Suspicion abounds in The Crucible, Arthur Miller’s allegory about the Red Scare of the 1950s, in which he was ensnared along with many others. Miller viewed, in his observations and experiences during the era of McCarthyism, a stark and disturbing similarity with the Salem Witch Trials of 1692, during which paranoia about sorcery pervaded entire communities and towns and led to the executions of nineteen people and wrenching emotional ordeals for hundreds of others falsely accused or related to those accused. Accusations about one’s neighbors were enough to destroy lives irrespective of any evidence pointing to guilt, which, in the case of accusations of witchcraft, were not going to be produced anyway. In Miller’s play, which was based on the prodigious research he conducted into the actual events portrayed, the case of John and Elizabeth Proctor was custom-made for ensnarement in the hysteria gripping their community.
John Proctor is an upstanding, respected member of his community. He made one fatal, or near-fatal mistake, however: engaging in an extramarital affair with a young woman named Abigail, who emerges as a central figure in the case of suspected sorcery that opens The Crucible. The fact of this affair has become known to John’s wife, Elizabeth, and the trust that once provided the basis of their relationship has been destroyed. Elizabeth will never again trust John, and the fact of the emotionally precarious Abigail having been at the center of the latest case of accusations of witchcraft cannot but have a major continuing influence on John and Elizabeth’s relationship.
As act 2 of The Crucible begins, a sense of normalcy is present in the Proctor home. Conversation between John and Elizabeth appears strained, but they are kind to each other. The suspicions of Elizabeth regarding John’s infidelity soon rise to the surface, with the couple’s servant, Mary Warren, at the center of the percolating conflict. Mary has gone to Salem to watch the witch trials—the trials in which Abigail is a central figure—and the servant’s conduct is a source of increasing tension within the home. Abigail possesses the power to destroy lives because of her role in the events that precipitated the ongoing trials, and Elizabeth is extremely wary of the potential for further harm emanating from her husband’s former mistress. Elizabeth’s concerns about Abigail’s role in the proceedings and the ramifications for the hostility between these two vastly different women are manifested by Elizabeth’s comments:
The town’s gone wild, I think. She speak of Abigail, and I thought she were a saint, to hear her. Abigail brings the other girls into the court, and where she walks the crowd will part like the sea for Israel. And folks are brought before them, and if they scream and howl and fall to the floor—the person’s clapped in the jail for bewitchin’ them.
Mary Warren is becoming increasingly obstinate, and when she returns from her trip to Salem, she ignites another explosion of hysteria within the Proctor home. However, is when Mary attempts to mollify the now-irate Proctors that she attempts to reinsert herself into her masters’ good graces, declaring (gesturing toward Elizabeth), “I saved her life today!”
An insinuation had been made in the courtroom that Elizabeth might be amongst those aligned with Satan. The accuser is not named, but there is no doubt in Elizabeth’s mind as to the identity of her accuser: Abigail. Elizabeth suspects that Abigail hopes to replace her in John’s bed, and accusations of witchcraft will suffice to bring about such a development. The merest hint of impropriety amid the hysteria sweeping the community is sufficient to destroy lives, and Elizabeth believes Abigail will play the one card she holds to affect her desired outcome.
Abigail caused hysteria because, perversely, her role in the tragic chain of events that led to the trial has given her the power to cast suspicion upon anyone she chooses.