Summary of the Play
A group of teenage girls from Salem, Massachusetts, is discovered dancing naked in the woods by the town minister. Knowing that the punishment for their behavior will be severe, the girls claim that they were possessed by the spirits of members of the community who are trying to initiate them into witchcraft. Because of the gravity of the accusations (witchcraft is punishable by hanging), a court is set up to determine the guilt or innocence of those accused. Judges are sent to Salem from the Boston area to hear the cases. As each case is heard, the girls scream and faint to indicate whether the accused is afflicting them.
While at first only a handful of citizens are indicated, the number soon grows to over a hundred. The children, quite suspiciously, have prior grievances against many of those accused, who had in some way offended them or made their lives miserable. Abigail Williams, the niece of Salem’s minister, accuses her previous employer, Elizabeth Proctor. Abigail was dismissed from her duties as the Proctor’s servant when Elizabeth discovered that her husband and Abigail were having an affair. As the town of Salem is overtaken by mass hysteria, John Proctor knows from Abigail’s own admission that the charges are false. He fights not only to save his wife, but also for the truth and for reason.
Elizabeth Proctor is not sentenced to hang because it is found that she is pregnant; however, John Proctor’s attempts to uncover the truth bring dire consequences. Proctor brings to the judges one of the original accusers, Mary Warren, who admits that the entire group of girls is faking their “fits.” This, of course, threatens to undermine the entire court, and the girls are summoned for questioning. The girls, led by Abigail, deny the charges. In a desperate attempt to discredit Abigail as a witness, Proctor then admits his adultery; however, when his wife is brought in to verify the story, she tries to save his reputation by denying the affair. Terrified of the other girls and of the punishment for lying to the court, Mary Warren soon turns against Proctor. She accuses him of being aligned with the devil and afflicting her.
While many of those found guilty of witchcraft avoid hanging by confessing a connection to the devil, 19 others are hanged. On the day that John Proctor and Rebecca Nurse, another innocent victim with high standing in Salem, are to hang, many attempts are made to coerce them to confess and save their lives. Proctor knows that he has sinned in the past and feels unworthy to die now as a saint or martyr. Thinking of his three children and of his wife, he chooses to sign a confession; however, he immediately regrets his decision and refuses to give up the paper. He cannot bear the knowledge that his signature will be used to condemn other innocent citizens. He tears up his confession, and the play closes with Elizabeth Proctor’s reaction to deaths.
Estimated Reading Time
As a play, The Crucible was designed to be performed in one sitting. Hence, it should take you no longer than three to four hours to read it in its entirety. The play is broken up into four acts, and some editions also include an appendix, which is meant to follow Act Two. Arthur Miller himself, however, removed this scene after the original production, and it is now rarely included in performance. The appendix will not be discussed in these notes. Also, each act has been broken down into “scenes”. These divisions were incorporated into this Enote and do not appear in the actual play.
Set in Salem, Massachusetts, during the witch-hunts of 1692 but full of allusions to Senator Joseph McCarthy and the House Committee on Un-American Activities’ persecutions of the 1950’s, Arthur Miller’s The Crucible is a masterful play that ultimately transcends both historical contexts with its message of resistance to tyranny. The play focuses on the moral struggles of John Proctor, a New England farmer, who is sucked into a witch-hunt that rages through his Puritan society. By deftly juxtaposing the religious paranoia that permeates a Fundamentalist community suddenly convinced that the devil is loose in its village with the less lofty but more powerful forces of human greed, envy, and revenge, Miller exposes the core of hypocrisy that is cloaked by the guise of authority.
The play opens in the attic bedroom of the Reverend Samuel Parris, minister of Salem, the night after Parris surprised his daughter Betty, his beautiful and sensual niece Abigail, and a number of other girls from Salem village dancing in the woods (a forbidden act). Parris all too quickly assumes that the girls have been bewitched, and soon Parris’ bedroom is packed with Salemites convinced that witchcraft is afoot. As the act closes, the logic and sense of Proctor’s doubts are overwhelmed by hysteria as Abigail and Betty launch the witch-hunt by screaming out the names of those who have supposedly consorted with the devil. They initially name, for the most part, those of the community who are vulnerable, and they name names in order to escape punishment. This pattern of accusation and betrayal has a close resemblance to McCarthy’s anti-communist tactics.
The remainder of the play pits Salem’s authority structure, as typified by Deputy Governor Danforth with his smug self-righteousness, against its helpless individual victims. Since “the accuser is always holy,” the innocent—Proctor, Proctor’s wife Elizabeth, and the saintly Rebecca Nurse—have no defense. It is clear that the accusations have nothing to do with witchcraft but are the result of long-standing animosities. Abigail, who has had a sexual relationship with Proctor, wants Proctor for herself, and so Elizabeth is named a witch. The play’s climax comes as Proctor, who has long struggled with the guilt over his infidelity and with his powerlessness to assert his innocence in the face of an implacable and tyrannous authority, realizes that he cannot destroy his true identity by signing a false confession: “Because it is my name! Because I cannot have another in my life!” The play’s final image of an innocent Proctor going to his unjust hanging was to be uncannily echoed three years after the play was written when Miller was called before the House Committee on Un-American Activities and convicted of contempt of Congress.