The Crucible: Exploring the plot

Arthur Miller’s The Crucible, with its focus on the liberty of the individual in the face of mass hysteria, is still very much relevant today as it was when in the written. The relatively simple plot is made rich by the complex characters and their struggle with morality. Set in the witch trials of Salem and written at a time of a modern day witch hunt, the McCarthy anti-Communist crusade, the play sets out to deal with accusation and persecution with scant regard to either evidence or due process.

Reading the play

It is important that one of the first things students do, if not the first, is to read the play. Read the play as a whole and breaks for further analysis. At this point it is important that the students focus on the broad plot structure of the play rather than starting in depth analysis.

Choose one or two of these activities to help the play reading and secure the students understanding of the play.

Washing line timeline

Place a string or a washing line up across the Drama Studio. As you read the play, when you get to a significant plot point write it down and peg it to the washing line. You could use different colour pens or paper to show different characters actions. When you finished the read through you can use this to then identify different recurring themes.

New titles

As you read through the play, break the play into much smaller sections (beyond the existing sections of the Freytag structure). Give each new section a name that suggests what happens in this section. Display these in a prominent place in the Drama Studio as well for students to see and refer to throughout the scheme of work. The sections can be as short as a few lines. One way of dividing them up would be to use Stanislavski’s idea of objectives, but it is also a good idea to work out a set of rules with your students.

Graphic Organisers

Graphic Organisers are a great way of bringing together information into one place. You could design a graphic organiser for your class, but I suggest you base each graphic organiser on a section of the play and include the following details:

  • Who is in the scene
  • What is happening
  • How are the characters involved in what is happening
  • What is each characters basic feelings about the events
  • What is each characters over riding motivation in the events

Summary Writing

At the end of each section write a summary of what happens, the characters involved and basic thoughts on characters motivations.

Character plots

Split the class into four groups and assign each group either John Proctor, Abigail Williams, Mary Warren or Reverend Parris to focus on. Ask each group to come up with a simple story map of their characters journey through the plot of the play. The story map needs to include the characters individual plot and the groups initial thoughts on their characters thoughts, feelings, responses and motivations to the key moments identified.

Ask each group to feed back their findings to the rest of the class. As they do, ask the remaining class to first take notes on what is being said using a simple box graphic organiser. When they have finished presenting, get each of the other groups to ask a follow up question. The remaining groups may need a little time to prepare these questions.

Freytag plot structure

Ask the students to complete break the plot summary down into the five key moments of the Freytag Plot Structure of Exposition, Rising Action, Climax, Falling Action and Denouement. The students can do this by simply annotating the plot summary they have got. Encourage debate and discussion but also make sure that everyone agrees on where the boundaries between each key moment occurs.

Ask the students to act out the play as if it were five scenes based on the key sections of the Freytag Structure identified in the last activity. It doesn’t matter if there isn’t enough actors for characters, encourage multi-rolling and using signs or basic props to identify characters. It is fun when it is played as a melodrama. The aim here is for the students to gain a secure knowledge and understanding of the basic plot.

Building the background

Collate some research yourself on the Salem witch trials and the McCarthy Anti-Communist senate hearing and ask the students to complete some as well. Allow time for the students to read as much of the information as you can.

Create stations around the Drama Studio with the different articles, newspaper stories and other stimuli Encourage the students to engage with and read all the material in detail. They may want to take brief notes and a graphic organiser may help them structure these.

Map the information from the articles to the plot of the play, so that students might see how the witch trials have influenced the writing and where the play is an allegory of the McCarthy senate hearing.

Here and now

Build on the previous exercise by asking the students to further their research into modern day injustices similar to those of the witch trials and the McCarthy senate hearing. As with the previous exercise, share this research with everyone in the class and map onto the plot where, why and how they are similar.

Then get the students to devise their own version of The Crucible set in one of the new scenarios. It doesn’t matter if the students change the names or the context of the piece, but they do need to adhere to the original plot outline of the play. The way they are directly transposing the plot of the play into a modern context.

This is something which is a short and fun exercise, but it is something that can be returned to at a later date to expand on and develop into a fuller performance with the text itself.

A play of themes

As we did earlier with the four key characters, create a simple story map for the main themes within the play. As with the previous exercise, each story map needs to include the characters involve and any initial thoughts on their characters thoughts, feelings, responses and motivations to the key moments identified.

  • Revenge: Old grudges are renewed as petty differences lead to death.
  • Superstition and religion: Witches, goblins, spells, curses, and other such nonsense send fear through the town of Salem. How is this used to create a case against organised religion and how much of this is thought t be real?
  • Marriage and lust: Mr. and Mrs. Proctor attempt to salvage a marriage damaged by an adulterous affair.