Sunday, August 22, 2010

The Crucible: Plot Summary

The first act of The Crucible, subtitled “An Overture,” is set in a small, austerely furnished bedroom at Reverend Samuel Parris’ house in Salem, Massachusetts. The year is 1692. The Reverend is on his knees, praying at the foot of his 10-year-old daughter’s bed, while the girl, Betty, lies inert. Although his prayers alternate with weeping and mumbling, she does not stir. Presently, Tituba, the Negro slave Parris had brought back from Barbados, enters. She is devoted to Betty.
Parris orders her out of the room despite her concern for his daughter. It is evident that he is overcome by fear at the child’s strange malady. He is trying to waken her when his niece, 17-year-old Abigail Williams, enters to tell him that Susanna Walcott, a village girl, has arrived with word from Dr. Griggs. Susanna tells Parris that the doctor has been unable to find any clue in his books as to Betty’s ailment, and has therefore suggested that the Reverend look to “unnatural things.”
Before Susanna leaves, Abigail cautions her to say nothing about this to any of the villagers. Abigail then tells her uncle that the rumor of witchcraft is sweeping Salem, and that his house is packed with people who are waiting downstairs for his denial that his daughter is, in fact, bewitched. At this, Parris grows more frightened, and tells his niece that he had seen her and Betty dancing in the moonlight “like heathen in the forest” while Tituba watched. He presses her to admit that they were trafficking with spirits. And, he adds that he must know why she was discharged from service at the Proctor home. It has been said that Elizabeth Proctor attends church so infrequently because she refuses to sit next to “something soiled.”
Abigail is quick to retort that Goody Proctor is a bitter, lying woman who hates her only because she would not slave for her. When Parris asks why no one else has called for Abigail’s service in the seven months since she left the Proctors’, she haughtily tells him that she will slave for no one, and calls Elizabeth a gossiping liar who has sullied her name.
They are interrupted by the arrival of Mrs. Ann Putnam, a superstitious gossip, who immediately tells Parris that a “stroke of hell” is upon his house, and demands to know how high Betty has flown. She has already decided that Betty is, in fact, a witch, and claims that Betty has been seen flying around the town. When Thomas, her husband, arrives and confirms this, Parris’ fears reach their peak. He is struck dumb that the Putnams’ daughter, Ruth, is also strangely ill.
At this point, Abigail turns to Parris and whispers that not she, but Ruth and Tituba had conjured spirits. “I am undone!” he cries, but Thomas Putnam reminds him that an admission of having discovered witchcraft in his house will clear him.
They are joined by Mercy Lewis, the Putnams’ 18-year-old servant, who is left alone with Abigail and Betty after the Putnams leave and the Reverend goes downstairs to lead the towns-­people in a psalm while they await Reverend Hale. Abigail takes charge immediately and gives orders to Mercy: she is to admit only that they danced, as Abigail had already confessed to that sin. Parris had seen Mercy naked, and knew that Tituba had conjured Ruth’s sisters out of their graves.
Mary Warren, the Proctors’ 17-year-old servant, enters and turns to Abigail for advice. She is in a state of panic, and begs Abigail to tell the truth: they had only been dancing, a sin punishable by whipping, whereas witchery is a “hangin error.” Abigail shakes Betty until she sits up, and then comments sar­castically upon her improvement. She says that she has told Parris everything. At this, Betty leaps out of bed and flattens herself against the wall. She cries that she saw Abigail drink blood as a charm to kill John Proctor’s wife. Abigail slaps Betty’s face and warns her never to mention this again.
Abigail, who is clearly the leader, warns them that her power of revenge will fall upon them if they breathe a word of anything but the dancing and the conjurings of Tituba. Then, John Proctor arrives, looking for Mary, who he has forbidden to leave his house. His presence alters the mood in the room. Mercy sidles out after Mary, leaving Proctor alone with Abigail, and Betty once more prone on her bed. He tells Abigail of the town’s mumblings about witchcraft, and she replies that they were merely dancing in the woods.
The sound of a psalm is heard from downstairs, and Betty suddenly claps her hands to her ears and begins to scream. Proc­tor is unnerved, and Parris, the Putnams and Mercy return to the room. As they try to quiet Betty, Mrs. Putnam exclaims that all this is a mark of witchcraft.
Parris fights with Corey and Proctor over his firewood allotment. Putnam in turn provokes an argument with Proctor over a long-standing grudge about some of Proctor’s land that Putnam considers rightfully his. Rebecca remains mild and con­ciliatory. At the height of this bickering, Reverend John Hale arrives.
Hale is a serious man of 40, who looks upon his errand with pride, for at last he is considered authority enough on witchcraft to be called for consultation on the subject to which he has devoted most of his life.
When Hale turns his attention to Abigail, she quickly grasps her opportunity, and accuses Tituba of forcing her and Betty to deal with the Devil and of sending her spirit out to them. The terrified slave is brought in, hysterically denying the accusation, but it is useless. In a frenzy of fear, she finally admits that she did indeed talk to the Devil, and that he in turn had told her the names of white people with whom he worked. Betty joins her in hysterical relief and the two girls call out names faster and faster. Hale sends Putnam for the marshal.
Act II begins eight days later, in the home of John and Elizabeth Proctor. The mood here is in sharp contrast to that of the previous act. The Proctors are gentle and polite to each other, but there seems to be a strain between them. Elizabeth tells her husband that Mary Warren has gone into Salem as an “official of the court.” Proctor is astonished to learn that not only has a court been set up, but that 14 women have been jailed as witches. Moreover, Deputy Governor Danforth has sworn to hang them if they do not confess. The town has gone wild and, as Abigail has now established herself as the girls’ leader, she is treated with great deference. The Proctors agree that it is John’s duty to go to the court and tell them that, by Abigail’s own admission to him, the accusations are fraudulent. The cause of the gulf between the Proctors becomes clear when John tells his wife that he had been alone with the girl when she admitted the lies. Proctor had told Elizabeth of his past affair with Abigail, but has been uneasy with her ever since.
The Proctors become more and more horrified as they hear how the words of honest women were turned against them. They also learn that pregnant women are safe until the birth of the child. Finally, Proctor can stand no more and, as Mary brags about her new status as an official, he threatens to whip her. At this, Mary, drunk with power, points to his wife and says that she, too, had been accused, but that Mary had saved her life. The identity of her accuser is secret, but the Proctors realize that it is Abigail, who hopes to have Elizabeth hanged in order to take her place as John’s wife.
Suddenly, Reverend Hale appears. His manner has changed from one of assurance to one of deference, almost guilt. He has come to tell Elizabeth that she has been accused and is about to be taken to jail. He questions the Proctors about their slackened church attendance. Proctor explains that he considers Reverend Parris a self-advancing hypocrite rather than a true man of God. Hale asks Proctor to recite the commandments, but he falters over “Thou shalt not commit adultery.” Finally, Proctor tells Hale of Abigail’s admission to him that there was no witchcraft, just dancing in the woods. Reverend Hale’s doubts grow and, when Giles Corey and Francis Nurse rush in to say that their wives have been taken to jail, his doubts become convictions.
Marshal Herrick and a neighbor, Ezekiel Cheever, arrive. The latter, a tailor, has been made a court clerk and has a war­rant for the arrest of Elizabeth Proctor and 15 others. Abigail had indeed accused her, claiming that Elizabeth had bewitched the poppet given to her by Mary Warren. It had caused Abigail to fall down screaming from a needle sticking into her belly. The doll is examined, and is found to have a needle stuck into it. When Mary is called, she remembers that Abigail sat next to her when she was making the doll. In a rage, Proctor accuses Abigail of deliberately sticking herself, tears the warrant up, and tries to throw Herrick and Cheever out. He turns upon Hale and asks if he will allow Elizabeth to be taken. Hale falteringly replies that the court is just.
The Salem meeting house, now converted into a court, is the scene of the third act. An inquisition of the women by Judge Hathorne and Deputy Governor Danforth has been taking place. Giles Corey, frantic with concern for his wife, is over­ridden by Hathorne’s implacable belief in the signs of her guilt and Danforth’s zeal for justice. Corey attempts to show that Putnam is accusing people so that he may get their land. He is told to name the man who had told him this, but he refuses in order to keep the man out of jail.
When John Proctor enters with Mary Warren, Danforth tells him that his wife is pregnant, and therefore safe for a year. Although Elizabeth has been saved, Proctor insists, in the name of justice, that Mary speak her piece. She tells Danforth, tearfully, that she lied, that Abigail was responsible for the needle in the poppet. Then, Susanna, Mercy, Betty and Abigail are brought in to confront her. Abigail says she is lying, and Mary begins to weaken. Still, she admits to having seen no spirits and to having pretended when she testified.
Abigail, trapped, gathers all her resources and suddenly turns on Mary. She begins to shiver, saying that she is being bewitched by Mary, and then falls to the ground. Proctor leaps at her and pulls her up, but is restrained by Parris and Hathorne. Maddened with rage, he calls her a whore, and con­fesses to having slept with her eight months before, and to hav­ing lusted for her since then.
As Elizabeth is led into the room, the others are told to turn their backs. When Elizabeth is asked why she dismissed Abigail, she answers that she was jealous of her. Did John Proctor ever commit the crime of lechery to her knowledge? No, she replies. Proctor cries out to her to tell the truth, but she is removed from the room immediately.
Abigail now falls down again, screaming that a bird is on the ceiling, which is Mary’s spirit threatening to attack her. The other girls fall into this easily enough, and the terrified Mary turns on Proctor, recanting once more by saying that he had threatened to murder her if she did not testify as he wished. Hale now fully perceives the horror of what has been happening and, as both John Proctor and Giles Corey are being taken off to jail, he denounces the proceedings to Danforth and shouts that he is finished with the court. The door slams behind him.
The final act takes place in the Salem jail. It appears that Hale, in an agony of remorse, has been going among the con­demned women and praying with them. Meanwhile, Reverend Parris has discovered that Mercy Lewis and Abigail have robbed his strongbox and fled. He, too, is beginning to have doubts. Rebecca Nurse and John Proctor, two of the most respected townspeople, are condemned to hang, which makes him uneasy. He proposes to the deputy governor that the executions be post­poned, but Danforth is adamant. Hale enters to tell them that Rebecca has refused to confess, but that he has not spoken to John Proctor. Parris suggests that they arrange for the Proctors to meet; perhaps the sight of his pregnant wife will cause him to confess and go free. Elizabeth is brought in with her wrists chained, and Hale tells her that unless John confesses, he will die at sunrise. He implores her to beg her husband to recant, but she remains silent. At last, she asks to speak to John and he is ushered in, in chains. They are left alone, facing each other.
Hathorne returns and Proctor tells him that he wants to live and will confess. Danforth, Cheever, Parris and Hale rush in at this news, and pen and paper are brought quickly. As Proctor begins his confession, Rebecca Nurse, supported by Herrick, is led in because Danforth wishes her to witness the example set by Proctor. But she refuses to damn herself by lying. And, when Proctor is asked to name the people that he saw with the Devil, he refuses. Hale, anxious to get it over with, asks that Danforth sign the paper on the basis of the confession alone, but Proctor’s signature is needed first. Protesting that their witness to his testimony should be sufficient, Proctor refuses at first to sign, and Danforth refuses to certify an unsigned confession. Proctor then signs it, but snatches the paper away the moment that he has done so. He will not have this paper nailed to the church door on the day that good people are being hanged for their silence. “You will hang!” they cry, and Proctor’s eyes fill with tears as Elizabeth rushes to him. He shouts, as he holds her, that he sees some shreds of goodness in himself yet. As he and Rebecca are taken out to be hanged, Parris and Hale continue to plead with Elizabeth to stop him. “He has his goodness now. God forbid I take it from him!” she cries, as the final drumroll crashes, and the play ends.

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