Using the historical subject of the Salem Witch Trials, Arthur Miller's play The Crucible (1953) presents an allegory for events in contemporary America. The Salem Witch Trials took place in Salem, Massachusetts in 1692, and were based on the accusations of a twelve-year-old girl named Anne Putnam. Putnam claimed that she had witnessed a number of Salem's residents holding black sabbaths and consorting with Satan. Based on these accusations, an English-American clergyman named Samuel Parris spearheaded the prosecution of dozens of alleged witches in the Massachusetts colony. Nineteen people were hanged and one pressed to death over the following two years.
Miller's play employs these historical events to criticize the moments in humankind's history when reason and fact became clouded by irrational fears and the desire to place the blame for society's problems on others. Dealing with elements such as false accusations, manifestations of mass hysteria, and rumor-mongering, The Crucible is seen by many as more of a commentary on "McCarthyism" than the actual Salem trials. "McCarthyism" was the name given to a movement led by Senator Joe McCarthy and his House Committee on Un-American Activities. This movement involved the hunting down and exposing of people suspected of having communist sympathies or connections. While those found guilty in McCarthy's witch hunt were not executed, many suffered irreparable damage to their reputations. Miller himself came under suspicion during this time.
While The Crucible achieved its greatest resonance in the 1950s—when McCarthy's reign of terror was still fresh in the public's mind—Miller's work has elements that have continued to provoke and enthrall audiences. That the play works on a wider allegorical level is suggested by the frequency with which it has been performed since the 1950s and by the way that it has been applied to a wide number of similar situations in different cultures and periods. For example, Miller reported in the Detroit News a conversation he had with a Chinese woman writer who was imprisoned under the communist regime in her own country who said that "when she saw the play in 88 or 89 in Shanghai, she couldn't believe a non-Chinese had written it." The play speaks to anyone who has lived in a society where the questioning of authority and of the general opinion leads to rejection and punishment.
The play opens in Salem, Massachusetts, 1692, with the Reverend Samuel Parris praying over the bed of his daughter Betty. Abigail, his niece, enters with news from the Doctor that there is no explanation for Betty's inertia and disturbed state of mind. As their conversation progresses and he questions her, it is revealed that Betty has fallen into this state after her father found her in the woods dancing around a fire with Abigail, Tituba (Parris's slave from the island of Barbados), and other young women from the town. Parris warns Abigail that her reputation is already under suspicion as she has been dismissed from the service of Goody Proctor and has not been hired since. With the arrival of Goody Putnam, it is further revealed that her daughter Ruth is in a similar condition and that she was dancing in an attempt to communicate with her dead sisters.
Parris leaves to lead the recital of a psalm. Abigail reveals to Mercy, the Putnams' servant, that Mercy was seen naked. When Mary Warren, the Proctors' servant arrives, she suggests that they tell the truth and just be whipped for dancing, rather than risk being hanged for witchcraft. Betty wakes and tries to fly out of the window and then accuses Abigail of having drunk blood to make Goody Proctor die. Abigail warns them not to say any more.
When the farmer John Proctor arrives, Abigail's flirtation with him (which he resists) suggests that she has been sexually involved with him in the past. She tells him that it is all pretense and that Betty is just scared. Meanwhile, a psalm can be heard from below and at the phrase "going up to Jesus," Betty cries out. Parris and the others rush into the room, interpreting Betty's outburst as a sign that witchcraft is at work in the young woman. Rebecca Nurse, a wise old woman, comforts Betty. Parris has sent for Reverend Hale, who has past experience with witchcraft; Hale arrives with his many books. Tituba is questioned, and after a considerable amount of pressure, names women who she has seen with the Devil. Joining in the hysterical atmosphere, which is beginning to prevail, Abigail adds more names to the list, as does Betty.
The setting shifts to the home of the Proctors. Elizabeth Proctor tells John that Mary, their servant, keeps going to the court to take part in the trial proceedings which have begun in the eight days that have elapsed between Acts 1 and 2. Elizabeth begs John to reveal to the investigators what Abigail told him about it all being pretense, but he is unwilling. She is suspicious that this is because he has feelings for Abigail. The servant Mary returns from the court and gives Elizabeth a rag doll which she made while at the court. In the following angry conversation between Mary and John (who threatens to whip her), she reveals that Elizabeth has been accused but says that she spoke against the accusation.
Hale arrives and questions the Proctors. To prove that they are Christian people, he asks John to recite the Ten Commandments. Revealingly, given his recent liaison with Abigail, John can remember them all except "Thou shalt not commit adultery," which Elizabeth supplies for him. Giles Corey and Francis Nurse arrive and report that their wives have been taken to prison. Ezekiel Cheever, the clerk of the court, arrives and, seeing the doll, lifts up its skirt to reveal the needle which Mary left in the stomach after knitting. This he connects with Abigail's recent falling to the floor with stomach pains which were found to be caused by a needle. Mary notes that Abigail sat next to her in court while she made the puppet. When the others have gone, Proctor insists that Mary must tell the court what Abigail has been doing, but she refuses, saying that she is too scared. Proctor throws her onto the ground.
In the courtroom, tensions and long-standing battles among members of the Salem community are brought to the fore, as Corey accuses Putnam of trying to take his land (which, were he convicted, he would be forced to sell and which Putnam would gladly purchase). Later in the scene Corey accuses Putnam of persuading his daughter to make accusations against George Jacobs so that his land would also be forfeited.
Proctor and Mary arrive and Mary confesses that the testimonies were a fabrication. Proctor is told that Elizabeth is pregnant and cannot be sentenced. Proctor presents a petition from members of the town supporting Elizabeth, Rebecca Nurse, and Martha Corey, but he is accused by Governor Danforth of undermining the court. Danforth then demands that all the people who have signed the petition be arrested.
Abigail, with her friends, denies lying and acts as if she is being bewitched by Mary. Proctor angrily pulls her by the hair and, to avoid her having any hold over him, confesses to adultery with her. Abigail denies this, and when Elizabeth is brought in, she does the same, thinking to protect her husband. Hale believes Proctor, but Danforth does not. To distract the proceedings when they seem to be turning against her, Abigail points upwards and claims to see a great bird in the rafters which she interprets as Mary trying to hurt her. The other girls join in the accusation and Mary gives in and takes their side, accusing Proctor of being on the side of the devil. He is arrested along with Giles Corey. Hale leaves after denouncing the entire proceedings.
Parris informs the investigators that Abigail has taken money from his safe and left town. He fears rebellion among his congregation, only a few of whom came to the church to hear John Proctor's excommunication. Hale reasons that the accused must be pardoned since they have not confessed and describes how: "There are orphans wandering from house to house; abandoned cattle bellow on the highroads, the stink of rotting crops hands everywhere, and no man knows when the harlot's cry will end his life." However, Danforth refuses to give in as twelve people have already been hanged; he speaks of his determination to extract a confession from Proctor.
Proctor and Elizabeth are left to talk alone. She informs him that while many have confessed, Rebecca Nurse still refuses to do so. She also reveals that Giles Corey refused to answer the charge and died under the pressure of huge stones that were placed on his chest in an effort to torture him into confessing. His final words were "more weight." In the presence of the investigators who then return, Proctor is on the brink of confessing. When Rebecca is brought in to hear him and, the investigators hope, learn from his example, he changes his mind, refusing to name others and finally tearing up his confession. As the prisoners are taken away to be hanged, Parris rushes after them, and Hale pleads with Elizabeth to intervene. But she will not. The play ends with Hale weeping.
Tituba: Tituba is Reverend Parris's black slave and a native of the island of Barbados. She is suspected of black magic due to the traditions of Voodoo that were prevalent in her home country. She is genuinely fond of Abigail and Betty. The events bring out her superstitious nature, and her fears become uncontrolled, eventually degenerating into madness when she is in jail.
Abigail Williams: In the character of Abigail are embodied many of the main issues of the play. Her accusations initially reveal a mischievous enjoyment in wielding power over other people's lives. But the fact that the events which they set in motion seem to far outweigh the initial mischief suggests that the community of Salem has embedded in its fabric elements of social corruption, moral disease, or unresolved and repressed feelings of anger and hostility. Abigail's actions should be seen as an effect rather than a cause of the town's accusatory environment.
It is noteworthy that, because her parents were brutally killed, she is without adults to whom she is close: Parris cares for her material needs, but there is no evidence that they are emotionally close or that he provides her with anything but the most basic of guidance. Her adulterous relationship with John Proctor might be seen as a craving for affection which, in the absence of family love, manifests itself in physical desire. Her eventual escape to Boston where it is reported she became a prostitute suggests the same craving for emotional love through physical intimacy. Abigail's apparent belief in witchcraft may have similar roots to her sexual neediness. It is psychologically plausible that she would need to find an alternative to the strict and, it seems, loveless Puritanism of her uncle, and that this would attract her to precisely the things—black magic, physical expression, and sexual conjuring—which the religion of her community forbids (she craved attention regardless of whether it was positive or negative attention). She is at once a frightening and pitiable character, malicious in her accusations and sad in her need for close human contact and attention.
Betty Parris: Reverend Parris's daughter, Betty, is caught up in the fear and accusations which are generated after the girls are discovered dancing in the woods. It is not revealed whether her illness is feigned or if it is a genuine physical response to a traumatic situation, but it is clear that she is easily influenced and deeply affected by her experiences.
Reverend Samuel Parris: Parris, Salem's minister, and Abigail's uncle, is a weak character who appears to enjoy and to be protective of the status which his position brings. This aspect of his personality is evident in his dispute about whether the provision of his firewood should be take out of his salary or is extra to it. He is concerned with appearances, and, when interrogating Abigail about her dealings with witches in the opening scene, he seems to worry more about what these activities will mean to his reputation than Abigail's spiritual state. He continues to follow public opinion right to the end of the play, when he insists that Proctor's confession must be made publicly in order for it to be effective.
John Proctor: The central figure in the play, Proctor is an ordinary man, a blunt farmer who speaks his mind and is often ruled by his passions. It is revealed early in the play that he has had an adulterous affair with Abigail, who worked as his servant. Yet he clearly shows remorse for his act and is attempting to right his error; he is conciliatory with his wife, Elizabeth, and disdainful of Abigail's sexual advances.
When the accusations fly at the trials, he is determined to tell the truth, even if it means criticizing and antagonizing the investigators. His determination to expose Abigail's false accusations eventually leads him to admit his own adultery to the court. He is at his most self-aware in his final speech when he realizes the importance of maintaining his integrity. Explaining why he has recanted his confession, he cries: "Because it is my name! Because I cannot have another in my life! Because I lie and sign myself to lies! Because I am not worth the dust on the feet of them that hang! How may I live without my name? I have given you my soul, leave me my name!"
Goody Elizabeth Proctor: Although both her husband and Abigail remark on her coolness, Elizabeth is gentle and devoted to her family. Her goodness and dignity are evident in the way that she argues calmly against Hale and Danforth's accusations. Her loyalty to John is most clearly demonstrated when, thinking to protect him, she denies that he has committed adultery. Her acceptance of John's decision to recant his confession further illustrates her wisdom and her ability to grasp the wider issues of morality and personal integrity for which her husband is willing to die.
Reverend John Hale: Hale embodies many of the moral contradictions of the play: he is a man of integrity who, although at times misguided and overzealous, is willing to change his mind when confronted with the truth. Despite this admirable trait, he lacks the moral conviction to act against proceedings that will condemn innocents to death. He comes to realize that John Proctor is guilty of nothing more than adultery yet he lacks the courage to question the decisions of the court and the prevailing attitude of seventeenth century society. While his fair-mindedness and humanity deserve a measure of respect, Hale's inability to perceive—and endorse—the power in Proctor's stand for personal virtue leaves his character ignorant and weak.
Judge Hathorne: Hathorne is a "bitter, remorseless Salem judge" who has bigotted views although he appears courteous and respectful on the surface.
Deputy Governor Danforth: Danforth is described as a "grave man of some humor and sophistication that does not, however, interfere with an exact loyalty to his position and his cause." Contrary to the strong and proficient appearance he puts forth, however, he is revealed to be, at times, distracted and uncomprehending of the proceedings over which he presides. Although, like Hale, he is presented with considerable evidence that Proctor and the others are innocent, he refuses to grant them clemency. He argues that it would reflect badly on the court if he released prisoners after executing a number of people accused of the same crimes—regardless of their innocence. He is a stubborn man who sees no flexibility in the law and whose pride and position will not allow him to reverse a previous decision.
Goody Ann Putnam: Goody Putnam is "a twisted soul ... a death-ridden woman haunted by bad dreams." The death of all of her children has affected her deeply. Her pain has been turned into a vindictiveness which is directed at Rebecca Nurse.
Thomas Putnam: Putnam is "a well-to-do hard-handed landowner" who attempts to benefit from the accusations made against other members of the community. Giles Corey accuses him of taking advantage of accused landowners' plights. Knowing that the convicted will be forced to sell their land for much less than it is worth, Putnam is all too eager to attain these properties at cut-rate prices. He has many grievances, and his vengeful, angry behavior seems to stem from his desire for power and possessions.
Mary Warren: Mary Warren is the Proctors' servant who seems timid and subservient but who finds a powerful role in a kind of people's jury in the courtroom. She occasionally dares to defy Proctor, particularly in her insistence that she must attend the hearings, but she is easily intimidated into at least partial submission. Proctor convinces her that she must expose Abigail's lies to the court, which she agrees to do. She becomes hysterical before the court, however, and soon joins Abigail in pretending that there is evil witchcraft at work. Her behavior in the court contributes, in part, to John Proctor's arrest.
Mercy Lewis: The Putnam's servant, Mercy Lewis is described as "a fat, sly, merciless girl." She quickly follows Abigail in her accusations and finds a power and confidence in accusation which contrasts with her usually fearful demeanor.
Susanna Walcott: Susanna Walcott is carried along by the hysteria of the other girls, enjoying the attention which they get from making accusations. Otherwise she is nervous and tense.
Goody Rebecca Nurse: When Rebecca is accused of witchcraft it becomes clear that the town has lapsed into collective madness as she stands out uniquely as a woman of great wisdom, compassion, and moral strength. She is gentle and loving, deeply spiritual, and a mother of eleven children and twenty-six grandchildren. Her moral character and strong sense of her own goodness is evident in her adamant refusal to sign a confession. When she is brought into the room where John Proctor is about to sign his confession, her presence proves pivotal in Proctor's decision to take a stand for integrity and not sign the confession.
Francis Nurse: Nurse is a hard-working, honest member of the community who is shocked by his wife, Rebecca's arrest. Both he and his wife are shown to be kindly town elders who, before the accusations fly, are highly respected and liked by all. He is more or less an innocent bystander whose life is turned upside down by the hysteria that grips Salem.
Giles Corey: An old man, Giles Corey is "knotted with muscle, canny, inquisitive, and still powerful.... He didn't give a hoot for public opinion, and only in his last years did he bother much with the church.... He was a crank and a nuisance, but withal a deeply innocent and brave man." Corey refuses to answer the charges levied against him and is crushed to death beneath heavy stones that are placed upon his chest by the inquisitors, who are attempting to torture a confession out of him. Because he neither admitted the charge nor denied it and risked being hanged, his property passed to his sons instead of the town. His refusal to cooperate and his disdain for the trials is illustrated in his last words before he dies beneath the stones: "More weight."
Goody Sarah Good: Goody Good is a ragged and crazy woman who seems to live on the edges of town life. Although past child-bearing age, she is thought to be pregnant. The fact that she is eventually jailed as a witch suggests how eager the townspeople are to condemn anyone who does not conform to the accepted norms of their community.
Ezekiel Cheever: Cheever is a tailor and a clerk of the court who places great importance in his job, which he sees as a holy one. He is at once fearful, embarrassed, apologetic, and a little officious. He discovers the doll that Mary knitted for Elizabeth Proctor. Discovering a needle in the doll's stomach, he believes that Elizabeth is practicing some kind of witchcraft that has affected Abigail.
Marshall Herrick: Herrick seems to be the gentle and courteous side of law enforcement in Salem. He follows the law carefully, treats people gently, and has the respect of the townspeople. Despite this, he is still a participant in the inquisition that results in the executions of numerous residents.