This play consists of three acts, divided primarily by the passing of time and the momentum of the witch trials in Salem. Each act takes place in one day, though what happens in the interim is explained; and each act is a mini-drama of its own.
Act I depicts the source of the trouble, the cause of the witch hunts. Miller introduces us not only to each character but also to the antecedent action (that which happened before the story began). We understand the environment which exists as well as the paranoia and suspicion which will soon breed such despicable things. The conflicts become evident; the alliances begin to form; and the battle lines (both spiritual and physical) are drawn.
Act II takes place eight days later, once the trials have begun. The protagonist, John Proctor, has not been privvy to any of the action going on in town, so others must inform him of the hysteria that has struck Salem. In this act we watch broken trust get painfully rebuilt and broken again; the motive of the primary instigator, Abigail, is horribly confirmed; and our hope that this is just some kind of ridiculous over-reaction evaporates in the face of alarming false accusations. The climax of this act happens in the courtroom, when John tells the truth but is not believed, and his wife Elizabeth lies but is taken as truthful. Despite the fact that we all know the witch trials did end in a relatively short amount of time, there is little hope that the characters we have developed relationships with will survive the ordeal.
Act III is set in another season, probably several months after Act II ends. The hopelessness we feared has come to pass; and, though they are still alive, the primary characters in the play are facing an imminent and undeserved death. Dramatically, the moment when Proctor denies his confession and cries out "I have given you my soul; leave me my name!" is both awful and amazing. This reversal represents the hope, at last, that common sense may once again rule in Salem. And, even though at least twenty innocent people lost their lives in the hysteria, the few we feel we know died as upright citizens and people of faith.