The Crucible begins in the house of Reverend Samuel Parris, whose daughter, Betty, lies unconscious in bed upstairs. Prior to the opening of the play, Parris discovered Betty, his niece Abigail, and Tituba, his black slave from Barbados, dancing in the forest outside of Salem at midnight. After Parris came out of the bushes, Betty lost consciousness and has remained in a stupor ever since. The town physician, Doctor Griggs, who has not been able to determine why Betty is ill, suggests witchcraft as a possible cause.
Parris, distraught and troubled because he knows that Abigail has not been entirely truthful regarding her activities in the woods, confronts Abigail. Parris says that he saw her and Betty dancing "like heathen[s]," Tituba moving back and forth over a fire while mumbling unintelligibly, and an unidentified female running naked through the forest. Abigail denies that she and the other girls were participating in witchcraft, but Parris suspects she is lying. He thinks that she and Betty have conjured spells. Parris also questions Abigail about her character and the reason why Goody Proctor, who is the wife of John Proctor and a very respected woman in Salem, dismissed her from working as the Proctors' servant.
Mr. and Mrs. Putnam, members of one of the prominent families in Salem, enter the room and declare that Betty's illness results from witchcraft. They reveal to Parris that their daughter, Ruth, has also fallen into a strange trance. Ruth's condition, coupled with the fact that seven of Mrs. Putnam's children have died as infants under mysterious conditions, convince the Putnams that evil spirits are at work in Salem. Putnam tries to persuade Parris that he should declare the presence of witchcraft, but Parris is worried. He knows that a group of townspeople want to remove him from Salem, and a witchcraft scandal involving his family would give them the power to oust him from the town.
The inhabitants of Salem live in an extremely restrictive society. Although the Puritans left England to avoid religious persecution, they established a society in America founded upon religious intolerance. Government and religious authority are virtually inseparable, and individuals who question local authority are accused of questioning divine authority. The Puritan community considered physical labor and strict adherence to religious doctrine the best indicators of faithfulness, honesty, and integrity. The Puritans considered material and sexual desires unnatural and evil, and a threat to society. Salem was a rigid society that emphasized work and the suppression of individual desires.
In Act I, Scene 1, Miller sets the stage for The Crucible by introducing the four most important themes: deception, possession, greed, and the quest for power.
The "unseen" scene in the woods, which takes place before the action of the play, figuratively sets the stage. This scene serves as a catalyst for the remaining action of the play. Parris informs Abigail that he saw girls dancing, Tituba conjuring spells over the fire, and a naked girl running through the woods. This "unseen" scene symbolizes the suppression of desire, which is paramount in Salem. Desire, of course, has many different interpretations for both the characters within the play, and for the audience. For Abigail, desire refers to her sexual longing for Proctor. According to the other characters, and the audience, desire may mean many other things besides sexual longing. For example, Putnam desires land and Parris desires control and authority. The audience, inevitably, will have other interpretations of this concept.
Because the girls cannot dance within Salem, they must retreat into the woods outside of Salem in order to indulge in physical pleasure. In addition, the naked girl running through the woods symbolizes the sexual desire present in all of the inhabitants of Salem, a desire that society forces them to suppress and negate. In order to express their innate desires (whether innocent or not), the girls must go outside of the community into the wilderness. Religion has not tamed the forests or the heathen Indians that inhabit them, so the Puritans view the woods as the Devil's stronghold. The wilderness outside of Salem is comparable to the wilderness in which Satan tempted Jesus. Although Jesus did not succumb to temptation, Satan led him into the wilderness to entice him to sin. The girls actively seek the wilderness because it provides them with a place where they can exercise desires that society considers unacceptable.
crucible a container made of a substance that can resist great heat, for melting, fusing, or calcining ores, metals, and the like; a severe test or trial; here, meaning a test designed to bring about change or reveal an individual's true character.
parochial of or in a parish or parishes; restricted to a small area or scope; narrow; limited; provincial; here, referring to the narrow-mindedness of the inhabitants of Salem.
autocracy a government in which one person has absolute power; dictatorship; despotism.
theocracy a government by a person or persons claiming to rule with divine authority.
paradox a statement that seems contradictory, unbelievable, or absurd but that may be true in fact. For example, the Puritans created a theocracy in order to provide a unified and stable community in Salem. Instead, the witch trials severed social relations, separated families, and turned the people of Salem against one another.
dissemble to conceal under a false appearance; disguise.
Goody [Archaic] a woman, esp. an old woman or housewife, of lowly social status: used as a title with the surname.
providence the care or benevolent guidance of God or nature; here, the meaning is more closely aligned with "godsend," an unexpected but fortunate event. For example, Putnam believes God has revealed the presence of witchcraft in Salem. Although the idea of witchcraft frightens Putnam, he is grateful that the witchcraft has been revealed while it is still possible to control it.
conjure up to raise spirits from the dead.