ACT 1 – Scene 1
This play takes place in Salem, Massachusetts and concerns a strict Puritan
There is a previous scene that the audience does not see, but provides the
driving force for the whole play. It concerns Betty Parris the Reverend Parris’ daughter, Abigail Williams Parris’ niece, and Tituba a black slave from Barbados, who was dancing in the forest outside of Salem
at midnight. There was also one other unidentified female running naked through the forest.
The Reverend Samuel Parris witnessed this scene and the play commences in
his house where his daughter Betty lies unconscious in bed upstairs.
The town physician Dr. Griggs is unable to determine what ails Betty, but
Parris has questioned Abigail concerning the activities in the woods, but he feels she is not being entirely honest. He is also angry with his Negro slave who seemed to be casting spells over the fire in the woods. Abigail denies that she was participating in witchcraft and Parris also asks Abigail why she was dismissed from her job with John Proctor and his wife Goody (Elizabeth) Proctor. (Goody is used as a title with a surname and refers to a woman, especially an old woman or
housewife.) Elizabeth is regarded as a pillar of the Puritan community being a person of high morals.
Mr. and Mrs. Putnam call, another prominent family in Salem, and they agree
that Betty’s illness results from witchcraft. Their own daughter, Ruth, has fallen into a similar trance.
Mrs. Putnam is very superstitious, as she has had seven of her infants die under what she considers mysterious circumstances. Putnam tries to persuade Parris to openly declare that there is witchcraft at work in the community. The Reverend resists this, for it may give his enemies more ammunition to have him ousted from the town.
The opening scene immediately provides the audience with a view of the
restrictive Puritan society in Salem.
Puritans were English Protestants who immigrated to America to avoid
The societies they set up initially in the New World were founded on religious intolerance. This is an unnatural state and the consequences of smothering natural human instincts are documented in this play.
The people in Salem live a bleak and depressing existence.
Their world is spartan and basic, and they are not able to indulge in any forms of free behaviour.
The pre-scene involves a dance in the woods outside Salem, which could not
be tolerated within the town. Puritans regarded the wild world or wilderness as Satan’s realm, being untamed and dangerous. Therefore, the dancers are able to feel freedom and the excitement of doing
something forbidden in their cavorting in the woods. In modern terms, this would be regarded as letting off steam, quite harmless in itself.
However, one of the revellers, Abigail, has an agenda and she is driven by a particular desire.
Desire is something forbidden by the Puritans and there are many of the
characters possessed by this strong feeling.
Abigail desires Proctor in a sexual way. She lost her job with the Proctor family because Goody Proctor discovered that her husband was having an affair with Abigail. Goody Proctor had been ill and Abigail took over the running of the home and seduced Proctor when he was vulnerable.
Other characters also have desires. For some it is the desire for
power, for others it is the desire for possessions e.g. Putnam wishes to possess more land, Parris wishes to have more control.
Reverend Parris is represented as a self-centred man. He is more
concerned about his position in the community than his ailing daughter. He doesn’t wish to declare that there is witchcraft in Salem, for this would undermine his position. Others wish for the witchcraft
to be revealed for it can be used to explain away mysterious happenings, such as the death of Ann Putnam’s infants, and the ailing girls who were dancing in the woods, Ruth and Betty.