In The Crucible, a play set during the mass hysteria of the Salem witch trials, several young women accuse the slave Tituba of witchcraft. Following this, other people in the town are also accused, and soon there is a series of trials that uncover the jealousy, passion, and resentment simmering under the surface of the town. Written in the 1950s during the height of McCarthyism, the play warns of the dangers of paranoia and distrust spiraling out of control and ruining the lives of innocent people.
The setting for the play is the town of Salem, Massachusetts, in the latter part of the Seventeenth century. The town has managed to maintain itself in the harsh wilderness, partly because it is a theocratic society in which the church and state are one. The members of the society are bound together by their unshakable religious faith. As a result, the role of the government as a watchdog over members of the community's inner soul is established and accepted. It is a society in which intolerance dominates daily life; since the society is held together by a strict obedience to the laws it sets forth, any deviance, no matter how slight, from those laws must be punished or the society risks extinction.
In the commentary, Miller explores the way in which the society's intolerance fueled the witch trials, as the community worked to purge itself of any person they thought to be a threat. At the same time, some of those who considered their individuality threatened by the society, such as Abigail, are able to use the intolerance to their advantage, by taking control of it. Likewise, the trials offer the prudish town a justifiable reason for discussing topics that are normally thought too immoral to consider or talk about in public. Abigail is able to discuss walking around the house naked in her sleep under the protection of an accusation of someone else.
This is also a society in which the allocation of land is extremely important, and the commentary also offers this aspect of the community as a cause of the trials. The characters are keenly aware of what is due to them, and their survival depends on maintaining their position within the society. It is for this reason that Giles must die a Christian, so his son gets the land, rather than the community, which could offer it for sale to the highest bidder.
The tone of the play is tragic and serious, as Miller puts forward the extent to which people can be overrun with hysteria. As an echo of his own time, Miller expresses the real possibility of an entire town finding itself under the spell of a group of cunning, and careless young people. The reality of the irrationality is emphasized, as the seriousness of a situation in which a doll can lead to a hanging is demonstrated.
The religious nature of the characters, and the nature of the accusations lend an almost Biblical tone to the play. The seriousness of the language is that of a sermon, as Miller warns of the follies of intolerance and unnatural interest in the doings of one's neighbors. The fevered pitch of the girls' accusations reflects the hysteria of the town, and the church's fear of being overthrown.
The major external conflict occurs between John Proctor and Abigail Williams as they fight for control. In the beginning of the play, Proctor is in control. He and Elizabeth dismissed Abigail from their service, thus demonstrating their ability to remove her from the situation. When Proctor visits Parris's house, they discuss the past, and Proctor insists that their relationship cannot continue. Abigail believes that she knows Proctor's true heart, and refuses to accept his decision. She then begins her own attempt to control him, first by pleading with him, then by insulting Elizabeth. He resists her attempts, but as the play progresses, Abigail gains control of the fears of the community, and then has complete control over Proctor and Elizabeth. Proctor discloses the relationship, but Abigail triumphs for the time, maintaining her reputation within the court.
The most important internal conflict occurs within John Proctor's soul, as he wrestles with his guilt. He is the character in the crucible, experiencing the testing fire put forth by his society. In the beginning, he is denying the extent of his own penitence, as he still has feelings for Abigail, but as she asserts her power over him, he realizes the way in which his own guilt allows her to gain such control. It is then that he begins to realize that is despair comes not from Elizabeth's judgment, but from his own inner guilt, which has not been redeemed. Elizabeth only makes him feel guiltier, as he understands that he is responsible for his situation and has not made peace with himself. Through his public confession, he becomes honest with himself, which is not brought to fruition until he rips up the confession that he made. It is in that moment that is internal conflict is settled and he achieves the redemption he was looking for. He understands that his soul is not for the community to control, but for him to judge.
The mood of the play is somber and serious. The setting of the play is in a strict Puritan settlement, and the community's lack of frivolity pervades the atmosphere of the play. The descriptions of the sets exude a simplicity a grayness that is only rarely pierced by the bright light of the sun. There is no lightness of spirit or humor to interrupt the seriousness of the play. As the issues that Miller explores are grave, so is the language used by the characters and the commentator.
The commentary highlights the relevance of the play outside its chosen setting, and the solemnity of the mood demands attention to be paid to its message.
The play is divided into four acts, which take place in four different places, which can be seen to echo four different relationships the individual in general, but Proctor in particular, has within his community.
The first act takes place in Parris's house, which represents the relationship to the church. It is the minister's house, and throughout the act, people can be heard singing hymns downstairs. It is the place where the community is together and out in the open. The second act takes place in the Proctor's house, representing the relationship Proctor has with his family. Here he is closer to the individuality he seeks to express, but Elizabeth's faithfulness to the church interferes with his own exploration of his soul. The third act takes place in the court, where the legal aspect of the society takes precedence, and demonstrates the way in which the society regulates the behavior of the individuals who are a part of it. The final act takes place in the prison, where Proctor is left to himself completely, and it is there that he finally reaches self-awareness.
The style of the play is as simple and grave as the characters themselves. The sets are plain, without little color or decoration. Likewise, the language is simple and straightforward. The characters speak in the parlance of their time, which maintains the qualities of the setting in which the play takes place. The lack of frivolity or flair echoes the nature of Salem itself and the people who live there. More importantly, the simplicity of style strips the play of any pretence, and lays bare the messages that Miller wants to express.