Susan Glaspell Essay - Critical Essays

Susan Glaspell American Literature Analysis

Glaspell had a remarkable literary career that spanned almost five decades. It was as an experimental playwright that she found her own distinctive and innovative style, which would win her fame and a permanent place in American dramatic literature. Throughout her long literary career, Glaspell remained consistent, always dealing with midwestern themes and attitudes and employing unusual women as her leading characters. Her earliest short fiction, published at the turn of the twentieth century, reveals her talent for local color, a trait that made her work admirably suitable for such popular women’s magazines as Good Housekeeping, Ladies’ Home Journal, and Harper’s Bazaar.

The stories had certain recurring qualities. They were primarily escapist reading, perennially optimistic, and sentimental in nature. Glaspell often included last-minute plot switches or humor to offset saccharine sentiment. Romance and romantic problems appear in many, with obstacles to true love (usually young) removed at the last moment. In her early short fiction, Glaspell never attempted to shock or moralize to her readers.

Glaspell’s best short fiction was written between 1916 and 1919. Two of her best stories, “Finality in Freeport” (1916) and “The Escape” (1919), are set in Freeport, a fictional place modeled after her hometown, Davenport. In the first, she pokes fun at the city’s bluestockings who attempt to censor literature because of some new ideas, underscoring the conflict between freedom and morality.

In “The Escape,” a free-thinking, pacifist woman refuses to be caught up in the jingoistic fervor of World War I. Glaspell’s entire output of short fiction, with one exception, was written for popular magazines of the day and reflects the editorial demands and public expectations of such entertainment. The single exception, now considered a classic, is “A Jury of Her Peers,” which was adapted from her earlier one-act play Trifles and concerned an Iowa woman accused of killing her husband. Its depiction of the locale is realistic and demonstrates a complete unity of plot, characters, and conflict.

Trifles was the second play Glaspell wrote after she collaborated with Cook on Suppressed Desires (1915). In all, she wrote fourteen plays. Unlike in her short stories, which had a predictable framework, in her plays Glaspell experimented with the dramatic form despite her lack of dramatic experience or training. She wrote short dramas and comedies before switching to full-length plays. The one-act plays, eight in all, appear to be tentative efforts. She seemed more comfortable writing satiric or comic sketches rather than serious ones; her serious works sometimes come across as vague, and the idealism behind them at times seems ill-defined.

Glaspell found a stronger dramatic voice and greater confidence switching to full-length drama, but her experiments in the shorter form paid off handsomely with Bernice (1919). As in Trifles, the main character is never seen (Bernice dies before the play opens); it is her death and its impact on the main characters that fuels the play. Glaspell creates a play of little dramatic action, strong mood, and interesting people. Her second play, Inheritors (pb. 1921), is a historical piece covering the lives of three generations. Against a midwestern college background, the heroine supports independence of thought against narrow-minded provincialism, which is represented by faculty and students.

Glaspell’s next play, The Verge (1921), is perhaps her most difficult to comprehend. The heroine, Claire, is a wife and mother who rejects all societal restraints and murders her lover; the play builds to a shocking conclusion. After two less than satisfactory plays—Chains of Dew (1922) and The Comic Artist (1928)—she wrote Alison’s House, produced in 1930. The play is based loosely on the life of poet Emily Dickinson; the title character is already dead, and her life and work are shown through the eyes of family, friends, and strangers.

Glaspell’s major weakness as a playwright is one of too much intellect. She sometimes creates static, “talking” drama, with characters who cannot articulate their feelings or emotions. Yet she also creates a strong modern drama populated with fascinating people, particularly strong-minded women. Her plays are experimental, treating topical themes, and contain strong idealism. Unlike her contemporary and friendly rival, O’Neill, Glaspell never strays from her American heritage, and she successfully merges American beliefs and ideas with mysticism and a oneness with the eternal.

Glaspell’s nine novels, published between 1909 and 1945, can be neatly categorized within three distinct periods. Despite the wide separation of time, all of them take place in the Midwest and contain a melodramatic situation, with strong women (who are often artistic) searching for fulfillment and coming into harmony with the universe. The first period (1909-1916), like her early short fiction, used romantic love to heal and unify. The best play from this period is Fidelity (1915), in which a Freeport woman runs off with a married man to Colorado, returning home eleven hours later to face family, friends, and society. Love does not conquer all here, as Glaspell’s heroine follows her own principles instead of society’s; the author compares and contrasts early midwestern veracity with its later prudishness.

The second period (1928-1931) produced Glaspell’s least interesting work. The novels in question—Brook Evans (1928), Fugitive’s Return (1929), and Ambrose Holt and Family (1931)—focus away from love and deal with individuals battling society. Her faith in the midwestern tradition permeates the work, as do her political liberalism and Christian ethics.

Glaspell’s last cycle of novel...

(The entire section is 2455 words.)