pp. 111-122.
Popkin, Henry. “Arthur Miller’s The Crucible,” in College English. XXVI (November, 1964), pp. 139-146.
Warshow, Robert. “The Liberal Conscience in the Crucible.” In The Immediate Experience: Movies, Comics, Theatre and Other Aspects of Popular Culture. New York: Doubleday, 1962. Warshow considers the work a wooden political polemic, historically inaccurate, without a central point.