The Crucible Overview

Arthur Miller's Allegorical Retelling of the Salem Witch Trials

Crucible Opening
Playwright Arthur Miller takes a bow March 7, 2002 during the opening of the play The Crucible at the Virginia Theater in New York City. The play is based on Miller's book. Dennis Clark / Getty Images

The Crucible is a play by American playwright Arthur Miller. Written in 1953, it is a dramatized and fictionalized retelling of the Salem witch trials that took place in the Massachusetts Bay Colony in 1692-1693. The majority of the characters are real historical figures, and the play serves as an allegory for McCarthyism.

Fast Facts: The Crucible

  • Title: The Crucible
  • Author: Arthur Miller
  • Publisher: Viking
  • Year Published: 1953
  • Genre: Drama
  • Type of Work: Play
  • Original Language: English
  • Themes: Mass hysteria and fear, reputation, conflict with authority, faith vs. knowledge, and unintended consequences
  • Major Characters: John Proctor, Abigail Williams, Elizabeth Proctor, John Hathorne, Jonathan Danforth 
  • Notable Adaptations: 1996 movie with a screenplay by Miller himself, starring Winona Ryder as Abigail Williams and Daniel Day Lewis as John Proctor; Ivo van Hove’s 2016 Broadway revival set in a classroom, with Saoirse Ronan as Abigail Williams
  • Fun Fact: Another Salem-themed play was circulating when The Crucible premiered. Jewish-German novelist and U.S. exile Lion Feuchtwanger wrote Wahn, Oder der Teufel in Boston in 1947, and he used the witch trials as an allegory for persecutions against suspected communists. It premiered in Germany in 1949 and in the U.S. in 1953.

Plot Summary

In 1962, accusations of witchcraft wreak havoc in the isolated and theocratic society of Salem. These rumors are largely encouraged by Abigail, a 17-year-old girl, in order to frame Elizabeth Proctor as a witch, so that she can win over her husband John Proctor. 

Characters: 

Reverend Samuel Parris. The minister of Salem and a former merchant, Parris is obsessed with his reputation. When the trials begin, he is appointed prosecutor and he helps convict the majority of those accused of witchcraft.

Tituba. Tituba is the Parris family's slave who was brought over from Barbados. She has knowledge of herbs and magic, and, before the events of the play, engaged in seances and potion-making activities with the local women. After being framed for witchcraft, she confesses and is subsequently imprisoned.

Abigail Williams. Abigail is the main antagonist. Before the events of the play, she worked as a maid for the Proctors, but was fired after suspicions of an affair between her and John Proctor began to rise. She accuses countless citizens of witchcraft, and eventually flees Salem.

Ann Putnam. A rich and well-connected member of Salem's elite. She believes witches to be responsible for the death of seven of her children, who died in infancy. As a consequence, she eagerly sides with Abigail.

Thomas Putnam. Ann Putnam's husband, he uses the accusations as cover to purchase land seized from those who were convicted.

John Proctor. John Proctor is the play’s protagonist and husband of Elizabeth Proctor. A local farmer marked by a spirit of independence and a penchant for questioning the dogmas, Proctor is shamed by an affair with Abigail before the events of the play. He tries to stay out of the trials at first, but when his wife Elizabeth is charged, he sets out to reveal Abigail's deception in court. His attempts are thwarted by the betrayal of his maid Mary Warren. As a consequence, John is accused of witchcraft and sentenced to hang.

Giles Corey. An elder Salem resident, Corey is a close friend of Proctor's. He becomes convinced that the trials are being used to steal land from the guilty and presents evidence to prove his claim. He refuses to reveal where he got the evidence and is sentenced to death by pressing.

Reverend John Hale. He is a minister from a nearby town who is reputed for his knowledge of witchcraft. While he starts out as a fervent believer in what "the books" state and eagerly cooperates with the court. He soon becomes disillusioned with the corruption and abuses of the trials and tries to save as many suspects as possible by getting them to confess. 

Elizabeth Proctor. John Proctor's wife, she is Abigail Williams' target in regards to the accusations of witchcraft. At first, she appears mistrustful of her husband for his adultery, but then forgives him when he refuses to confess to false charges.

Judge John Hathorne. Judge Hathorne is one of the two judges presiding over the court. A deeply pious man, he has unconditional faith in Abigail's testimony, which makes him responsible for the destruction wrought by the trials.  

Major Themes

Mass Hysteria and Fear. Fear is what starts the whole process of confessions and accusations, which, in turn, causes an atmosphere of mass hysteria. Abigail exploits both of them for her own interests, terrifying the other accusers and resorting to hysterics when things get difficult.

Reputation. As a clear theocracy, reputation is a most valued asset in Puritan Salem. The desire to protect one's reputation even drives some of the play's most important turning points. For example, Parris is fearful that his daughter's and niece's involvement in the alleged witchcraft ceremony will taint his reputation and force him off the pulpit. Likewise, John Proctor hides his affair with Abigail until his wife is implicated and he is left without a choice. And Elizabeth Proctor's desire to protect her husband's reputation tragically leads to his incrimination.

Conflict With Authority. In The Crucible, individuals are in conflict with other individuals, but this stems from an overarching conflict with authority. The theocracy in Salem is designed to keep the community together, and those who question it are immediately shunned.

Faith vs. Knowledge. The society of Salem had an unquestioning belief in religion: if religion says there are witches, then there must be witches. The society was also upheld by an unquestioned belief in the law, and society approached both of those tenets dogmatically. Yet, this surface shows numerous cracks.

Literary Style

The style in which the play is written reflects its historical setting. Even though Miller did not strive for perfect historical accuracy, as, in his words, "No one can really know what their lives were like," he adapted some of the idiosyncratic expressions used by the Puritan community that he found in written records. For example, "Goody" (Mrs); "I'd admire to know" (I'd very much like to know); "open with me" (tell me the truth); "pray" (please). There are also some grammatical uses which are different from modern usage. For example, the verb "to be" is often used differently: "it were" for "it was," and "it be" for "it is." This style establishes clear differentiations between the classes of people. In fact, most of the characters' attitudes are revealed by the way they speak. 

About the Author

Arthur Miller wrote The Crucible in 1953, at the height of McCarthyism, with the witch hunt being a parallel to the hunt for suspected communists. Even though The Crucible was a critical and commercial success, which awarded him his second Pulitzer Prize, it also attracted negative attention onto Miller: in June 1956 he was subpoenaed to appear before the House Un-American Activities Committee