In the overture to The Crucible, how are the people of Salem characterized?
In the overture, the narrator notes that from the perspective of the European world, the North American colonists were "a sect of fanatics." Further descriptions highlight Salem's strictly religious lifestyle. They were so strict that they did not celebrate Christmas nor did they encourage or celebrate enjoyment in life:
Their creed forbade anything resembling a theater or "vain enjoyment."
However, in the midst of their hard work in life and at prayer, they would "raise the roof" when a barn was being built: they would share food and even cider. There was a tavern in the village. There was at least the potential to have religious order and some enjoyment.
But the overt characteristic of the town was their strictness and "minding other people's business" and this latter trait "created many of the suspicions which were to feed the coming madness." Thus, there was an established "way to live" and others (namely Parris) did what they could to demand everyone to live according to this strict moral code.
The people of Salem are also described as hypocrites. They left England because of persecution and yet they do the same to the Indians (Native Americans). The overture is given to provide a characterization of the people of Salem and thereby the reasons such a witch-hunt was allowed to occur. The narrator notes that the people of Salem were different from the "dedicated folk that arrived on the Mayflower." The witch-hunt occurred because:
. . . for good purposes, even high purposes, the people of Salem developed a theocracy, a combine of state and religious power whose function was to keep the community together, and to prevent any kind of disunity that might open it to destruction by material or ideological enemies.
This attempt to establish order and unity was paralleled by a cultural shift in which individual freedom (another tradition in American culture) was beginning to be considered a moral right. Out of this balance/conflict to reconcile order and individuality, the leaders (theocracy) over-reacted to any sense of individuality and persecuted anyone (alleged witches) who might threaten the order and unity they were trying to maintain through a religious/state government. In other words, they over-reacted because they couldn't or refused to consider a society which had order and individuality: a society which had a general moral code but one that was understanding enough to know that girls dancing in the woods is an act of play/freedom; not a threat to that social order.