The Crucible – Act I: Opening scene to the entrance of John Proctor

Summary
The play is set in Salem, Massachusetts, 1692;
the government is a theocracy—rule by God through religious officials.
Hard work and church consume the majority of a Salem resident’s
time. Within the community, there are simmering disputes over land.
Matters of boundaries and deeds are a source of constant, bitter
disagreements.
As the play opens, Reverend Parris kneels in prayer in
front of his daughter’s bed. Ten-year-old Betty Parris lies in an
unmoving, unresponsive state. Parris is a grim, stern man suffering
from paranoia. He believes that the members of his congregation
should not lift a finger during religious services without his permission.
The rumor that Betty is the victim of witchcraft is running rampant
in Salem, and a crowd has gathered in Parris’s parlor. Parris has
sent for Reverend John Hale of Beverly, an expert on witchcraft,
to determine whether Betty is indeed bewitched. Parris berates his
niece, Abigail Williams, because he discovered her, Betty, and several
other girls dancing in the forest in the middle of the night with
his slave, Tituba. Tituba was intoning unintelligible words and
waving her arms over a fire, and Parris thought he spotted someone
running naked through the trees.
Abigail denies that she and the girls engaged in witchcraft.
She states that Betty merely fainted from shock when her father
caught them dancing. Parris fears that his enemies will use the
scandal to drive him out of his ministerial office. He asks Abigail
if her name and reputation are truly unimpeachable. Elizabeth Proctor,
a local woman who once employed Abigail at her home but subsequently fired
her, has stopped attending church regularly. There are rumors that
Elizabeth does not want to sit so close to a soiled woman. Abigail
denies any wrongdoing and asserts that Elizabeth hates her because
she would not work like a slave. Parris asks why no other family
has hired Abigail if Elizabeth is a liar. Abigail insinuates that Parris
is only worried about her employment status because he begrudges
her upkeep.
Thomas Putnam and his wife enter the room. Putnam holds
one of the play’s many simmering grudges. His brother-in-law was
a candidate for the Salem ministry, but a small faction thwarted
his relative’s aspirations. Mrs. Putnam reports that their own daughter, Ruth,
is as listless as Betty, and she claims that someone saw Betty flying
over a neighbor’s barn.
Mrs. Putnam had seven babies that each died within a day
of its birth. Convinced that someone used witchcraft to murder them,
she sent Ruth to Tituba to contact the spirits of her dead children
in order to discover the identity of the murderer. Parris berates
Abigail anew and asserts that she and the girls were indeed practicing
witchcraft. Putnam urges Parris to head off his enemies and promptly announce
that he has discovered witchcraft. Mercy Lewis, the Putnams’ servant,
drops in and reports that Ruth seems better. Parris agrees to meet
the crowd and lead them in a prayer, but he refuses to mention witchcraft
until he gets Reverend Hale’s opinion.
Once they are alone, Abigail updates Mercy on the current
situation. Mary Warren, the servant for the Proctor household, enters the
room in a breathless, nervous state. She frets that they will all
be labeled witches before long. Betty sits up suddenly and cries
for her mother, but her mother is dead and buried. Abigail tells
the girls that she has told Parris everything about their activities
in the woods, but Betty cries that Abigail did not tell Parris about
drinking blood as a charm to kill Elizabeth Proctor, John Proctor’s
wife. Abigail strikes Betty across the face and warns the other
girls to confess only that they danced and that
Tituba conjured Ruth’s dead sisters. She threatens to kill them
if they breathe a word about the other things that they did. She
shakes Betty, but Betty has returned to her unmoving, unresponsive
state.
Analysis

The Crucible is a play about the intersection
of private sins with paranoia, hysteria, and religious intolerance.
The citizens of Arthur Miller’s Salem of 1692 would
consider the very concept of a private life heretical. The government
of Salem, and of Massachusetts as a whole, is a theocracy, with
the legal system based on the Christian Bible. Moral laws and state
laws are one and the same; sin and the status of an individual’s
soul are public concerns. An individual’s private life must conform
to the moral laws, or the individual represents a threat to the
public good.
Regulating the morality of citizens requires surveillance.
For every inhabitant of Salem, there is a potential witness to the
individual’s private crimes. State officials patrol the township,
requiring citizens to give an account of their activities. Free
speech is not a protected right, and saying the wrong thing can
easily land a citizen in jail. Most of the punishments, such as
the stocks, whipping, and hangings, are public, with the punishment
serving to shame the lawbreaker and remind the public that to disagree
with the state’s decisions is to disagree with God’s will.

The Crucible introduces a community full
of underlying personal grudges. Religion pervades every aspect of
life, but it is a religion that lacks a ritual outlet to manage
emotions such as anger, jealousy, or resentment. By 1692,
Salem has become a fairly established community, removed from its
days as an outpost on a hostile frontier. Many of the former dangers
that united the community in its early years have lessened, while
interpersonal feuds and grudges over property, religious offices,
and sexual behavior have begun to simmer beneath the theocratic
surface. These tensions, combined with the paranoia about supernatural
forces, pervade the town’s religious sensibility and provide the
raw materials for the hysteria of the witch trials.
On the surface, Parris appears to be an anxious, worried
father. However, if we pay close attention to his language, we find
indications that he is mainly worried about his reputation, not
the welfare of his daughter and their friends. He fears that Abigail,
Betty, and the other girls were engaging in witchcraft when he caught
them dancing, and his first concern is not the endangerment of their
souls but the trouble that the scandal will cause him. It is possible—and likely,
from his point of view—that members in the community would make
use of a moral transgression to ruin him. Parris’s anxiety about
the insecurity of his office reveals the extent to which conflicts
divide the Salem community. Not even those individuals who society
believes are invested with God’s will can control the whim of the
populace.
The idea of guilt by association is central to the events
in The Crucible, as it is one of the many ways
in which the private, moral behavior of citizens can be regulated.
An individual must fear that the sins of his or her friends and
associates will taint his or her own name. Therefore, the individual
is pressured to govern his or her private relationships according
to public opinion and public law. To solidify one’s good name, it
is necessary to publicly condemn the wrongdoing of others. In this
way, guilt by association also reinforces the publicization of private
sins. Even before the play begins, Abigail’s increasingly questionable
reputation, in light of her unexplained firing by the upright Elizabeth
Proctor, threatens her uncle Parris’s tenuous hold on power and
authority in the community. The allegations of witchcraft only render
her an even greater threat to him.
Putnam, meanwhile, has his own set of grudges against
his fellow Salemites. A rich man from an influential Salem family,
he believes that his status grants him the right to worldly success.
Yet he has been thwarted, both in his efforts to make his brother-in-law
minister, and in his family life, where his children have all died
in infancy. Putnam is well positioned to use the witch trials to
express his feelings of persecution and undeserved failure, and
to satisfy his need for revenge. His wife feels similarly wronged—like
many Puritans, she is all too willing to blame the tragic deaths
of her children on supernatural causes—and seeks similar retribution
for what she perceives as the malevolent doings of others.