The first words – the Crucible – of this play serve as an excellent guide to the forthcoming events of paranoia and hysteria. A crucible is an object, in which materials, often metals, are heated to extreme temperatures where they are then purified. This play shows a community in Salem, Massachusetts in the late 17th century, which ignites, and burns with accusations of witchcraft, retribution, and mass hysteria. In this essay however, I will explore the first act of the play, which forms a strong foundation for the events that are soon to spiral out of control.
The first act deals with all the main characters that symbolise the ideas dealt with within the play. I shall discuss each of the characters in turn and the role that they play in ‘The Crucible’. In my opinion, it is use of characters that makes a play effective, and it is important that the reader can relate to them. In this play, without the complexity of the characters and their motives, I believe that ‘The Crucible’ would not have such tensions, and the heights of such intensity would not be reached by the accusations of witchcraft.
The setting that Miller chooses for this play is particularly important. Miller establishes at the start of Act One that life in Salem is very rigid and has a close-knit society. This quality of the society in Salem makes it particularly receptive to the mass hysteria of the witch trials that are soon to follow.
Salem was governed by religious power, as it describes at the beginning of Act One “the people of Salem developed a theocracy … material or ideological enemies”. They desired to be protected from the outside world, and therefore the community became a very close one in which secrets could not lie hidden for any period of time. Conflicts had been repressed and thanks to the accusations these “long held hatreds of neighbours could not be openly expressed, and vengeance taken”. In order to understand the circumstances that are witnessed in ‘The Crucible’, we must look beyond.
In humans’ quest to know everything in the universe, and explain every event precisely, people become desperate to learn the truth. This forces people to turn to the supernatural, and confront the devil. In Act One, the issues are presented straight away with religion, the work of God, and the supernatural, the work of the Devil, going hand in hand. The first example of this turning to the supernatural is Susanna Walcott saying, “You might look to unnatural things for the cause of it”. She says this after barely a page of the play, giving the reader a taste of what is to come. I think that the implantation of the issue of religion and the supernatural are reflected in the characters, and that this contributes to the conflict throughout the entire play.
In order to understand the strong conflicts that emerge between the characters, it is necessary to learn of their backgrounds and the past. Miller deals with this very well, not only relying upon the dialogue, situation and setting but a number of passages that familiarize the reader to the character’s backgrounds. Indeed in the First Act, there are many historical digressions that cannot be conveyed through theatrical devices.
There are three characters that represent the supernatural and its uncontrollable qualities, with three characters that oppose the witchcraft accusations. Reverend Hale is probably the most complex character due to his contradictory beliefs, and his ability to change sides. Firstly, I will deal with the characters that instigate the witch trials in Salem. Miller chooses the Reverend Samuel Parris to be the man who symbolises the paranoia that characterise the trials.
Miller establishes Parris as a materialistic man whose main concern is his reputation and status in the community. We can tell this from Parris asking for the deeds to his house unlike any preacher before him. He explains, saying, “I want a mark of confidence … majority feels the whim”. He is a man generally disliked in the community. This is due to his preaching of “hellfire and bloody damnation”. With the presence of witchcraft looming, Parris now has a concrete manifestation of the evil he fears.
The second character that serves as a catalyst to the mass hysteria and paranoia is Thomas Putnam, and to a lesser extent his wife. Thomas Putnam shows that his motivation is in his long-standing grudges against others. The witchcraft trials give Putnam an opportunity to exact revenge against others under the cover of the accusations. We are told in Miller’s information about Putnam, that a mysterious faction had stopped his wife’s brother-in-law from ministry. He feels himself to be intellectually superior in the community, and his vindictive nature has been proved. His wife is quick to assume that the cause of Betty’s illness is witchcraft, and is described as “a twisted soul, haunted by dreams”.
The last and the main accuser of witchcraft is Abigail Williams. Miller quickly establishes Abigail as a pretender, or “a strikingly beautiful girl, with an endless capacity for dissembling”. She demonstrates a great ability for self-preservation: she admits what she must at times, and places the blame for her actions on the most convenient source, in this case Tituba. An excellent example is given within the First Act, when Abigail says, “I always hear her laughing in my sleep. I hear her singing her Barbados songs and tempting me with-“. Her motivations lie at the bottom of the accusations that grip Salem.
It is therefore important that Miller establishes early on in Act One her affair with John Proctor, a character yet to be mentioned. All the accusations grow from her desire to displace Goody Proctor as John Proctor’s wife. She originally wants to use the witchcraft trials to achieve her aim, but soon finds that the trials serve as an escape valve for others’ hidden motives. She finds this to her disadvantage at the end of the play after John Proctor himself is accused and is hung.