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 play opens with Betty Parris lying on a bed in her house, suffering from an unknown ailment. Her father, Reverend Parris, is at a loss, for many believe that she is possessed. As a minister, with a shaky reputation, he is afraid of the effects that this information would have on his position in the town. Against his better judgment, he calls in Rev. Hale from Beverly, who is an expert in the demonic arts, yet he publicly contends that the cause is not spiritual.
Parris discusses Betty's ailment with his niece, Abigail, who he found dancing in the woods at night with Betty, Tituba--his servant from Barbados, and a group of other girls. She denies any wrongdoing, assuring him that they were just playing, but he is angry with her for putting him in the position in which he finds himself.
People come to visit Betty, to investigate the matter, including the Putnams, whose daughter is also sick. They are convinced that she is bewitched, and encourage Parris to agree.
John Proctor visits, and he and Abigail discuss her misconduct. She tells him about the night in the woods, and he jokes with her about it. She becomes serious, and asks him to think about their past relationship, which he rejects. She becomes angry, but at that moment everyone returns to the room after hearing Betty scream.
Rebecca Nurse arrives and comforts her. A brief argument arises among Giles Corey, John Proctor, Rev. Parris and Thomas Putnam. Each accuses the others of acting in bad faith. Rev. Hale arrives, and Proctor, Rebecca and Giles leave. Hale examines Betty, and the dancing in the woods becomes known. He asks Abigail about it, who immediately accuses Tituba, who is brought it. He questions her, and leads her to confess dealings with the devil. Abigail joins in, and Betty follows soon after, and the act ends with the two girls calling out the names of witches.
The next act takes place in the Proctors' house. Proctor and Elizabeth discuss the farm, and the trials, which are growing in number and significance. Their servant, Mary Warren, has become an official of the court, and has joined the girls in accusing the women of Salem of being witches. Proctor attempts to prevent her from doing so, when Mary mentions that Elizabeth's name came up in court. Elizabeth and Proctor are unsettled by the news, and Elizabeth asks Proctor to see Abigail about it. He becomes angry and accuses her of holding his past indiscretion over his head.
They are interrupted by Rev. Hale, who is visiting the families of women who are accused. He asks them about their Sabbath Day habits, and then asks Proctor to recite the commandments. He does so, but leaves out the one forbidding adultery, which Elizabeth prompts. Hale is uneasy, but willing to accept their honesty, especially once Proctor mentions what Abigail told him about the dancing in the woods being mere play.
Giles Corey and Francis Nurse arrive and inform the others that their wives have been arrested. The Proctors and Hale are shocked, and Ezekiel Cheever and Marshal Herrick soon arrive to arrest Elizabeth. They ask for dolls in the house, and the only one present is one that Mary gave Elizabeth that day. She is questioned about it, and confesses making it for her. Elizabeth is arrested anyway, for attempting to harm Abigail with it, and she is taken away.
In the third act, which takes place at the court, the husbands gather in an attempt to defend their wives. Each has a deposition, which offers new information. Nurse's statement includes the signatures of almost one hundred townspeople who vouch for Rebecca's reputation; Giles's states that Thomas Putnam is using the trials to gain land. Both statements are eventually dismissed when the men refuse to name the names of the people who support them. Proctor brings Mary Warren, who has made a statement in which she says she lied in court. Under questioning by Danforth, she maintains her statement, but when Abigail and the girls are brought in to be questioned, they turn on Mary and accuse her of sending her spirit out on them. Seeing things getting out of control, Proctor confesses his lechery, but Abigail threatens to leave the court if she is doubted, which Danforth will not allow. After much pressure, Mary rejoins the girls and accuses Proctor of forcing her to write the statement. Hale, who is now convinced of Proctor's innocence and Abigail's guilt, denounces the court and leaves. Proctor is arrested.
The final act takes place in the prison, on morning of the hanging. Hale and Parris, who are trying to convince the prisoners to confess so to save their lives, ask Elizabeth to speak to Proctor. He discusses his thoughts about confessing with her. He maintains that he is not good enough to die in a manner equal to Rebecca, and so thinks to lie and confess, and thus save his life. Elizabeth agrees that she wants him to live, but maintains that he must consider his own soul, when thinking of forgiveness, rather than asking for it from her. He makes the confession, and signs it, but takes it up. Danforth insists on having a written confession, which can be posted as an example. Proctor cannot bear this and rips up the confession. Danforth leaves him to hang. He explains that his personal integrity is more important than his life, and Elizabeth, supports him, refusing to call to him and ask him to save his life, thus surrendering the goodness he finally achieves.