The play is set in Salem, Massachusetts in the spring of 1692, and the first act begins in a small upper bedroom of the home of Reverend Samuel Parris, who kneels in prayer at the bed of his daughter, Betty.
Tituba, Rev. Parris' slave from Barbados, enters the room. She is concerned for Betty's welfare, but Parris makes her leave. Abigail Williams, the niece of Rev. Parris, also enters, along with Susanna Walcott, who tells Rev. Parris that Dr. Griggs can find no cure for Betty's ailment. Parris has sent for Reverend Hale of Beverly, who will confirm the possibility of an unnatural cause of Betty's illness, but he orders Susanna to say nothing of unnatural causes to others. Abigail warns Parris that there are rumors of witchcraft and that the parlor is packed with people. Parris tells her that he cannot reveal that he found his daughter and niece dancing in the forest like heathens. Abigail admits to dancing and is willing to accept the punishment, but will not admit to witchcraft. Parris warns Abigail that he has enemies who will use this situation against him, and claims that he saw a dress lying on the grass and someone naked running through the trees. He thinks that Tituba was screeching gibberish when he found the girls, but Abigail says they were only singing Barbados songs. Parris demands to know whether Abigail has a good reputation, following up on rumors that her former employee, Goody Proctor, thinks Abigail is corrupt, but Abigail calls Goody Proctor a gossiping liar.
Mrs. Ann Putnam and Mr. Thomas Putnam enter; she claims that Betty's illness is certainly a stroke of hell. There are rumors that Betty was flying over the Ingersoll's barn, according to Mrs. Putnam. Their daughter Ruth is also sick, and they assume witchcraft to be the cause. Mrs. Putnam admits that she sent Ruth to Tituba. She believes that Tituba knows how to speak to the dead, and she wished to learn who murdered her seven children during their infancy.
The Putnams' servant, Mercy Lewis, arrives and visits Betty. She discusses Ruth's sickness with Abigail, and suggests beating Betty to snap her out of her illness. Abigail tells Ruth that Rev. Parris knows that Tituba conjured Ruth's sisters, and that Parris saw Mercy naked. Mary Warren, the Proctors' current servant, enters in a panic because the town is talking witchcraft. Betty suddenly sits up and cries that Abigail drank blood to kill Goody Proctor. Abigail threatens the other girls: if they say anything other than that they danced and Tituba conjured Ruth Putnam's sisters, Abigail will make their lives difficult.
John Proctor arrives and orders Mary Warren to go home. Abigail speaks tenderly to him and references an affair between them, but Proctor states that he will cut off his hand before he ever touches her again. As they hear the people downstairs sing a hymn downstairs, Abigail insists that Proctor loves her yet. He fends her off, firmly but not without sympathy. Hearing the hymn outside, Betty sits up and screams. Abigail calls for Rev. Parris, who believes that Betty cannot bear to hear the Lord's name.
The elderly Giles Corey enters with Rebecca Nurse, wife of Francis Nurse. Rebecca, who has eleven children and twenty-six grandchildren, claims that Betty's illness is nothing serious. She is skeptical of the claims of witchcraft. Putnam suspects Proctor, because he has not been at Sabbath recently, but Proctor claims there is no need for attendance since all Parris ever talks about are finances. Parris warns that there must be obedience or the church will burn like Hell, and Proctor wonders whether Parris can speak one minute without mentioning Hell.
Reverend John Hale of Beverly then arrives, bringing with him half a dozen heavy books. He introduces himself to Rebecca Nurse, and has heard of her great charity. Giles Corey tells Hale that Proctor does not believe in witches, but Proctor says he did not speak one way or another. Hale says that they cannot look to superstition in issues of witchcraft, because the Devil is precise. Parris admits to the dancing and the conjuring, while Mrs. Putnam claims that witchcraft must be the cause of death for her seven children. Giles Corey asks Hale what the reading of strange books signifies. He says that he often awakes to find Martha reading in a corner and cannot say his prayers, but Hale dismisses his concerns for the moment.
Hale asks Abigail what happened in the forest. Parris claims he saw a kettle, but Abigail says it contained only soup, although a frog may have jumped in it. Parris asks whether they drank anything in it, and Hale asks Abigail if she has sold her soul to Lucifer. Finally Abigail blames Tituba, claiming that Tituba made her and Betty drink chicken blood. Abigail says that Tituba sends her spirit on her in church and makes her laugh at prayer. Putnam declares that Tituba must be hanged. Hale confronts Tituba. He says that if she loves these children she must let God's light shine on her. Hale asks if the Devil comes to her with anybody else. Tituba admits that the devil has come to her, and that the devil promises to return her to Barbados. Furthermore, she shows how he has white people working for her, including Goody Good and Goody Osburn. Betty claims that she saw George Jacobs with the Devil, while Abigail claims she saw several others with the devil, and the curtain falls on a rising chorus of accusations.
First performed in January of 1953 at the height of America's red scare, The Crucible is first and foremost a political argument, relating the Salem witchcraft trials to their contemporary equivalent in Miller's time, the McCarthy hearings. The figurative 'witch hunt' of McCarthyism becomes literal in Miller's play, which is constructed to illustrate how fear and hysteria mixed with an atmosphere of persecution may lead to tragically unjust consequences. Miller presents the play with traditional theatrical devices, relying on the dialogue and situations to illustrate his themes, but finds these somewhat insufficient. In the first act, the play therefore contains a number of historical digressions that reveal the motivations of each character and which cannot be accurately conveyed through a strict stage interpretation.
Through these prose passages that interrupt the dialogue and action of the play, Miller establishes the particular quality of Salem society that makes it particularly receptive to the repression and panic of the witch trials. The Puritan life in Salem is rigid and somber, allowing little room for people to break from the monotony and strict work ethic that dominated the close-knit society. Furthermore, the Puritan religious ethic informed all aspects of society, promoting safeguards against immorality at any cost to personal privacy or justice. The Puritans of Massachusetts were a religious faction who, after years of suffering persecution themselves, developed a willful sense of community to guard against infiltration from outside sources. It is this paradox that Miller finds to be a major theme of The Crucible: in order to keep the community together, members of that community believed that they must in some sense tear it apart. Miller relates the intense paranoia over the integrity of the Puritan community to their belief that they are in some sense a chosen people, who will forge a new destiny for the world. This relates strongly to the political climate of the early 1950s in which Miller wrote The Crucible. After the end of World War II, the United States found itself engaged in a struggle for political supremacy with Communist forces, in particular the Soviet Union. Just as the Salem authorities believed that witchcraft threatened their community, many Americans during this time saw Communism as a threat to the American way of life.
However, the Salem witch trials as described by Miller have a sexual element that runs concurrent with the political aspects of the allegory. The community is one that promotes interference in all personal matters and intensely frowns upon any sinful conduct, without allowing for any legitimate expurgation of sin. The witch trials serve as a means to break from this stifling atmosphere and publicly confess one's sins through accusation. This simultaneous fear of and fascination with sexuality is a theme throughout The Crucible, as demonstrated by the adulterous relationship between Abigail Williams and John Proctor and the sexual undertones of the dancing that instigates the witchcraft trials. The 1950s were likewise an era of sexual conservatism, and known or suspected homosexuals were at particular risk for being singled out as Communist sympathizers.
The first act establishes the primary characters of the play who instigate the Salem witch trials. Each has his particular obsessions and motivations that drive him to push for the trials. The first and perhaps most reprehensible of these characters is the Reverend Samuel Parris, a man who symbolizes the particular quality of moral repression and paranoia that drive the trials. Miller immediately establishes Parris as a man whose main concern is his reputation and status in the community, rather than the well-being of his daughter. It is Tituba who shows more concern for Betty than her father, but she is kept away from the girl's sick bed. When he discusses finding Abigail and Betty dancing in the woods, his concern is not the sin that they committed but rather the possibility that his enemies will use this scandal against him. Parris is distinctly paranoid, defending himself from all enemies even when they may not exist. The particular quality of Parris that renders him dangerous is his strong belief in the presence of evil. Even before the witchcraft paranoia, Proctor indicates that Parris showed an obsession with damnation and hell in order to strike fear into his parishioners. With the seeming presence of witchcraft in Salem, Parris now has a concrete, physical manifestation of the evil he so fears.
Abigail Williams is a less complex character whose motivations are simple; she is a clear villain with straightforward malicious motivation. Miller establishes that Abigail is suspected of adultery with John Proctor, a rumor that is confirmed later in the first act. Abigail demonstrates a great ability for self-preservation: she admits what she must at appropriate times, and places the blame for her actions at the most convenient source, Tituba. She then takes advantage of the situation to accuse Elizabeth Proctor, aiming to take her place in John Proctor's life. Abigail's lack of any morality renders her able to charge others with witchery no matter the consequences.
The third character who serves as a proponent of the witchcraft hysteria is Thomas Putnam. While Parris's motivation is suspicion and paranoia and Abigail's is mere villainy, Thomas Putnam demonstrates that his motivation involves his longstanding grudges against others; the witchcraft trials give Putnam an opportunity to exact revenge against others, and, as will later be shown, to profit economically from others' executions.
The final character who sets the witchcraft trials in motion is Reverend John Hale. Hale is perhaps the most complex character in The Crucible, a man who approaches religious matters with the conviction of a scientist and a scientific emphasis on proper procedure. Hale holds the contradictory belief that they cannot rely on superstition to solve the girls' problems but that they may find a supernatural explanation for the events. Since he lacks the malicious motivations and obsessions that plague the other instigators of the trials, Reverend Hale has the ability to change his position, yet at this point he finds himself caught up in the hysteria he has helped to create.
In contrast to these four characters stand the three main opponents of the witchcraft accusations. The Nurses are the most straightforward of these; Miller portrays Rebecca Nurse and her husband as near saints who rely on practical wisdom and experience. In contrast, Giles Corey has none of the noble character of the Nurses, yet he can oppose Parris and Putnam because of his contentious, combative manner. Giles Corey doesn't care about public opinion and has never allowed his actions to be swayed by those around him. He may therefore choose whichever position he finds most suitable, even if it places him in danger.
However, Miller places John Proctor as the main protagonist of the story and its moral center. Proctor, as Miller writes, is a man who can easily discern foolishness and has the will to oppose it. He is a rational man with a brusque manner who, like Giles Corey, has no qualms about expressing his opinion. Miller portrays Proctor as a decidedly modern character, who eschews superstition for rationality and expresses skepticism for the trappings of organized religion, particularly Parris's obsession with hellfire and damnation. The particularly modern quality of John Proctor draws the audience sympathy to him, even if he is a self-professed sinner who had an affair with Abigail Williams. Yet this is the single sin that Proctor manifests and exists more as a plot point than as an organic character trait. The Proctor that Miller portrays throughout The Crucible has succumbed to and overcome temptation, like so many of us, making him both flawed and respectable.
Several significant themes emerge early in the play. One of these that Miller develops throughout the first act is the speed at which gossip can spread in a close-knit society like Salem. Miller establishes Salem as a world in which little information is considered private; all information is open to suspicion and question. This correlates to the McCarthy hearings, which probed into the lives of the suspected communists for evidence of their anti-American activity, no matter the actual relevance.
A second theme that Miller establishes is the ability of people to choose whichever position suits their self-interest. Abigail Williams shows the ability to affirm or deny any charge against her based entirely on whether it serves her needs, while Tituba, when charged with witchcraft, denies it only until she realizes that admitting to the crime will save her from further punishment and that accusing others will shift the blame elsewhere. The shift of blame from one character to another will be a recurring plot point, as few characters will accept the consequences of their actions or directly confront the charges leveled against them.
Perhaps the most important theme that Miller develops in this act is the propensity of accusations to snowball. The charges against the girls and Tituba become perpetually more significant: at first they are accused of merely dancing, then of dancing naked. The charges proceed until Tituba is deemed a witch and accuses others of conspiring with Satan. Legitimate charges of dancing and sinful activity increase in magnitude until charges of Satanism arise. The irony of this situation is that the fight against sinfulness in Salem will become more sinful and malicious than any of the actual events that occurred – much like, in Miller's opinion, the McCarthy era did more to tear apart America than Communist sympathizers ever did.