Arthur Miller's 'The Crucible': Plot Summary

The Salem Witch Trials Come to Life on Stage

Actors Madeline Sherwood (rear 2L), Arthur Kennedy
The LIFE Picture Collection via Getty Images / Getty Images

Written in the early 1950s, Arthur Miller’s play "The Crucible" takes place in Salem, Massachusetts, during the 1692 Salem witch trials. This was a time when paranoia, hysteria, and deceit gripped the Puritan towns of New England. Miller captured the events in a riveting story that is now considered a modern classic in the theater. He wrote it during the "Red Scare" of the 1950s and used the Salem witch trials as a metaphor for the "witch hunts" of communists in America. 

"The Crucible" has been adapted for the screen twice. The first film was in 1957, directed by Raymond Rouleau and the second was in 1996, starring Winona Ryder and Daniel Day-Lewis.

As we look at a summary of each of the four acts in "The Crucible," notice how Miller adds plot twists with a complex array of characters. It is historical fiction, based on documentation of the famous trials and is a compelling production for any actor or theatergoer. 

"The Crucible": Act One

The initial scenes take place in the home of Reverend Parris, the town’s spiritual leader. His ten-year-old daughter, Betty, lies in bed, unresponsive. She and the other local girls spent the previous evening performing a ritual while dancing in the wilderness. Abigail, Parris’ seventeen-year-old niece, is the "wicked" leader of the girls.

Mr. and Mrs. Putnam, loyal followers of Parris, are very concerned for their own sickly daughter. The Putnams are the first to openly suggest that witchcraft is plaguing the town. They insist that Parris root out the witches within the community. Not surprisingly, they suspect anyone who despises Reverend Parris, or any member who fails to attend church on a regular basis.

Halfway through Act One, the play's tragic hero, John Proctor, enters the Parris household to check on the still comatose Betty. He seems uncomfortable to be alone with Abigail.

Through dialogue, we learn that young Abigail used to work in the Proctors' home, and the seemingly humble farmer Proctor had an affair with her seven months ago. When John Proctor's wife found out, she sent Abigail away from their home. Since then, Abigail has been scheming to remove Elizabeth Proctor so that she can claim John to herself.

Reverend Hale, a self-proclaimed specialist in the art of detecting witches, enters the Parris household. John Proctor is quite skeptical of Hale’s purpose and soon leaves for home.

Hale confronts Tituba, Reverend Parris' enslaved woman from Barbados, pressuring her to admit her association with the Devil. Tituba believes that the only way to avoid being executed is to lie, so she begins to invent stories about being in league with the Devil.

Abigail then sees her chance to stir up an enormous amount of mayhem. She behaves as though she is bewitched. When the curtain draws on Act One, the audience realizes that every person mentioned by the girls is in severe danger.

"The Crucible": Act Two

Set in Proctor’s home, the act begins by showing the daily life of John and Elizabeth. The protagonist has returned from seeding his farmland. Here, their dialogue reveals that the couple is still coping with tension and frustration relative to John's affair with Abigail. Elizabeth cannot yet trust her husband. Likewise, John has not yet forgiven himself.

Their marital problems shift, however, when Reverend Hale appears at their door. We learn that many women, including the saintly Rebecca Nurse, have been arrested on the charge of witchcraft. Hale is suspicious of the Proctor family because they don’t go to church every Sunday.

Moments later, officials from Salem arrive. Much to Hale’s surprise, they arrest Elizabeth Proctor. Abigail has accused her of witchcraft and attempted murder via black magic and voodoo dolls. John Proctor promises to free her, but he is enraged by the injustice of the situation.

"The Crucible": Act Three

John Proctor convinces one of the "spellbound" girls, his servant Mary Warren, to admit that they were only pretending during all of their demonic fits. The court is overseen by Judge Hawthorne and Judge Danforth, two very serious men who self-righteously believe that they can never be fooled.

John Proctor brings forth Mary Warren who very timidly explains that she and the girls have never seen any spirits or devils. Judge Danforth does not want to believe this.

Abigail and the other girls enter the courtroom. They defy the truth that Mary Warren tries to reveal. This charade angers John Proctor and, in a violent outburst, he calls Abigail a harlot. He reveals their affair. Abigail vehemently denies it. John swears that his wife can confirm the affair. He emphasizes that his wife never lies.

To determine the truth, Judge Danforth summons Elizabeth into the courtroom. Hoping to save her husband, Elizabeth denies that her husband had ever been with Abigail. Unfortunately, this dooms John Proctor.

Abigail leads the girls in a make-believe fit of possession. Judge Danforth is convinced that Mary Warren has gained a supernatural hold upon the girls. Frightened for her life, Mary Warren claims that she too is possessed and that John Proctor is "the Devil’s man." Danforth places John under arrest.

"The Crucible": Act Four

Three months later, John Proctor is chained in a dungeon. Twelve members of the community have been executed for witchcraft. Many others, including Tituba and Rebecca Nurse, sit in jail, awaiting hanging. Elizabeth is still incarcerated, but since she is pregnant she won’t be executed for at least another year.

The scene reveals a very distraught Reverend Parris. Several nights ago, Abigail ran away from home, stealing his life savings in the process.

He now realizes that if well-loved townspeople such as Proctor and Rebecca Nurse are executed, the citizens might retaliate with sudden and extreme violence. Therefore, he and Hale have been trying to solicit confessions from the prisoners in order to spare them from the hangman’s noose.

Rebecca Nurse and the other prisoners choose not to lie, even at the cost of their lives. John Proctor, however, does not want to die like a martyr. He wants to live.

Judge Danforth states that if John Proctor signs a written confession his life will be saved. John reluctantly agrees. They also pressure him to implicate others, but John is unwilling to do this.

Once he signs the document, he refuses to hand over the confession. He doesn’t want his name to be posted to the door of the church. He declares, “How may I live without my name? I have given you my soul; leave me my name!” Judge Danforth demands the confession. John Proctor rips it to pieces.

The judge condemns Proctor to hang. He and Rebecca Nurse are taken to the gallows. Hale and Parris are both devastated. They urge Elizabeth to plead with John and the judge so that he might be spared. However, Elizabeth, on the verge of collapse, says, “He has his goodness now. God forbid I take it from him!”

The curtains close with the eerie sound of drums rattling. The audience knows that John Proctor and the others are moments away from execution.

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Bradford, Wade. "Arthur Miller's 'The Crucible': Plot Summary." ThoughtCo, Aug. 29, 2020, Bradford, Wade. (2020, August 29). Arthur Miller's 'The Crucible': Plot Summary. Retrieved from Bradford, Wade. "Arthur Miller's 'The Crucible': Plot Summary." ThoughtCo. (accessed April 1, 2023).