The Crucible begins at daybreak in the house of the Reverend Samuel Parris, who is praying at the bed of his motionless daughter, Betty. Her apparently incurable illness sets in motion the action of the play, which centers on the historic Salem witch trials. In quick succession, key characters enter; the first is slave Tituba, on whose exit follows Parris’ ward, the seventeen-year-old Abigail Williams. Interrogating her sparks off Parris’ fear that “unnatural things” may be going on, occult practices that could wreck his career; he has already been shocked to discover the “sinful” dance of Tituba and the girls in the forest.
Ann and Thomas Putnam enter, two characters who have strong motivations for crying “witch”: Ann has no living children and envies happier mothers, while land-rich Thomas stands to gain still more if some of his neighbors are indicted. One neighbor is John Proctor, who appears while the adults are offstage praying, and after Abigail and her girlfriends have discussed what to reveal about Tituba, who indeed performed voodoo rites. Abigail even drank chicken blood to cast a deadly spell over Proctor’s wife Elizabeth, so that she could marry Proctor, with whom she had an affair before his wife cast her out.
When her girlfriends leave, Abigail attempts to seduce Proctor, who refuses and threatens her with the whip. As the adults come back, new characters appear, such as wily old Giles Corey, a friend of Proctor’s, and Rebecca Nurse, who looks at one of the sick girls and states calmly that “a child’s spirit is like a child . . . for love, it will soon itself come back.” Only Proctor and Giles listen; all others await the arrival of the demonologist, the Reverend John Hale. The moment he arrives, Hale starts his interrogation of Abigail, who confesses and turns against Tituba, who admits her dark practices.
Act 2 opens at Proctor’s house, where he tries in vain to regain the respect of his wife. Afraid of Abigail, Elizabeth implores Proctor to testify at the witch trials in Salem that he heard her earlier claims that the dancing was not connected to witchcraft—claims the girl had indeed made before discovering a better way to save her hide. It is too late; Reverend Hale enters with a warrant for Elizabeth, whom Abigail has implicated with the unwitting help of maid Mary Warren, one of the “bewitched” girls testifying in court.
Throughout the ensuing struggle, the dialogue expresses to what degree Salem has become paranoid; Hale rightly observes, “No man may longer doubt the powers of the dark are gathered in monstrous attack upon this village.” Proctor’s position becomes increasingly untenable: His dislike for Parris’ greed, along with economic concerns, has led him to neglect formal Christian duties, such as keeping the Sabbath and regularly attending church. His voice of reason is silenced, and his observation that the girls “were startled and took sick” after Parris discovered them sporting in the woods—as Abigail herself told him—is wiped off the record. At the end of act 2 Hale faces an increasingly painful moral dilemma, exacerbated by unmistakable signs of a judicial system going haywire.
This concern leads directly into act 3. Shouts are heard offstage as Corey defends his wife, another accused witch. Soon, the empty anteroom of Parris’ meeting house fills with characters entering from the courtroom or, like Proctor, from outdoors. Deputy Governor Danforth, not an unintelligent man, reluctantly hears Corey and Proctor. The latter now presents Mary Warren, who recants her earlier story of witchcraft; to strengthen his case, by presenting a motive for Abigail’s lying, Proctor even confesses his adultery. Sensing the impact of this, Danforth summons Elizabeth and asks her why she dismissed Abigail; she lies to protect her husband, thereby sabotaging his defense. Just as a now-remorseful Hale tries to intervene, the girls, whom Danforth has brought in, start a ghastly pantomime, pretending to have been bewitched by Mary. They mock her every word until she breaks down and accuses Proctor of having worked with the Devil to extort a false recantation. Act 3 ends with Corey and Proctor thrown into jail and a disgusted Hale quitting the court.
Act 4 commences in a moonlit prison chamber just before dawn, as Danforth and Parris try to bring Proctor to confess so that they can avoid hanging him, with other prominent citizens, for being an unrepentant sinner. Hale reenters, bitterly ready “to do the Devil’s work” of persuading Proctor to commit the sin of a false confession. In a clever move, Danforth uses the pregnant Elizabeth, who has been spared from execution, to persuade Proctor to opt for confession and life.
To get the most out of his triumph, Danforth asks Proctor to sign his confession, so that it can be posted upon the church door. This, however, is too much for Proctor. He snatches the confession and tears it apart, ready to die rather than to give false testimony publicly. Deeply moved by her husband’s heroism, Elizabeth refuses to work a change of his mind. “He have his goodness now,” she says in the last speech of The Crucible; “God forbid I take it from him!”