Dramatic Devices

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The Crucible is a drama in the tradition of American realism, and Arthur Miller strives for historic verisimilitude both through his deliberate use of archaic language in the dialogue and by prescribing settings with a distinctly realistic look. Proctor’s house has the “low, dark, and rather long living room of the time.” Samuel Parris’ house, with its “air of clean spareness,” where “the roof rafters are exposed, and the wood colors are raw and unmellowed,” accords with the audience’s preconception of a Puritan minister’s home. Clearly, Miller is also re-creating the myth of Puritan drabness here: His theatrical setting eschews the bright blues and reds with which the Puritans actually decorated their homes.

The lighting of the opening moments of the play has its obvious diegetic source in “the morning sunlight” that streams through the leaded panes of a narrow window at the left. Against this appropriate backdrop, the events of the previous night are brought to light. Characters are neatly grouped into units by the possibility of having some go “downstairs,” into the meeting room offstage. Thus, there is private space created for the girls and, later, for a key scene between Proctor and Abigail. To reinforce the audience’s sense of a coming eclipse of Proctor’s fortunes, and to create an outer manifestation of the inner darkness of the characters and the city of Salem, his house is visited in the evening, after a hard day in early summer. In contrast, the courtroom drama of act 3 is played out in broad daylight. Proctor and Corey face the juggernaut of Danforth’s witch trial in a well-crafted liminal space, the anteroom of the courtroom; this both avoids the distracting spectacle of a full courtroom and—since the anteroom has doors to the court and the street (stage left and right respectively)—creates a spatial image of purgatory. In this space Proctor faces the hell of a justice system set to make a mockery of rational law and due process.

With a touch of the melodramatic, the jail scene of act 4 opens in the dark hours before an autumn dawn; Miller’s stage directions have characters blowing on their hands in order to emphasize the coldness of the near dungeon. Here, the play has come full circle from act 1’s (false) promise of a spring day. Yet through Proctor’s steadfastness and his reconciliation with his pregnant wife, the possibility of a rebirth—following the autumnal day of the hanging and the winter of injustice—is strongly suggested; such a rebirth is confirmed by Miller’s epilogue to the printed play.

Form and Content

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The Crucible is based on actual persons and events. While some dialogue and characterizations are based on legal records of the Salem witch trials, other details crucial to the play are inventions or suppositions by the author. The published version of The Crucible includes occasional prose discussions of the characters and themes that are not part of the play in performance. The play as published begins with several pages describing the Puritan environment in which the events take place. Arthur Miller explains that the witch trials occurred because of a theocratic government that repressed individual freedom.

The play opens in the home of Reverend Samuel Parris, where his daughter Betty is suffering from a mysterious ailment. Parris had discovered Betty and his niece Abigail Williams dancing naked in the forest and fears that Betty’s ailment is supernatural in origin. Other Salemites—including Ann Putnam, who has lost several children—believe that witchcraft has been responsible for local misfortunes. The girls have, in fact, been playing at witchcraft, a crime that carries a penalty of death. In order to protect themselves from punishment, the girls confess that they were under the spell of other witches within the community, and they provide Parris with the names of those witches. Parris is a vain man who seeks to be the central power within the community. His sermons have more often concerned his desires for increased pay and gold candlesticks than spiritual or moral lessons. Lately, his congregation has developed a faction opposed to his authority. Parris sees the girls’ accusations as a chance to regain the power that he has lost.

One of Parris’ most vocal critics has been John Proctor, a farmer. Abigail had been a servant for Proctor and his wife, Elizabeth, until Elizabeth discovered that Proctor was having an affair with Abigail. Abigail still harbors a hatred for Elizabeth, and, as the trials progress, Elizabeth becomes one of the accused. In a scene that Miller added after the play was first produced, Proctor confronts Abigail after the arrest of Elizabeth, only to discover that Abigail has become insane.

Before long, many of the most respected citizens of Salem—especially Rebecca Nurse and Giles Corey—have been condemned or executed. Proctor defends his wife before the tribunal and even confesses his adultery, a ploy that fails because Elizabeth, not aware of his confession, denies her husband’s sin in order to protect him. The Proctors’ current servant, Mary Warren, who is also one of the accusers, knows Elizabeth to be innocent but lacks the courage to reveal the trials as a sham. The trials have become a self-justifying institution; anyone who attempts to oppose them instantly faces the accusation of witchcraft, and to be accused is to be assumed guilty. Proctor’s defense sways Reverend Hale, a minister from a neighboring community, but even Hale cannot save Proctor from being placed under a sentence of death.

Those condemned for witchcraft can save themselves by confessing their guilt and naming other witches (thereby validating the trials). As Proctor and others await their executions, Hale pleads with them to confess because he knows their condemnations to be unjust. After much prodding, Proctor agrees to confess but refuses to name others. In the end, he goes offstage to be hanged.

Places Discussed

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*Salem. Small Massachusetts town on the Atlantic coast, about twenty miles northeast of Boston. A small community sandwiched between the ocean and the wilderness, Salem felt itself surrounded by danger, a danger that could be combated only by hard work, perseverance, and strict religious observance. The Native Americans living in the area presented a threat, but the devil, who lurked in the nearby wilderness, was a far greater threat, tempting villagers to worship him. The theocracy that governed Salem was designed to prevent this from occurring; thus any departure from orthodoxy was condemned, and any opposition was summarily crushed.

Parris’s house

Parris’s house. Home of the Reverend Parris in Salem. It is symbolically appropriate that the home of Parris, the congregation’s minister, is the site of the first outbreak of witchcraft hysteria. Act 1 occurs in an upstairs bedroom of the Parris house. The room contains only “a narrow window,” a metaphor for the narrowness of Puritan beliefs, through which not much light is allowed to shine. The somber room “gives off an air of clean spareness,” and the “raw and unmellowed” nature of the wood coincides with the nature of Puritan life.

Proctor home

Proctor home. Farmhouse five miles from Salem. Act 2 takes place in John and Elizabeth Proctor’s home. The room where the act is set seems cold; although it is spring, John declares, “It’s winter in here yet,” signifying the emotional distance between John and Elizabeth. Court officials travel five miles to arrest Elizabeth, indicating how widespread the witch hysteria has become.

Salem meetinghouse

Salem meetinghouse. Church building in Salem in whose vestrom act 3 is set. It is a “solemn, even forbidding” room with heavy timbers, now used as the anteroom of the court. A symbol of the religion, the gloomy meetinghouse is where people are condemned rather than brought to the light of God. Although churches traditionally offer sanctuary to even the lowest of criminals, the church in Salem is where innocent people are condemned. Ironically, at the end of the act, a bird (not the dove of the Holy Spirit, but a demoniac bird) appears in the high rafters of the room.

Salem jail

Salem jail. Act 4 takes place in a jail cell, a dark place that looks empty even though two prisoners are kept here. All the prisoners are filthy, cold, and weak from hunger. The play ends in the jail, indicating that death is the ultimate outcome of such a cruel and narrow religion.


Forest. Wilderness west of Salem. The forest represents humankind’s pagan instincts, which the Puritans have set out to suppress. In spite of their role in the church, Parris has caught his own family members dancing with the devil in the forest. Although John Proctor cultivates the earth right to the edge of the forest, the forest itself remains wild and uncultivated.


*Andover. Massachusetts town a few miles from Salem in which rebellion against the court is rumored to be afoot. Parris fears it will spread to Salem.


*Boston. Leading Massachusetts city, located about twenty miles southwest of Salem. The judges come from the General Court of Boston, and Boston carries a great deal of weight with Salemites. A witch had been hanged in Boston two years before the opening of the play.


*Beverly. Massachusetts town a few miles from Salem from which the Reverend Hale comes. The town seems to be slightly more enlightened than Salem.

Literary Style

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The Meaning in Miller's Title
The title The Crucible hints at paradoxical concerns which run throughout the play. On the one hand, a crucible, as a melting pot in which metals are heated to separate out the base metals from the valuable ones, could represent the spiritual improvement which can happen to human beings as a result of trials and hardship. On the other hand, a crucible is also a witches' cauldron in which ingredients are brewed together to be used in black magic. In this sense, Miller might be suggesting that good can even come out of attempted evil, as well as the normal and healthy challenges of Christian life. In this sense, the events in Salem are seen as a necessary evil which roots out evil at the very heart of the community and which brings about a kind of cleansing; the events in Salem had to occur so that they would not be repeated in subsequent times.

Prose Inserts
To understand how The Crucible might be performed, and to appreciate it as a text as well as a script, it is helpful to examine Miller's prose inserts, which explain the action which is taking place in the dialogue. In his directions, Miller leaves very little room for interpretation; in almost didactic terms, he spells out the background to the witch trials and fleshes out characters, focusing particularly on their motives and the psychological states that lead them to be swept along by the tragedy. For example, early in Act 1 Miller provides a quick thumbnail sketch of Thomas Putnam which explains his grievances about land and the way the town is run and gives details of his vindictive and embittered nature. This information helps the reader to appreciate Putnam's desire to gain land and status later on in the play; by giving this background information, Miller encourages the reader to feel little sympathy for the greedy old man when he and his wife carry on with the accusations which their daughter (herself an obviously disturbed child) helps to set in motion. For a viewer watching the play, these facets of Putnam's character must be conveyed by the actor, but for the reader or the actor, they provide a useful framework

Historical realism is suggested by the language which Miller employs for his characters' speech. It is the language of the seventeenth century East Coast settlers and is often highly conversational. The women's language is particularly rich in jargon: for example, Rebecca Nurse says that she will "go to God for you" which means that she will pray, and Mrs. Putnam says "mark it for a sign" which means that she thinks that something is a sign from God. By using this language, which is significantly out of time from contemporary standards, Miller establishes the historical distance of the events. This helps the reader or viewer to imagine the strict nature of society and the manner in which religion permeated nearly every facet of the villagers' lives.

Reported Speech
Because neither the events in the woods nor in the courtroom are actually seen in the play, this information is provided by characters' reports of what has happened. The viewer or reader must piece together an understanding of the events and of the vested interest of those reporting. This is particularly apparent in the very first scene where the audience must figure out why Betty is lying in bed in a catatonic state, why Tituba is trying to reassure herself and others that everything will be alright, and why Reverend Parris is so angry. When reading the text, it is helpful to ask not only who is speaking and to whom, but also what motives they have for describing things the way they do to this particular person and at this time

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Key Ideas and Commentary


Historical and Social Context