Arthur Miller’s ”The Crucible” is one of the most performed American dramas, and its richly imagined, conflicted and passionate characters are one reason for the play’s popularity.

Miller’s The Crucible

Arthur Miller, one of 20th century America’s most influential and visionary playwrights, wrote The Crucible in 1952. Its strength lies both in its historically researched depiction of hysteria in the Salem, Massachusetts community in 1692 and in its relevance to modern life. The Crucible is a stunning criticism of the environment of blame and distrust created by McCarthyism in the US in the 1950s. In it, Miller likens the anti-communist atmosphere created by the House Committee on Un-American Activities to witch-trials, travesties of justice.

Miller used the historical record of trial proceedings and other records from 1692 Salem to inform his characters, although The Crucible is an imaginative rendering of that time and place. What begins as a bid for repressed teenage girls in Salem to get attention becomes an opportunity for mean-spirited individuals to denounce their neighbors. The accusers get away with this behavior because they say the Devil is at work, and because the strict, Puritan religious community of Salem says it is illegal to be a witch, the law is actually on the accusers’ side. When judges are brought in from outside the community to discover the witches, they begin a reign of terror, imprisoning and eventually executing innocent people. Therefore, Miller builds up characterization by means of both action and dialogue.

The Proctors and Abigail Williams

John Proctor is a farmer in his 40s in the Salem community. He is known for being blunt, hard-working, intense, and short-tempered. Elizabeth is his wife, dignified and devout. Proctor is swept into the conflict of the witch trials because, before the events of the play, he has had an adulterous affair with Abigail Williams, his servant. At the beginning of the play, the Proctors’ relationship is on shaky ground. Elizabeth is hurt at John’s infidelity, and John is desperate to prove that he can be a good husband.

Abigail Williams is one of the teenage girls who make accusations. An orphan, Abigail has been raised by her uncle Reverend Parris. She is selfish, cynical, and manipulative, discarding friends and eventually fleeing the Salem community when her deception is discovered. Nevertheless, Abigail feels John has done her wrong by seducing her and then abandoning her.

Abigail eventually denounces Elizabeth as a witch as revenge. John’s anger makes him vulnerable to the accusations; the judges are able to twist his righteous indignation into an admission of guilt. John stubbornly refuses to go along with the judges. When he wavers, he is inspired by the selfless example of other elders of the Salem community, also falsely accused, and ends the play by going to the gallows, having never admitted to anything but his own innocence. Through the crucible of the trials, John and Elizabeth rediscover their love for each other and forgive each other.

Reverend Samuel Parris and Reverend John Hale

Reverend Samuel Parris is the third minister to Salem in seven years and is worried about his job security. Father to a child who has fits and convulsions, he fears that he will be cast out of the community for irreligious conduct by association. Instead, his daughter and the other teenage girls of Salem, including Abigail Williams, turn the tables and begin accusing convenient social outcasts of cursing them on the Devil’s behalf. Miller makes Parris a concentration of all the worst aspects of religion: pride, fanaticism, and hypocrisy. Parris only begins to question the validity of the trials when they start to threaten him personally.

Reverend Parris sends for Reverend John Hale, a minister from nearby Beverly, to help him seek out the evil in the community. Reverend Hale is generally rational and conscientious, more so than many of the people in Salem, but he truly believes witches exist. He ends the play in a state of doubt, having seen townspeople use the mask of religion to achieve their own ends.

Thomas and Ann Putnam

In the real Salem trials, there were probably people like Thomas and Ann Putnam, characters who profit from the misery of others and the fracturing of their community. The Putnams are some of the wealthiest people in Salem, but Thomas always believes others are trying to topple him from his position. Greedy and manipulative, they take advantage of the situation and are ready to throw blame onto others.

Image from the Salem witch trials

Tituba and Sarah Good

Tituba is Reverend Parris’ African slave whom he brought from Barbados and who has a closer relationship with the teenage girls of Salem than they do with other adults. As a marginalized figure due to her outsider status, Tituba is one of the first targets of the community’s malice. At Abigail’s insistence that Tituba make her a voodoo love potion for John Proctor, Tituba leads the girls in a subversive dance on the outskirts of the town, which is eventually represented as being an appeal to the Devil although it was completely harmless. Sarah Good is another social outcast as a drunkard and a vagrant. Both women, when accused of witchcraft, would rather confess to it and be imprisoned than hang. Miller uses these characters to show how people are persuaded into collaboration for their own self-preservation.

Lesson Summary

The Crucible remains a popular play because it provides a sobering history lesson and remains relevant to almost any time and place. Miller creates characters who are highly flawed to illustrate the conditions that lead up to events like the trials: the Proctors’ relationship trouble and John’s affair with Abigail lead to Abigail’s need for revenge, and the agitation and anxiety of characters like Parris and the Putnams is primed to turn into blame against social outcasts like Tituba and Sarah Good.