The play begins with Reverend Parris’s daughter Betty, who lies sick in bed presumably unconscious. Parris is overwhelmed with worry, waiting to hear of Betty’s diagnosis from Doctor Griggs. When Grigg’s messenger Susanna Walcott delivers the message that there are ‘no medications in [Grigg’s] books’ [pg 18] to cure her symptoms, a distressed Parris refuses to believe the suggestion that Betty’s illness may be the cause of ‘unnatural things.’ Despite his adamant denial in front of Susanna, the moment after she departs he questions his niece Abigail, about her and Betty dancing in the woods last night. Abigail plays innocent and rejects his allegations of any involvement in witchcraft. Parris inquires if Abigail’s reputation is indeed, unblemished. Abigail was under town residents, John and Elizabeth Proctor’s service as a servant for some time. However, Abigail was released due to a conflict undisclosed to the public, yet rumours are present that at church Elizabeth will no longer ‘sit so close to something soiled.’ [pg 20] Abigail’s excuse for her discharge is due to Elizabeth’s bitter hatred towards her because she won’t work like a slave. Parris interrogation of Abigail is focused on preserving his reputation rather than the forbidden actions of the young girls. He believes that ‘surely my enemies will…drive me from my pulpit’ [pg 19] if they discovered his connection with the suspected witchcraft that caused his Betty’s illness. He has asked Reverend Hale, a specialist in the field of ascertaining witchcraft, to drop by Salem and inspect for the Devil’s presence.
Talk of witchcraft infiltrating the town leads to a group of gatherers outside Parris’s home. Mrs. Putnam enters with her husband Thomas declaring that her child Ruth, like Betty is inanimate. She explains that seven of her babies would die ‘the very night of their birth’ [pg 23] and that there must be a supernatural cause. She explains that her suspicions of someone cursing her children led her to visit Tituba, Parris’s slave, who can ‘speak to the dead.’ Abigail, aware that Mrs. Putnam’s story has risen suspicions in Parris that the girls may have in fact conjured spirits the night before, confesses that Tituba and Ruth performed a summon in the woods, however avoids implicating herself. Mercy Lewis, Putnam’s servant enters and declares that Ruth gave a ‘powerful sneeze,’ [pg 24] a strong sign of life returning to her. In order to alleviate fear from the crowd downstairs, Parris leaves to begin a psalm. The Putnam’s depart to join the psalm as well.
With only Mercy present, Abigail’s innocent façade disappears, revealing that along with Tituba and Betty, both girls likewise participated in witchcraft. Another young girl, Mary Warren, who is now the new servant for the Proctor’s, enters with considerable apprehension and pleads to Abigail that they must admit to their wrongdoings. It is apparent that there were multiple girls who were a part of the ‘klatch.’ [pg 39] Abigail explains that she already confessed to Parris all their activities last night. Betty however, coincidentally springs into life screaming that Abigail didn’t divulge to Parris that she had cursed to kill Elizabeth Proctor. The room evolves into chaos, with Betty crying for her dead mother and wishing to fly. She then tearfully collapses in bed. Abigail consequently composes herself and threatens the girls not to express another word about what happened the night before or she will personally ’make [them] wish [they] had never seen the sun go down.’ [pg 27]
Proctor’s entrance to Parris’s home is coupled with disbelief when he sees Mary present. He rebukes her for disobeying his orders since he has explicitly forbidden her to leave his house while she has work to complete. Ashamed, Mary departs and Mercy soon after excuses herself, leaving Abigail alone with him.
Abigail shares with Proctor the frivolity of Betty’s sickness, ‘she took fright, is all.’ [pg 28] Devilishly, she reveals that she engaged with witchcraft in the woods. The conversation between the two unveils a past love affair, ‘you clutched my back…and sweated like a stallion.’ [pg 29] From Abigail’s now seductive and mischievous behaviour towards Proctor, it is evident she still desires his company. Tempting Proctor, Abigail states that she’s has been ‘waitin’ for [him] every night.’ [pg 28] However, he stands strong and refuses to reignite their affair since he is burdened with guilty for betraying his beloved wife.
The voices from the psalm led by Parris travel upstairs. The words, ‘going up to Jesus’ [pg 30] triggers Betty into a wild state – screaming and crying. This prompts Parris, Mercy Lewis and the Putnam’s to come rushing in. A frantic Parris orders Mercy to call for the doctor. Mrs. Putnam believes that Betty’s terror -stricken behaviour is a result of her being possessed by the supernatural, as she cannot ‘bear to hear the Lord’s’ [pg 31] name.
Rebecca Nurse enters, an elderly lady highly respected in the community. Parris turns to her for help, unsure how to aid Betty. Giles Corey, another senior neighbour drops by, interested in Betty’s supernatural ‘flying’, a rumour which has spread around town. Through her tenderness, Rebecca calms Betty merely by standing over the child. Her diagnosis for Betty and Ruth’s change in behaviour is merely due to their ‘silly seasons.’ [pg 32] Parris comments on the belief that the ‘Devil may be among us’ in the community, eliciting a response from Rebecca that Reverend Hale’s visit is unnecessary and a Doctor is quite adequate in caring for the children.
Parris’s apparent lack of judgment when deciding to call Hale provokes a dispute amongst the men regarding Parris’s ‘sixty-six pound’ [pg 34] salary. Proctor questions if it is really necessary for six pounds worth of wood be sent to Parris’s home, especially since he is the first preacher in Salem to demand so. Due to Proctor’s clear resentment towards him, Parris furiously proclaims that Proctor’s ‘followers’ [pg 35] should be told that they are not ‘Quakers.’ Proctor’s response, ‘I must find [these followers] and join it’ astounds the room.
The quarrel over money initiates another argument between Proctor and Giles. While Proctor contends his lumber is gathered on his grounds, Giles opposes his notion, asserting that his grandfather willed that land to him. Proctor laughs off Giles theory, amused that Giles grandfather declared ownership of land that ‘never belonged to him.’ [pg 36]
Hale arrives at Parris’s home carrying a heavy stack of books that will assist his investigation in seeking out the devil. Mrs. Putman begins sharing her story of the seven dead newborns to Hale. With the belief that Hale’s duty in Salem is redundant, Rebecca leaves with a ‘note of moral superiority.’ [pg 43] Giles comments on his inability to pray while his wife, Martha reads ‘strange books’ at night. He inquires to Hale why this is so since the moment Martha finishes reading and leaves their home, he can resume his prayers. Hale asserts to Giles that Martha’s behaviour is odd and he will investigate it further.
Meanwhile, Hale attempts to extract information from spiritless Betty. In order to awake her, he recites a Latin prayer; presumably from his intellectual books with no prevail. Hale turns to question Abigail about the dancing in the words. When questioned if there was a frog cooked during the dance Abigail, caught of guard deflects the blame onto Tituba, ‘she made me do it!’ [pg 45] Tituba enters with Mrs. Putnam. Hearing Abigail blame her, Tituba denies these accusations declaring that Abigail ‘beg me to conjour!’ [pg 46] The group’s reaction, ‘this women must be hanged’ assumes Tituba as the perpetrator. Tituba is subject to a wave of questions about her ‘alliance’ with the Devil. In religious spirit, Hale demands whether or not Tituba is a ‘good Christian woman.’ [pg 47] She desperately cries that she is a good woman, and confesses with submissive answers to Hale. She avows Sarah Good also accompanied the Devil. Mrs. Putnam sees ‘truth’ in this since Sarah was a midwife to her dead newborns on three occasions. Abigail also begins to surrender names of other women in Salem, realising that Tituba has saved herself from the repercussions of her sins merely by confessing. Betty likewise catches on, and Act I concludes with the girls denouncing several residents of Salem as accomplices with the Devil.
The play begins with a commentary on social values and the strong influence religious beliefs carry in the Salem community. The puritans lead an extremely conservative life as ‘nothing broke into [their] strict and somber’ daily activities. Their accordance with a strict moral code included eschewing from ‘vain enjoyment’ such as attending the theatre and celebrating Christmas, to spending their holiday time praying. They also believe that participation in witchcraft or consorting with the Devil is a dire sin. This strong adherence to Christianity resulted in the puritans having a meticulously controlled way of life, void of any involvement with the supernatural. Thus, when rumours of witchcraft surged into Salem, their stable lives were thrown into chaos since they had neither previous exposure nor experience in dealing with the conflict. Instead of using reason and sensibility, their naivety in the situation resulted in an overall reaction of fear and madness.
The puritans’ inability to handle the conflict is demonstrated through the crowd gathered at Parris’s home, in search of answers from a higher power. Blinded by their trepidation, people begin to believe unrealistic things that they would normally disregard. When the girls were ‘bewitched,’ people assumed that it was a fact because it was easier to indulge in their fears, rather than confront the truth that perhaps there was no supernatural cause. Using Betty’s bewitchment as an excuse, Mrs. Putnam fed her own fears by convincing herself that it was the supernatural that had murdered her babies. In the presence of a conflict, the people’s hysteria only helped in perpetrating the problem to the point where countless people were being accused of committing crimes.
The mass societal and religious conflict also generated many personal conflicts for the people in Salem. Reputation has a highly significant influence in the puritan’s lives. As part of a small town, where everyone hears and sees everyone else’s affairs, the slightest criticism can ruin any reputation. Threatened by his daughter’s association with the supernatural, Parris possesses a protective attitude towards his status because he believes that his enemies will use the incriminating information against him. His inner conflict stems from his history, where he ‘cut a villianious path.’ [pg 13] However, he has now gained the respect to position himself as the reverend in Salem. His apprehension is apparently more prominent than his concern for Betty, since he illustrates greater interest in interrogating Abigail about her supernatural activities in the woods. His self-preservation is motivated by his paranoia that the presence of evil is there to destroy him. Being in a position of authority, his paranoia is instilled in parishioners by leading a psalm during the fear, rather than urging calmness from the community. He is also easily convinced by Tituba’s testimony, as seen when he appeals her to confess her sins, which further escalates the conflict. His obsession with damnation helps instigate the Salem witch hunts as he believes that without a doubt, there is a supernatural existence in town.
Although challenged with identical circumstances, people often react and behave differently than others. While Parris’s encounter with conflict results in him desperately calling for Hale, Rebecca Nurse represents a respectable character who maintains her rationality during conflict. Her diagnosis of Betty in her ‘silly season’, [pg 32] meaning that the child is merely suffering from a hysterical fit rather than being bewitched ultimately proves to be true. Likewise, Proctor sees no reason why Hale should be recruited, especially since Parris failed to consult the wardens. In the identical situation where both men are faced with conflict, Parris exaggerates the frightening situation by declaring that ‘children dyin’ in the village,’ [pg 33] hence the reason for Hale’s visit. Proctor on the other hand, blatantly points out that no children have died in town and that Parris is without substantiation, blaming hell for Betty’s state.
Inner conflict is inescapable for John Proctor who is introduced as a ‘sinner…against his own vision of decent conduct.’ [pg 27] His extramarital affair with Abigail has left him burdened with guilt and shame since he has betrayed his wife, as well as himself in the process. Regardless of the fact that he has successfully hidden his indiscretion from the public, Proctor views himself as ‘a kind of fraud,’ because his moral consciousness prevents him from holding his head high in the town. Even when Abigail seductively flatters and humours Proctor, his admirable strength in maintaining his emotional and physical distance from Abigail demonstrates his determination to save his marriage with Elizabeth.
Conversely, Abigail appears to possess no sense of remorse for her part in the affair. Her disregard towards Proctor’s marriage by attempting to seduce him even after their affair has ended highlights her self-interest and lack of consideration for others. Abigail’s open hatred towards Elizabeth, ‘she is a cold, sniveling woman’ [pg 30] illustrates her attempts to manipulate Proctor by portraying herself as a victim to gain his affection. Her conniving behaviour is also used on the young girls who were also present in the woods. Much of the hysterical conflict that develops in Salem can be traced back to Abigail. Her dominance over the other girls coerces them to follow her actions, especially when she begins to denounce the women of Salem. In a town where people viewed children as being ‘thankful for being permitted to walk straight….mouths shut until bidden to speak,’ [pg 13] the girl’s deceptions were without hesitation considered to be truthful. Since Abigail is only a child, her characterisation of herself as a victim of witchcraft fools many in Salem, especially Hale who is invited to the town to seek out the Devil.
Conflict can cause people to act in a desperate manner in order to protect themselves. When criticised for being involved with witchcraft, Abigail, Tituba and Betty accuse many women in the Salem community for affiliating with the Devil. By deflecting blame onto others, this protects them from condemnation since they helped to expose others engaged with the supernatural. As seen in later parts of the play, the girls’ action in turn triggered numerous personal conflicts, for even the innocent are denounced.
Act I signifies a mass societal conflict in Salem gaining momentum due to the community’s manifestation of fear.