Susan Glaspell 1876-1948
Glaspell is known as an important figure in the development of modern American drama and as a cofounder of the influential Provincetown Players theater group. In many of her plays Glaspell used experimental techniques to convey her socialist and feminist ideals, portraying female characters—some of whom never appear onstage—who challenge the restrictions and stereotypes imposed on them by society.
Glaspell was born in Davenport, Iowa. She graduated from Drake University in Des Moines in 1899 and accepted a position as a reporter at the Des Moines News the same year. After she published several short stories in such magazines as Harper's Monthly and the American Magazine, Glaspell left journalism to concentrate on publishing novels and short fiction. In 1913, Glaspell married George Cram Cook, a noted socialist. Dissatisfied with American popular theater, the couple moved to Provincetown, Massachusetts, and cofounded, with a group of writers, artists, and intellectuals, the Provincetown Players. Inspired by the independent theater movement in Europe, which had presented the works of Henrik Ibsen, Emile Zola, August Strindberg, and Maurice Maeterlinck, among others, the Provincetown Players were dedicated to developing an American theater movement alternative to the commercial theater of Broadway. The Provincetown "little theater" group included such writers as Djuna Barnes, Edna Ferber, Neith Boyce, Edna St. Vincent Millay, Paul Green, and Eugene O'Neill, most of whom wrote, directed, and acted for the group. The Provincetown Players began to disband with the personal successes of some of the members, including Glaspell. After the failure of his own work outside the company and what he considered the defection of other members, Glaspell's husband also resigned from the group. Glaspell and her husband moved to Greece and resided there until Cook's death in 1924. The following year, Glaspell married Norman Matson. In 1931, she received a Pulitzer Prize for Alison's House, the last of her plays to be produced. She served as midwestern director of the Federal Theater Project for a brief period before returning to Provincetown to write novels. Glaspell died of pneumonia in 1948.
While Glaspell achieved some success with her novels—most notably her last two, Ambrose Holt and Family and Judd Rankin's Daughter—she is best remembered as one of the first American experimental playwrights. For one of her first plays, Trifles, Glaspell turned for inspiration to a murder case she had covered as a reporter. Glaspell's lead characters, Mrs. Hale and Mrs. Peters, accompany the sheriff and two other men to the isolated farmhouse of Minnie Wright—who dominates the play, yet never appears onstage—to collect some clothes for her while the men search for evidence to use in her trial for the murder of her husband. Surveying Minnie Wright's kitchen, the women piece together a motive from such evidence as untidy stitching on a quilt Minnie was constructing and a strangled canary in her sewing basket. The three male characters search the rest of the house fruitlessly, leaving the women to their "trifles." In her starkly realistic rendering of the characters and incidents, Glaspell disputed the notion that women's concerns and activities within the home are trivial, and exposed the harsh life frontierswomen endured in a male-dominated social and legal system. In Bernice, Glaspell again used the technique of keeping offstage the character who motivates the action of the play, which takes place following the death of the title character. Glaspell focuses on Bernice's friends and relatives, who attempt to understand her life and death, but can only articulate their thoughts in abstract, usually meaningless words and phrases. The Verge, which is generally acknowledged to be Glaspell's most ambitious work, is presented from the point of view of Claire Archer, a botanist who develops new species of plants. Claire rejects traditional gender and social roles and, with the exception of her friend Tom, is misunderstood by everyone because of her desire to transcend the limits of human reality. The play ends with Claire on the brink of madness, having failed to create a new form of life, speaking in a cryptic mix of poetry and prose.
After receiving critical acclaim during her lifetime, Glaspell fell into obscurity after her death and has only lately been rediscovered due to an increase in feminist scholarship. Because of the experimental nature of many of her plays, she is considered with Eugene O'Neill to be a founder of modern American drama. Her one-act play Trifles and the short story into which she adapted it, "A Jury of Her Peers," are widely anthologized as exemplars of their respective forms. Additionally, critics note Glaspell's contribution to the canon of midwestern American literature, citing her use of frontier landscapes and elements of her Iowa upbringing in her work. While some commentators initially regarded her plays as overly intellectual and inaccessible to the average audience, she is now generally considered to be one of the most important figures in modern American drama and twentieth-century feminist literature.
Suppressed Desires [with George Cram Cook] 1915
Close the Book 1917
The Outside 1917
The People 1917
Tickless Time [with Cook] 1918
Woman's Honor 1918
The Verge 1921
Chains of Dew 1922
The Comic Artist [with Norman Matson] 1928
Alison's House 1930
OTHER MAJOR WORKS
The Glory of the Conquered (novel) 1909
The Visioning (novel) 1911
Lifted Masks (short stories) 1912
Fidelity (novel) 1915
The Road to the Temple (biography) 1926
"A Jury of Her Peers" (short story) 1927
Brook Evans (novel) 1928
Fugitive's Return (novel) 1929
Ambrose Holt and Family (novel) 1931
Cherished and Shared of Old (juvenilia) 1940
The Morning Is Near Us (novel) 1940
Norma Ashe (novel) 1942
Judd Rankin's Daughter (novel) 1945
Arthur E. Waterman (essay date 1966)
SOURCE: "Dramatic Achievement," in Susan Glaspell, Twayne Publishers, 1966, pp. 66-91.
[In the essay below, Waterman surveys Glaspell's major plays and assesses her significance as a playwright.]
If the Provincetown's chief contribution to American drama was its dedication to the American playwright, Susan Glaspell proved the merit of that faith. Since most historians of American theater equate the Provincetown with the accomplishment of O'Neill, they overlook that theater's devotion to the new dramatist and misconstrue both its purpose and final triumph. When he met the Players, O'Neill was already a confirmed playwright, who would have reached greatness without them. It was great luck that brought the Provincetown and O'Neill together; both profited enormously from the relationship. O'Neill found a stage where he could experiment and develop; the Players found a potentially major dramatist whose work would time and again save their sagging treasury. Although the Players knew they had assured success with O'Neill, to their credit they never sacrificed their policy of opening the playhouse to any American writer in order to make money or fame from one of his plays. Instead, they sent his more popular dramas uptown, so they could produce other less successful works. There is no evidence to support the claim that O'Neill deliberately used the group to foster his own career, nor is there any support for the idea that the Provincetown changed its essential aim to exploit O'Neill's talent. They met at a crucial time in each other's career: the playhouse needed playwrights, and the playwright needed a playhouse.
After the original organization was broken up by Cook's departure for Greece in 1922, O'Neill, Kenneth Macgowan, and Robert Edmond Jones took over the playhouse and formed a new Provincetown. Its purpose, however, was quite different from the first theater; it was now a commercial enterprise, existing to produce O'Neill's plays and other works, not necessarily original nor American, in competition with the uptown theaters. Perhaps the best explanation of the relationship between O'Neill and the Provincetown was given by O'Neill. "I owe a tremendous lot to the Players," he said, "they encouraged me to write, and produced all my early and many of my later plays. But I can't honestly say I would not have gone on writing plays if it hadn't been for them. I had already gone too far ever to quit."1
Unlike O'Neill, Susan Glaspell was not a practicing playwright when she began to write plays for the Playwright's Theatre. She tells us she had never "studied" playwriting—meaning, I suppose, that she had not consciously analyzed the techniques and the traditions for the drama as she had for fiction. She picked up her own dramatic practices from the plays she saw being done around her and gradually worked out her own method by writing one-acts for the Provincetown.
She had no dramatic training and no continuous influence in the theater other than the Provincetown. Her development as a playwright is almost completely within the scope of that theater. Whatever she accomplished in drama, therefore, is largely due to the influence of the Province-town; thus, her final stature as a dramatist is a convenient measure of its importance.
I One-Act Plays
From early in 1915 to late 1918 the Provincetown produced seven one-acts written by Susan Glaspell. The first was Suppressed Desires (1915), a collaboration between the Cooks. It is an amusing skit which satirizes the Villagers' sudden, often misguided enthusiasm for Freudian theories. Henrietta Brewster, who has "taken up" psychoanalysis, gratuitously interprets the dreams of Stephen, her husband, and of Mabel, her sister. According to Henrietta, Stephen's dream of a melting wall shows his desire to escape from his job as an architect; and Mabel's dream that she is a hen being ordered to "Step, Hen" proves that she loves a man named Eggleston. To save their "living Libidos," Mabel and Stephen visit a psychoanalyst. His interpretation of their dreams varies considerably from Henrietta's version, for he says that Stephen's dream means that he wants to escape from his marriage; and Mabel's dream is an unconscious desire for her brother-in-law: she wants "Stephen" and she longs to replace "Henrietta." Faced with a husband about to desert her and with a sister who dreams of taking him away, Henrietta renounces Freud; she has decided that it is better to keep desires suppressed.
Like several plays done in the early years by the Province-town, Suppressed Desires pokes fun at an aspect of Village life. Cook's Change Your Style spoofed Provincetown art schools; Neith Boyce's Constancy mocked the proponents of free love. Unlike these other satires, Suppressed Desires has become a classic of its kind: "Now it has been given by every little theater, and almost every Methodist church; golf clubs in Honolulu, colleges in Constantinople; in Paris and China and every rural route in America."2
The play's continuing popularity stems from the very funny lines, the simple staging, and its ease of casting and presentation: all of which make it ideal for amateur theaters. In addition, the topical nature of psychoanalysis has persisted throughout the twentieth century. Freud is still a mystery to the average man and his theories are liable to broad and frequently comic misinterpretations, so the satire has not lost its appeal. Other plays on the subject, such as Alice Gerstenberg's Overtones (also produced in 1915), have remained popular but not so consistently and universally in demand as Suppressed Desires.
The Wharf Theater was started primarily because the Cooks could not get Suppressed Desires put on by any established playhouse. Once they had begun their own theater, they had to have more plays to keep it going. This became Miss Glaspell's chief function in the Cook household: At her husband's insistence she wrote plays while she sat, she tells us, in the old wharf until the scenes began to shape themselves in her mind.
As we might expect, her first play written without the help of Cook, Trifles (1916), was closer to her fiction than any of her later plays; indeed, the play was turned with minor changes into the short story "Jury of Her Peers." Trifles was adapted perfectly to the bare wooden Wharf Theater, where its simple plot line and immediate appeal were most effective. Trifles is different from her other one-acts in that it is neither satiric nor overtly idealistic. With its precise realism, exact details, accurate dialogue, and conscious awareness of certain Midwestern ingredients, it is local color on stage. We expect men like John Wright to live on the prairie, women like Minnie Foster to marry him; and the sudden violence after twenty years of repression seems inevitable in that bleak Iowan homestead. An English reviewer, S. K. Ratcliffe, who saw one of the repeat performances in New York, recognized the Midwestern qualities of the play more clearly than the American reviewers, who accepted them without comment: "As played by the New York company Trifles proves itself an undeniable little masterpiece; but it is so purely American that I doubt whether the two women could be played by English actresses with equal effect."3
Trifles is far and away Miss Glaspell's most popular play; indeed, it is one of the most popular one-act plays ever written in America. Like "Jury of Her Peers," the play has been frequently anthologized and used as an example of structure and craftsmanship in texts on dramatic technique.
In the one-acts she wrote during the next two seasons, Susan Glaspell imitated the plays she saw other playwrights doing, but she occasionally added her own characteristic idealism. She satirized both conventional behavior and Village nonconformity in Woman's Honor (1918). In it, a young man, who nobly refuses to name the woman who could provide his alibi in a murder case, is beseiged by a whole line of women, such as The Shielded One, who are anxious to sacrifice their honor to his welfare. Both his false idealism and the ladies' contempt for their reputations receive the barbs of Miss Glaspell's wit. In the end, the suspect is ready to plead guilty rather than face any more women prating about their honor. This kind of play is quite easy to write and produce, so it is not surprising that the early bills of the Provincetown and the Washington Square Players contain many of these satiric sketches. Nor is it surprising that Susan Glaspell would write several of these clever one-acts in her early attempts at playwriting.
Close the Book (1917) laughs at the poseur who insists on unconventionally and at the snobbish small-town matron who hides her family's black sheep within a closed book on genealogy. The humor comes when Jhansi, who believes she is a gypsy, defends her ancestry to her fiance's family—"I am a descendent of people who never taught anybody anything!" (Plays, 68)—and the respectable family's attempt to disguise its humble origins. Jhansi turns out to be a milkman's daughter, so the family must pity her for being as good as they are. The play succeeds because of the dialogue, especially Jhansi's lines, which make the most of the comic turnabout. Here is Jhansi when she discovers her mundane origins:
So this is what I was brought here for, is it? To have my character torn down—to ruin my reputation and threaten my integrity by seeking to muzzle me with a leg at Bull Run and set me down in the Baptist Sunday-School in a milkwagon! I see the purpose of it all. I understand the hostile motive behind all this—but I tell you it's a lie. Something here [Hand on heart] tells me I am not respectable!
Miss Glaspell not only satirized the fads of Village life but also tried to speak for the idealism that was behind the Villagers' revolt against propriety. Plays like O'Neill's Fog and Louise Bryant's The Game contain abstract characters who express vague idealistic sentiments, and Miss Glaspell's The People (1917) follows these plays in the way it states abstract notions. Her play deals with the struggle for survival of a radical newspaper devoted to the social revolution. The editors are ready to stop publication until the people speak through the voices of a boy from Georgia, a fisherman from New England, and a woman from Idaho. Each tells what the paper means to him as each tries to articulate an idealistic faith: "It was wonderful to ride across this country and see all the people.… I had thoughts not like any thoughts I'd ever had before—your words like a spring breaking through the dry country of my mind. I thought of how you call your paper 'A Journal of the Social Revolution,' and I said to myself—This is the Social Revolution! Knowing that your tombstone doesn't matter! Seeing—that's the Social Revolution" (Plays, 57). Moved by such sentiments, the editors decide to keep the paper going.
The weakness in the play is that nothing happens; there is no action. The high-sounding speeches are too vague; for, as Isaac Goldberg said, "… the characters merge into caricature, and the spectator listens to the preachment of some beautiful thoughts that Uve as words, as ideas, but surely not as drama."4 In trying to give dramatic expression to her ideals, Miss Glaspell was faced with the same difficulty she had in her novels, and as yet she had not discovered a solution.
The Outside (1917) is a more interesting attempt to make drama from idealism—to put into direct dramatic terms her concern with that vague something she calls "the meaning of life." The setting of the play is me lifesaving station on the edge of Provincetown, once the scene of many dramatic fights with death. It is now inhabited by Mrs. Patrick and her taciturn servant Allie Mayo: two women who have chosen this isolated place to escape from being involved in life. As the play opens, a lifesaving crew takes over the living room in a vain attempt to save a drowned sailor. Mrs. Patrick resents this intrusion on her privacy: she sees it as a way of making her feel some emotion over the dead seaman. Allie is moved to cry out against Mrs. Patrick's desire to wall herself in. Like her mistress, Allie has sealed herself off from the world, refusing to talk. But now she must speak: "That boy in there—his face—uncovered something—[Her open hand on her chest. But she waits, as if she cannot go on; when she speaks it is in a labored way—slow monotonous, as if snowed in by silent years.] For twenty years, I did what you are doing. And I can tell you—it's not the way" (Plays, 109).
Searching for some symbol of her personal feelings, Allie, who compares the search for life with the land's fight against the ever-encroaching sea, calls the treeline at the edge of the sand the Outside, where the fight for survival goes on and where, significantly, life wins. She warns Mrs. Patrick not to bury her life: "I know where you're going! … What you'll try to do. Over there. [Pointing to the line of woods.] Bury it. The life in you. Bury it—watching the sand bury the woods. But I'll tell you something! They fight too. The woods! They fight for life the way the Captain fought for life in there!" (Plays, 111). In spite of herself, Mrs. Patrick is moved; and, as the curtain falls, she feels the pull of the life-force, and recognizes that she cannot bury herself from life.
Although the play begins with the excitement of the rescue, little happens from then on. The broken speech of Allie—played in the original production by Susan Glaspell—states the meaning of the play. But Allie cannot show us the full life; she can only cry out against an empty one. The play is a considerable improvement over The People, but it is still vague; it still lacks some kind of action that could project the ideas. Miss Glaspell can talk about life—although Allie's lines are spoken "in a labored way," indicating how difficult it was to put into words, let alone deeds, the abstract message—but Miss Glaspell cannot show us the life she admires. Even Ludwig Lewisohn, who was always highly impressed by her plays, said of The Outside, "her attempt to lend a stunted utterance to her silenced creatures makes for a hopeless obscurity."5
Tickless Time (1918), another collaboration between the Cooke, successfully merges the idealism and satire found in many of the early plays done by the Provincetown but without the confusing awkwardness this combination often resulted in. In the play, Ian Joyce makes a sundial which he says is "a symbol of man's whole search for truth—the discovery and correction of error—the mind compelled to conform step by step to astronomical facts—to truth" (Plays, 277). In his passion for absolute truth, he buries all their clocks; they will live above the erroneous tick. The cook races vainly between the kitchen and the sundial—dinner loses to a shadow. When Ian has to correct for the sun's variations, his wife realizes that they have not found perfection and digs up the clocks. Throughout the play, the clocks are exhumed and reburied several times as time itself becomes a relative absolute. Finally, they decide to keep both sundial and clocks: they will serve truth while they live by error.
The play is very funny; it is as witty in its way as Suppressed Desires, which indicates that Cook had a decided flair for light comedy. It was based on his attempt to establish his own "relation to truth beyond our world" by building just such a sundial. Tickless Time recognizes the idealism that was fundamental in the lives of the Players, but it also laughs at their sometimes extreme and bizarre expressions of that faith. Set in a comic framework, this idealism is less ponderous; but, like the sundial, it is still there at the close of the play and still valid.
We might say that in these one-acts Miss Glaspell had not yet found her dramatic voice. Two are collaborations, one is close to the short story, the others try various techniques and attitudes ranging from witty satire to hesitant idealism. She had little difficulty writing satiric sketches, but she had yet to find the techniques that would permit her to say something serious in dramatic form, with dramatic focus. Her idealistic plays stumble into vagueness, and her comedies skim the surface of life. Moreover, these one-acts follow quite consistently the same kinds of plays other playwrights and little theaters were doing. They show, therefore, how dependent she was on her contemporaries; and they also indicate that Miss Glaspell was still looking for a dramatic tradition she could use. Writing these short plays and also absorbing stagecraft by acting in and directing her own plays and those by others, she was learning to be a playwright in the best way possible. When the Provincetown Players moved to its new theater in 1918 and to a satisfactory stage with, by then, an experienced company, she was ready to move with them: she was ready to write full-length plays.
In its insistence on producing only original plays by native playwrights, the Provincetown was attempting to establish a theater which would reflect the modern American scene. There was, however, no accepted dramatic tradition for mis unique aim. Broadway, caught in the web of Romantic melodrama, offered little help. The new American playwright had for his models the European playwrights who had developed symbolic Expressionism into a useful technique, plus the native tradition which was slowly reaching toward Realism in theme and characterization. Trained in the local-color tradition in fiction, Miss Glaspell had little trouble using realistic techniques on stage. Trifles shows how easily and how well she could create a slice of life. But when she tried to go beyond realism, as in the groping dialogue of The People and The Outside, she could not find the dramatic means to render her ideas: She had not yet successfully created an American vision for an American audience. This skill had to be developed by trial and error, by constant experimentation in a theater like the Provincetown where she could gradually weld Realism and Expressionism into a new and personal dramatic form.
The Provincetown produced many types of plays, from the starkly realistic Cocaine, by Pendleton King, to the highly symbolic The Spring, by George Cram Cook. Some of its most satisfying moments came from an unusual play presented in exceptional terms, as in Aria Da Capo, by Edna St. Vincent MiUay. The basic direction the theater took, however, was determined by the plays of the two leading playwrights, Eugene O'Neill and Susan Glaspell, in whose works American Realism and European Expressionism merged. O'Neill, who was never exclusively a Provincetown playwright and who grappled with the problem of technique all his life, swung from the realism of Anna Christie to the symbolism of The Emperor Jones, eventually outgrowing the limited abilities of the Players. And in her own way, Susan Glaspell also faced the need to experiment, to adapt different techniques to different themes; but, unlike O'Neill, she confined her themes to the contemporary American scene and remained with the Provincetown from its beginning to its end.
In her first full-length play, Bernice (1919), she uses a technique that she had tried earlier in Trifles and was to use later in Alison's House: She translates an idealistic theme into action and dialogue through a heroine who never appears on stage. Bernice is dead when the curtain rises; but she influences the actions of all the characters who gather at her home. The crucial question of the play, me dramatic tension, comes from a conflict over the meaning of her death.
Bernice's philandering husband, Craig, and her best friend, Margaret, react very differently when they hear that Bernice was a suicide. Craig interprets her death as proof of her love for him and of her grief at his infidelity. Margaret is at first skeptical because she cannot believe anyone so full of beauty and tenderness would kill herself. Then the maid confides to her that Bernice died of natural causes, but, knowing her death was near, she asked that Craig be told she took her own life. This revelation shocks Margaret, for it seems to indicate that Bernice chose this unusual way to punish her unfaithful husband. Unwilling to accept Bernice's apparent cruelty, Margaret searches for another explanation and finds it in Craig's subsequent behavior.
Thinking his wife died for his sake, Craig finds a new purpose in his life. When Margaret suggests that his behavior need not be different simply because of Bernice's death, he replies, "Need not? You think I want the old thing back? Pretending. Fumbling. Always trying to seem something—to feel myself something. No … even more than it makes me want to die it makes me want to—Oh, Margaret, if I could have Bernice now—knowing. And yet—I never had her until now. This—has given Bernice to me" (Plays, 226). Realizing that Craig has now dedicated his life to being worthy of Bernice's sacrifice, Margaret sees the meaning of her strange last wish: it was a selfless gift, "a gift to the spirit. A gift sent back through the dark" (Plays, 229).
The burden of the play lies in the dialogue. There is so little action on stage that it is a drama of discovery through words. The essential action in the play, Bernice's death, has occurred before the play begins; what is left is the discovery of the meaning of her death and her last request. The limited action suited the small Provincetown stage perfectly and the emphasis on the rendition of the lines, rather than upon any complex stage business, suited the method-acting prevalent at that amateur theater. Bernice, a "mood" play of quiet yet deep emotion, appealed to those wanting a drama of ideas that ignores the superficial movements of everyday living in order to concentrate on the meaning of life. Ludwig Lewisohn pointed out the special appeal of the play: "beneath the surface is the intense struggle of rending forces. Bernice is dead, but a drama sets in that grows from her last words to her old servant and it is a drama that moves and stirs and transforms."6
As in The Outside, Miss Glaspell attempted in Bernice to express the significance of an intense life; and, as in the one-act play, Miss Glaspell eschews overt action for quiet mood. She suggests in this play and in others like it, especially Alison's House, that deeply felt beliefs are best expressed in an indirect way through a gradual revelation with ever-increasing feeling: through words not deeds, thoughts not acts, impressions not factual details. This concept was contrary to Broadway's insistence that a stage-story be all action and all surface. Heywood Broun praised Susan Glaspell in 1916 for showing other playwrights how to handle this most difficult manner of telling a story on stage: "Playwrights of our day, and of a good many previous days, for that matter, have gone ahead in the belief that an half-stage story is a poor story."7Bernice goes too far perhaps from concrete reality. It needs something—some crisis, or motive for action—to give an outward framework to the more important inner conflicts. It does show, however, that Miss Glaspell's apprenticeship was over; she could write full-length plays.
Inheritors (1921) is almost as idealistic as Bernice, but presents its theme in more active and realistic terms. In a strict sense it is a war play, for it is concerned with the war's effect on a Midwestern college. In its broadest extension, the play dramatizes the decline of faith in the twentieth century and defines the effects on contemporary life. It is Susan Glaspell's most serious play about the American Dream: about its origins in the pioneers' vision of an agrarian utopia; its promise of freedom and hope for the oppressed; and its lessening before the newer forces of prejudice and blind "Americanism," especially in the Midwest where it had once beckoned so brightly.
The play opens in 1879 when Silas Morton announces that he will donate land to establish a state university. He is supported by Felix Fejevary, a refugee from Hungarian tyranny, who wants to repay America for giving him freedom. Silas hopes that his gift will make up for his feelings of guilt over taking the land from the Indians in the first place. Each man sees the college as a means of repaying his debt to the country, and each idealistically hopes that the future can bring recompense for the past.
Act Two brings us to 1919, the fortieth anniversary of Morton College. Fejevary's son, president of the board of trustees, wants a state grant for the school; but he must convince Senator Lewis that the college is not a hotbed of radicalism. The radicals on campus consist of one professor who defended conscientious objectors during the war; a few Hindu students; and Madeline Morton, granddaughter of Silas. She defends the Hindus against the "gang tactics" of the American students who are led, ironically, by Fejevary's son; and she defies any authority that interferes with her freedom. Each main character represents a different approach to the problem of maintaining the college's independent and idealistic traditions amid the fears of an uncertain present. Professor Holden pleads with Madeline to forsake her defense of the minority. Since he has compromised his beliefs to keep his job, he tries to influence her by making her see the price she will have to pay: "I can't see you leave that main body without telling you all it is you are leaving. It's not a clean-cut case—the side of the world or the side of the angels. I hate to see you lose—the fullness of life" (143). Her father, Ira, also tries to persuade her not to become involved in other peoples' difficulties. Like the Ira in the short story "Pollen," he is a misanthrope, who has lost his son in the war, his wife from diphtheria; he is, therefore, afraid of the challenge of modern life.
But Madeline cannot detach herself from suffering humanity. She finds strength in her grandfather's vision of the future and in the natural justice of the wind's spreading pollen from one cornfield to another. She says, "The world is all a moving field. [Her hands move, voice too is as of a moving field.] Nothing is to itself. If America thinks so—America is like father. I don't feel alone any more. The wind has come through—wind rich from lives now gone. Grandfather Fejevary, gift from a field far off. Silas Morton. No, not alone any more. And afraid? I'm not even afraid of being absurd!" (153).
The three acts of the play cover three generations, which divide it roughly into past, present, and future. The first act establishes the dream, the vision of the future that will bring about the hopes of the Midwestern pioneer and the grateful immigrant. The second act places Morton College in the present day to show reaction to the effects of the war. Senator Lewis personifies everything wrong that came out of the war. He is one-hundred percent American: almost ludicrous in his jingoism and quite dangerous in his narrow-mindedness. Fejevary is caught in his practical desire to have the means serve the end, as he tries to discover some middle ground between conservatism and liberalism. The third act carries us ahead to several possible solutions to the dangers of Act Two. Ira has become an isolationist who is politically and morally cut off from the problems of man; he has gone the way Senator Lewis will go if pushed far enough. Fejevary's son insists on an absolute conformity that would exclude any dissent. Madeline represents the impractical vision of her ancestors: freedom and brotherhood at any price, the dream of possibility based on her heritage and her reaching into the future.
Significantly, Inheritors raises questions it does not answer. Although Madeline is the heroine with right on her side, she is warned again and again of the serious consequences of her intransigence. As we know today, any solution will inevitably be ambiguous; there is a dramatic splendor in holding fast to one's principles, but it is a lonely splendor which can be singularly ineffective in the complex world. Miss Glaspell hints at the ambiguity of Madeline's position, but her play, unlike a novel, does not allow for complicated political and moral solutions. Inheritors is almost too full as it is; for, without a strong actress playing Madeline, it is in danger of becoming sidetracked by the problems of Professor Holden and the tragedy of Ira. With a good actress in the lead—Ann Harding in the Provincetown production, Eva Le Gallienne in the Civic Repertory production in 1927—the play can be a compelling, disturbing dramatic experience.
"But that a dramatist of ideas has taken her place in the theater, of that there can be no doubt—and this through the agency of a little, rather dingy, but proudly insurgent theatre."8 This review of Inheritors by J. Ranken Towse touched on two of its noteworthy qualities: it illustrates the Provincetown's faith in the American playwright and in the American heritage; and it is a serious play of ideas. Treating an important issue of its time (and our own), the play calls for a rededication to the virtues of the past—without denial of the dangers of commitment. It avoids any complex symbolism of the kind that had made Cook's The Spring, which treated the same theme, confused and turgid. Susan Glaspell meets her ideas head on. In Inheritors she is not depicting a vague concern with the meaning of life, as she was in Bernice, but an immediate problem. Her technique, therefore, is more direct, her structure clearer. She dramatizes the theme through characters who are almost extreme representatives of several positions, and whose clash leaves no doubt as to the nature of the problem. Once more Miss Glaspell's intimate knowledge of the Midwest gives her art a detailed accuracy that makes her play credible and purposeful. She knew the Midwestern college so well that she recognized it as the ideal setting for a conflict between modern conformity and the older frontier tradition of integrity and independence. In its setting, its characters, its dramatic conflict, Inheritors is at once satiric and idealistic—as realistic as Trifles and as provocative as any play of ideas.
Although not all the critics liked the play—Alexander Woollcott felt it was "painfully dull, pulseless and desultory"9—they could not ignore it. Ludwig Lewisohn, one of the most enthusiastic reviewers, recognized the importance of its theme to a postwar audience:
It is the first play of the American theatre in which a strong intellect and a ripe artistic nature have grasped and set forth in human terms the central tradition and most burning problem of our national life, quite justly and scrupulously, equally without acrimony and compromise.
No competent critic, whatever his attitude to the play's tendency, will be able to deny the power and brilliancy of Miss Glaspell's characterization.… She has recorded the tragic disintegration of American idealism.
The memorable dramatic occasion of the year is on MacDougal Street where Susan Glaspell has added to the wealth of both her country and her art.10
Ten years later Lewisohn looked back on Inheritors and re-emphasized its significance: "Inheritors, moreover, was more than a stirring play; it was in its day and date, a deed of national import. While Broadway blazed and buzzed, both history and literature were being made on MacDougal Street."11
IV The Verge
The critics could not mistake The Verge (1921) for a typical murder mystery as they had Bernice, for they knew by the end of the first act they were watching a play unique in American drama. They were seeing Miss Glaspell's most extreme rendition of the individual's reaction against convention to seek her own meaning from life. It is as if Miss Glaspell were testing her own ideas by magnifying them in order to examine the delicate balance that must be maintained between freedom and conformity. Claire Archer, the most radical woman ever presented on the American stage, is quite different from the ordinary woman. As a result, she shocked some viewers, bewildered others, and delighted feminists who saw her as the personification of their desire for an independent life. Miss Glaspell makes clear, however, her own reservations about such ultimate independence.
As a wife and mother Claire is expected to assume the responsibilities of her station in society. But she refuses. She hates her ancestors, is unfaithful to her husband, rejects her daughter; and she refuses to be gracious, hospitable, or feminine. Declining to be "locked in" by convention, she compares her instinct for revolt with the plants she grows;
Plants do it. The big leap—it's called. Explode their species—because something in them knows they've gone as far as they can go. Something in them knows they're shut in to just that. So—go mad—that life may not be prisoned. Break themselves up—into crazy things—into lesser things, and from the pieces—may come one sliver of life with vitality to find the future. How beautiful. How brave (34).
The play develops through a series of rising climaxes which end each act and which carry Claire closer to the "big leap." She says she is trying to break through to "otherness," and to do so she leaves her husband, rejects her lover, and destroys her latest plant mutant because it would not meet the challenge of new life but retreated to its original form. Claire will not compromise; the plant must go ahead or die. Throughout the second act she desperately looks for someone to join her on "the verge." As she moves from passion to hysteria, she attacks the ordinary people around her, saying, "I'm tired of what you do—you and all of you. Life—experience—values—calm—sensitive words which raise their heads as indications. And you pull them up—to decorate your stagnant little minds—" (69). By Act Three Claire knows she will have to go ahead alone. Her new plant, "The Breath of Life," has made the breakthrough, and Claire intends to follow it. When her lover tries to stop her, she insanely chokes him to death as her passion breaks the bounds of reason. The curtain falls on her singing madly; she feels that she has crossed over literally to God.
We must realize that Claire has gone too far. Like many of Susan Glaspell's heroines she seeks some form of expression for the complete life. She can mouth sentiments Miss Glaspell must have felt herself, but Claire's final actions indicate that the playwright was making her an extreme case for dramatic purposes and was acknowledging the limitations that have to be placed on aspiration, the boundaries beyond which no one may go.
The Provincetown's production of The Verge, with Margaret Wycherly playing Claire, was apparently confusing. Stark Young, who recognized the attempt to do something new, felt the acting hurt the play. Woollcott objected to the vague language and didn't like Claire as a character. Percy Hammond, who liked both play and performers, wrote; "The play is good, but not great. Yet, it must be added, most of our American dramatists would be proud of such a default of greatness; indeed, only two or three of them could so fail."12
This mixed reception from viewers and critics alike stems partly from the ambiguous nature of Claire's personality. She goes mad before our eyes, she commits a number of reprehensible crimes, yet she is treated sympathetically. Claire carries the play; she is at once its heroine and its villain. Unlike most plays, certainly most Broadway shows, The Verge views life through the eyes of a true rebel—a mad visionary whose perspective may shock us but whose insights also force us to review our own mundane limitations and to find some logic in her passionate out-burst against "stagnant little minds." Given what Miss Glaspell wanted to do—present the extreme feminist—there was no better, no more dramatic way to present her than through Claire's own forceful personality, ambiguous though it may be.
The dramatic problem in the play was how to give adequate expression, both verbal and symbolic, to Claire's desires. In earlier attempts to dramatize this yearning for life—in The Outside, for example—Miss Glaspell relied on a choked, stammering dialogue, full of words like "otherness" and "outness." Although there is some of this labored speech in The Verge, she adds several new techniques to convey her theme of extreme behavior. The plants and the new DeVries mutation theory give a scientific and psychological basis to Claire's actions. In her several attempts to articulate her position, Claire breaks into poetry which reads like an odd mixture of George Cram Cook and Emily Dickinson:
I have the faith that can be bad as well as good.
And you know why I have the faith?
from my lowest moments—beauty has opened as the
sea. From a cave I saw immensity.
My love, you're going away—
Let me tell you how it is with me;
I want to touch you—somehow touch you once before
I die—Let me tell you how it is with me.
I do not want to work,
I want to be;
Do not want to make a rose or make a poem—
Want to lie upon the earth and know.
No wonder the critics were in disagreement over the quality of the acting. Such lines, shifting from prose to poetry, must have been extremely hard to say; but, read well, they could be quite moving.
The most interesting device in the play is the use in the manner of some European playwrights of an Expressionistic setting which is distorted and unrealistic in order to suggest the twisted Teachings of Claire and her plants: The set "is a tower which is thought to be round but does not complete the circle. The back is curved, then jagged lines break from that, and the front is a queer bulging window—in a curve that leans. The whole structure is as if given a twist by some terrific force—like something wrung" (58). Better than any other device, the setting suggests the Surrealistic—that is, other-worldliness—of Claire's search and actions; and the set makes more acceptable the madness at the end of the play. We are in an absurd world in The Verge, a twisted, straining place, where things and people stretch out but do not quite reach some impossible, non-human perfection. The dome, which eased the staging considerably, provided for many unique lighting effects. Clearly Miss Glaspell knew her craft by now, knew what she could achieve on that tiny stage in the way of lighting and setting.13 Even Alexander Woollcott, who never liked any of Susan Glaspell's plays, said that The Verge "is beautifully mounted, a little art and a little skill creating a more satisfying suggestion of earth and air and sky than can be managed with immense expenditure by the allegedly wiser producers of Broadway."14
The Verge is one of the first plays in the American theater to employ Freudian symbolism in its setting: it weaves the design of the set into the meaning of the play, and it forsakes realism in character, dialogue, and staging to achieve Expressionistic effects. It is Susan Glaspell's most experimental play, both in technique and theme; and, although there were widely divergent views about its success, it was at least an innovation in the dramatic art of its day.
V Chains of Dew
I have not been able to discover a copy of the last Glaspell play produced by the Players, Chains of Dew (1922). Fortunately, Heywood Broun summarized the plot in his review:
Chains of Dew is about a poet. Among his little group of radical friends in New York the opinion prevails that Seymour Standish would unquestionably be a great poet if only he could be freed from the environment of his home. They feel that his limitations are a dull wife, a devoted mother and a position of prominence in a respectable little town in the middle west.
And so, when he goes back to his chains, his friends follow him. One of them is a young woman agitating for birth control. She thinks that she can compel Standish to take a position which will force him to break with his wife and his home and find freedom which they believe to be essential to his best work. Much to the surprise of the conspirators, they find his wife sympathetic and enthusiastic about their beliefs. She is eager to defy the smug community in which she lives. It is Standish who is revealed as a prig.
Eventually the poet's mother reveals the truth about her son, which is that he is addicted to the secret vice of sacrifice. The animating force behind his poetry has been his feeling of martyrdom. He enjoys thinking that his wife is a sweet dunderhead who is holding him back. Her display of intelligence and initiative devastates his whole scheme of life.
And so his wife makes a great sacrifice. She abandons all effort to be a person and becomes once more merely a wife and mother, in order to provide the proper atmosphere of oppression which her husband needs in order to write poetry.15
Broun liked the play but objected to the poor performance it was given at the Provincetown. Since this was the last play to be done by the Players and since Miss Glaspell was in Greece when it was produced, it is no wonder that the performance was ragged. Chains of Dew, however, does continue the Midwestern concerns of her plays and becomes the basis for the plot of her later novel Ambrose Holt and Family (1931) in which Blossom Holt sacrifices her own desires for the sake of her poetic husband. With a few conspicuous exceptions, notably The Verge, her plays are Midwestern in setting and attitude. The Midwestern wife in this play is superior to her phony husband and his Eastern friends: not only is she morally superior but she also has a sense of identity, of independence, which they lack. Inheritors criticized certain aspects of American society and found a moral corrective in the Midwestern legacy; and later, when she had to choose a setting for Alison's House, Miss Glaspell placed the play in Iowa along the Mississippi. This consistent Midwesternism in her art caused one critic (Woollcott) to say she was old-fashioned; another, to speak favorably of her distinctive American traits (Lewisohn); and still another, to claim she oversteps national boundaries (Goldberg). Although Miss Glaspell was primarily an experimental playwright, she never completely shook off the literary traditions of her fiction. In this respect she plainly illustrates that peculiar mixture in the Provincetown of old-fashioned idealism and modern experimentation.
In the announcement "To Our Playwrights" the Province-town Players said, "We have given two playwrights to America, Eugene O'Neill and Susan Glaspell."16 There can be no question that Susan Glaspell's plays were a major factor in the success of the Playwright's Theatre. After Bernice no drama critic could overlook her plays, and every New York newspaper carried reviews of her last three plays. Only in a playhouse like the Provincetown could American Realism and European Expressionism unite to begin a new movement in American drama. Only in an experimental theater could Miss Glaspell find the means and the opportunity to develop her dramatic talent by freely experimenting with themes and techniques as she worked out her dramatic method. In return she wrote eleven plays exclusively for that theater and served it in countless other ways: for eight years she devoted her time, energy, money, and creative capacity to it. When she left it, its experimental period was over but its legend was assured.
Before the Provincetown, plays of ideas came mainly from foreign writers like Shaw and from a few scattered attempts by native dramatists. Miss Glaspell hit home because her plays were distinctly American, distinctly contemporary. Thus Inheritors, although it might have been acceptable to Broadway for its well made form, would have been rejected because of its painful conclusions; and The Verge, with its highly experimental form and radical views, could have appeared in no other theater than the Provincetown.
VI The Comic Artist
After Cook's death in 1924, Miss Glaspell traveled in Europe where she met Norman Matson, whom she married in 1925. In 1927 she published The Road to the Temple, which she said she wrote "to make Jig [Cook] realized by more people." Writing his biography led her apparently to a consideration of me relationship between the artist's life and society, for her last two plays are concerned with the conflict between the private life of an artist and the public's right to his art. This theme is especially true of Alison's House and is one of the major problems in The Comic Artist (1928), a collaboration between Miss Glaspell and Norman Matson.
The "comic artist" is Karl Rolfe, a successful cartoonist, whose creation, "Mugs," symbolizes man's pathetic and comic striving for heroism. In spite of his good intentions, Mugs always falls short of his aspirations, with tragicomic results. Karl would like to be a serious artist, but he limits himself to cartooning in order to make money. His wife sees Mugs as a source of income; therefore, she nags Karl into minimizing his talent. Karl's brother, on the other hand, wants him to develop his artistic gift and tries to mediate some balance between Karl's personal life and his artistic possibilities. The result is tragedy. In a foolish, heroic, Mugs-like gesture, Karl dies trying to save his wife, whom he mistakenly thought was drowning. Thus the spirit of Mugs permeates the play. Although everyone acts with the best of intentions, nothing ends satisfactorily. The play suggests that, when people bungle in the life of an artist, they bring misery, regardless of their motives.
Performed first in London in 1928 and then in the West-port Playhouse in 1931, The Comic Artist did not reach Broadway until 1933. It was not a success. The reviewer for Newsweek said it contained "strained literary writing made up principally of forced situations developed in tedious scenes."17 The play is strained, and it is more literary than dramatic. It contains an unhappy combination of serious ideas that Miss Glaspell wrote into it and frivolous comedy that, I suspect, Norman Matson was responsible for. There is an annoying inconsistency in the play, both in method and theme, as its two authors work at cross purposes. At one place a woman speaks lines that sound like other Glaspell heroines: "And there in the garden, all of a sudden—as some people are eager to know who will win a football game or who killed Dr. Hall, I was eager to know what life means!" (40). This speech runs counter to a lot of trivial stage business designed to give movement and light farce to the play. The dramatic effect, that mood of quiet tension so characteristic in Miss Glaspell's plays, is ruined by a shifting tone and by awkward comic devices.
VII Alison's House
Alison's House (1930) is as controlled in its tone and as consistent in its movement as The Comic Artist is not. Inspired by reading Genevieve Taggard's The Life and Mind of Emily Dickinson and still intrigued by the dramatic potential of a play treating the conflict between the artist and the world—and perhaps sensing that The Comic Artist had failed to do dramatic justice to this theme—Miss Glaspell wrote her version of Emily Dickinson's "quarrel with the world." Because she was not permitted to use Miss Dickinson's name nor any of her poetry, Susan Glaspell named her heroine Alison, set the play in the Midwest, and used Emerson's poems. Nevertheless, Alison Stanhope is a thinly disguised Emily Dickinson.
What Miss Glaspell did to solve the difficult problem of conveying Emily Dickinson on stage was to continue her technique of keeping the central character off-stage. Alison has been dead for eighteen years when the play begins; we know her through her influence on the different members of the Stanhope family. On the last day of the nineteenth century the family is preparing to move from its house. We begin on a note of resignation: the century, the house, and the eldest member of the family—all are passing away.
This melancholy mood is disrupted by a reporter who has come to write a story about Alison before her effects are moved. Because there has been a persistent rumor that Alison was in love with a married man, the Stanhopes resent the public's curiosity about her life. Each member of the family reacts differently to the reporter's intrusion: Ted wants to exploit her reputation for his own profit, Alison's brother is resigned to the fact that she belongs to the world, Louise fears a scandal may emerge, and Agatha zealously guards Alison's property by refusing to let anyone enter her room and by even trying to burn Alison's unpublished work. Agatha cries, "I say she does not belong to the world! I say she belongs to us. And I'll keep her from the world—I'll keep the world from getting her—if it kills me—and kills you all!" (25). When Agatha dies in Act Two, the strongest defender of Alison's privacy is gone. Her unpublished poems are passed on to Elsa, the person most like Alison. The poems tell the "story she never told. She has written it, as it was never written before. The love that never died—loneliness that never died—anguish and beauty of her love!" (139).
So the problem of what to do with the unpublished material is made more dramatic by the revelation that it tells of a love affair which will reflect on the Stanhope name. Alison's father wants to burn the poems, but Elsa (to the accompaniment of New Year's bells) convinces him that the poems belong to the future: "She loved to make her little gifts. If she can make one more, from her century to yours, then she isn't gone. Anything else is—too lonely" (154). As the new century dawns, as a new life begins for the family, the quiet mood of resignation that began the play has now shifted to a new note of rebirth; and the play ends.
Once again, and for the last time, Susan Glaspell found the right dramatic situation to render her implicit faith in the human condition. There is just enough tension in the conflict among the members of the family to create dramatic excitement. The climaxes in each act, especially Agatha's death in Act Two, continue the tension into the next act, so that the dramatic line, the rising tautness of the play, is sustained from first to last, unbroken by any false notes. This single, finely balanced key is supported by the unities of setting and time—the play takes place within one house during one day. Alison's House demonstrates conclusively that Susan Glaspell's most effective and most characteristic dramatic technique was her centering a play around an off-stage character: Minnie Wright, Bernice, Alison. Somehow this generates a peculiar tension, like a hushed whisper that grows stronger as the play progresses. She can keep us believing in the idealistic nature of her heroine because the heroine remains abstract. Never seeing her, we accept her as a vision, an abstraction, which we might not do if she were to materialize in some particular action. Alison is a spirit, an ideal who represents the love that finally causes the regeneration at the end of the play. She is an unseen force who symbolizes the hope the play evokes.
For these reasons—the overt conflict, the unities, the unbroken dramatic line, and the effect of Alison—this play is one of Miss GlaspelFs finest. The quiet but unmistakable turn in Act Three to a new note of hope is most impressive, as the unobtrusive symbols of time—a new day, a new year, a new century—tell us a new spirit has risen. The old concerns passed with Agatha's death. Now Alison can be received as a poet, and her personal life will be overshadowed by her artistry.
A great deal of the power of this play depends on the ability of the actors to hold the suspense through the shift in tone without breaking down into sentimentality. With Eva Le Gallienne playing Elsa, the Civic Repertory Theatre's production was so successful that Alison's House won the 1931 Pulitzer Prize in drama.18 In no other play was Miss Glaspell in such perfect control of her characters, her dialogue, her symbols, and her ability to create a sustained mood. Alison's House has remained a popular play among amateur theaters and is generally recognized as one of the highlights of the American theater in the 1930's. It was, therefore, a fitting close to her dramatic career.
VIII Importance As a Playwright
The publication of Miss Glaspell's plays in 1920 and of her separate plays in 1921 and 1922 offered the critics a chance to review her dramatic work. Both Ludwig Lewisohn and Isaac Goldberg discussed the importance her plays had in the new drama beginning to appear in America. Lewisohn saw clearly the particular American qualities of her vision:
Behind Miss Glaspell's hardihood of thought hover the fear and self torment of the Puritan. She is a modern radical and a New England schoolteacher; she is a woman of intrepid thought and also the cramped and aproned wife on some Iowa farm. She is a composite, and that composite is intensely American. She is never quite spontaneous and unconscious and free, never the unquestioning servant of her art. She broods and tortures herself and weighs the issues of expression.
Her comedy … is never hearty. It is not the comedy of character but of ideas.…19
Goldberg, who touched on the effect her writing plays of ideas had on her dramatic language, compared her art in this respect to O'Neill's:
Glaspell's intensity of thought … induces a straining toward wit, an eminently intellectual process; her humor … presupposes persons of sophistication. As O'Neill inclines toward the masterful man, so she leans toward the rebellious woman. Where the author of The Hairy Ape spurts out words like the gushing of a geyser, Glaspell is reticent, laconic.…
Now, Miss Glaspell is indeed very sensitive in the way she feels feeling, and by that very token is she the woman of thought.…20
What these critics are in effect saying is that, while Miss Glaspell is of major importance as a dramatist of ideas, she paid a price for this achievement. She had to foresake a lyrical drama for an intellectual one. Consequently, there are few moving speeches in her plays; she hesitates with words, groping for the language her characters need to express their ideas. This results in that brooding quality Lewisohn speaks of: a unique mood which comes partly from the sparseness of speech, partly from the limited stage action, and partly from the particular techniques she used to help the words convey her ideas. She employed expressionism in The Verge, created an off-stage heroine in Bernice and Alison's House, and treated realistically a specific issue in Inheritors. As Goldberg says, her feeling supports her thought; her ideas emerge not so much from the lines spoken, but from the atmosphere engendered by the situation and the techniques.
Miss Glaspell's work at the Provincetown was a major reason for the appearance of new realistic plays on Broadway about 1920. Zona Gale's Miss Lulu Bett, which won the Pulitzer Prize in 1921, was a study of a repressed Mid-western woman—one not unlike Minnie Wright in Trifles. Rachel Crothers, who was writing plays at this time which treated the position of the modern woman, reached some of the conclusions found in The Verge, Other plays, such as Elmer Rice's The Adding Machine (1923) and John Howard Lawson's Processional (1925), used Expressionism as a means to convey ideas in drama. It would be inaccurate, however, to say that these plays were directly influenced by Miss Glaspell's plays—or that, without her and the Provincetown, there would have been no modern American drama. But it is safe to say that her work paved the way and that the Provincetown created a climate where original plays by American playwrights were acceptable to the Broadway producers and to the theater public. The sudden outbreak of new realistic plays in the 1920's was no accident. Miss Glaspell's plays of ideas, which experimented with various techniques in order to create an intellectual drama, and the Playwright's Theatre's conspicuous achievement were important aspects in the rise of modern American drama.
Although Miss Glaspell was not the first American dramatist to treat life realistically on stage, she was one of the first to gain a measure of success, both critical and popular, without catering to the demands of the uptown producers. Her plays were amazingly modern for their time. She wrote on the new woman in all her weakness and glory; she treated psychoanalysis when it was still very new in this country. She depicted in varying form the little magazine, the Bohemian, the war's effect on the sensitive minority, and the difficulty of individualism in the modern world. She brought to the American stage a procession of memorable women, from the repressed midwestern farm-wife to the most radical feminist. Furthermore, she created this panorama of the new age without losing her ability to evoke the more traditional aspects of our culture, especially those of the Midwest.
So her plays have these unique qualities: an interplay among the intellectual, experimental, and traditional elements in our society; an attitude of strong idealism controlled by her probing intellect; a coexistence of the most modern themes and characters with the traditional beliefs of the older generations; and, in her major plays, a successful integration of these diverse qualities into a harmonious, dramatic unity. This surely is an achievement. In her accomplishment she justified the Provincetown's faith in the American playwright.
Although Susan Glaspell published no plays after Alison's House, she retained an interest in the theater throughout her life.21 She regularly attended the productions of various groups who put on plays in Provincetown. She was director of the Midwest Play Bureau for the Federal Theatre for over a year, and she stimulated the writing of plays about the Midwest. Thus she was an observer and patron of the drama after her active participation in the theater had ended.
1Quoted in Barrett H. Clark, Eugene O'Neill: the Man and His Plays (New York, 1929), p. 43.
2Road to Temple, p. 250.
3S. K. Ratcliffe, "An American Dramatist—and Some Players," New Statesman and Nation, XVII (July 9, 1921), 386. It is worth noting that this review published in England shows how far the story of the Provincetown had traveled by 1921.
4Isaac Goldberg, The Drama of Transition (Cincinnati, 1922), p. 475.
5Ludwig Lewisohn, The Drama and the Stage (New York, 1922), p. 103.
6Ludwig Lewisohn, Expression in America (New York, 1932), p. 394.
7 Heywood Broun, "The Drama," New York Herald Tribune, November 14, 1916, p. 7. Broun, who was one of the earliest admirers of Miss Glaspell's plays, was reviewing Trifles; his remarks can apply, however, to several of her plays.
8 J. Ranken Towse, "The Play," New York Evening Post, March 23, 1921, p. 9.
9 Alexander Woollcott, "Second Thoughts on First Nights," New York Times, March 27, 1921, section 7, p. 1.
10 Ludwig Lewisohn, Nation, CXII (April 6, 1921), 515. Much of this review is reprinted in Lewisohn's Expression in America, p. 395.
11Expression in America, p. 395.
12Percy Hammond, New York Herald Tribune, November 16, 1921, p. 10.
13"For a photograph of the set for The Verge, see Theatre Arts, VI (January, 1922), 12, or The Provincetown, p. 81.
14Alexander Woollcott, New York Times, November 15, p. 23.
15 Heywood Broun, New York World, April 29, 1922, p. 11.
16The Provincetown, p. 92.
17"Newsweek, I (April 29, 1933), 26.
18 Most critics were surprised that Alison's House was awarded the Pulitzer Prize. They thought that either Philip Barry's Tomorrow and Tomorrow, or Lynn Rigg's Green Grow the Lilacs would have been a better choice. For a summary of the critical reception accorded Alison's House, see The Best Plays of 1930-1931, ed. Burns Mantle (New York, 1932), pp. vii, 222ff.
19"Ludwig Lewisohn, Nation, CXI (November 3, 1920), 509-10.
20Drama of Transition, pp. 472-73.
21 Miss Glaspell wrote another play, The Big Bozo, based on Harl Cook's escapades on a motorcycle, but it has never been produced.
Christine Dymkowski (essay date 1988)
SOURCE: "On the Edge: The Plays of Susan Glaspell," in Modern Drama, Vol. XXXI, No. 1, March 1988, pp. 91-105.
[In the following essay, Dymkowski investigates the "preoccupation with the limits of experience" displayed in Glaspell's plays.]
Until recently, Susan Glaspell has been little more than "a footnote in the history of drama," remembered chiefly for her association with Eugene O'Neill and the Province-town Players; her contemporary reputation as one of the two most accomplished playwrights of twentieth-century America may come as a legitimate surprise even to serious students of dramatic history.1 Her plays have rarely been performed by professional companies and, apart from the often-anthologized Trifles, have been unavailable in print2 such marginalization Galspell's work is the most obvious way in which her drama can be said to be "on the edge." Its own preoccupation with the limits of experience is another.
Central to Glaspell's plays is a concern with fulfilling life's potential, going beyond the confines of convention, safety, and ease to new and uncharted possibilities, both social and personal. This need to take life to its limits and push beyond them implies a paradoxical view of life's margins as central to human experience—as the cutting edge mat marks the difference between mere existence and real living. This edge is imbued with both possibility and danger, the one concomitant with the other; Glaspell makes this clear not only in the plays but in her account of her response to the Provincetown dunes:
I have a picture of Jig [her husband] at the edge of the dunes, standing against the woods, that line he and I loved where the woods send out the life that can meet the sand, and the sand in turn tries to cover the woods—a fighting-line, the front line.3
It is, in the widest sense, the front line between life and death.
This focal point is at once evident in the titles of some of Glaspell's plays: The Outside and The Verge speak for themselves, while Trifles ironically alludes to the discrepancy between the vitality of women's experience and the male view of it as petty. Indeed, inherent in almost all of Glaspell's work is a consciousness that identifies women as outside the mainstream of life and thus capable of shaping it anew.
The paradoxically central nature of the edge informs Glaspell's theatrical methods and themes. Her first play, Trifles (1916),4 illustrates its use in several ways, the irony of the title already having been noted. The plot revolves around the visit to a farmhouse by County Attorney Henderson and Sheriff Peters to investigate the murder of John Wright; they are accompanied by the farmer who discovered the murder and, almost incidentally, by the farmer's and sheriff's wives. The men's assumption is that Minnie Wright, already in custody for the crime, has killed her husband, and they are there to search the house for clues to a motive. The audience undoubtedly sees them as protagonists at the start of the play.
The stage directions immediately call attention to the women's marginality: the men, "much bundled up" against the freezing cold, "go at once to the stove" in the Wrights' kitchen, while the women who follow them in do so "slowly, and stand close together near the door" (p. 36). The separateness of the female and male worlds is thus immediately established visually and then reinforced by the dialogue:
Mrs. Peters (to the other woman) Oh, her fruit; it did freeze, (to the Lawyer) She worried about that when it turned so cold.…
Sheriff Well, can you beat the women [sic]! Held for murder and worryin' about her preserves.
County Attorney I guess before we're through she may have something more serious than preserves to worry about.
Hale Well, women are used to worrying over trifles.
(The two women move a little closer together.)
Not surprisingly, the women are relegated to the kitchen, while the men's attention turns to the rest of the house, particularly the bedroom where the crime was committed: "You're convinced that there was nothing important here—nothing that would point to any motive," Henderson asks Peters, and is assured that there is "Nothing here but kitchen things" (p. 38). However, while the men view the kitchen as marginal to their purpose, the drama stays centered there where the women are: contrary to expectation, it becomes the central focus of the play.
Ironically, it is the kitchen that holds the clues to the desperation and loneliness of Minnie's life and yields the women the answers for which the men search in vain; moreover, the understanding that they do reach goes beyond the mere solving of the crime to a redefinition of what the crime was. Mrs. Hale blames herself for a failure of imagination: "Oh, I wish I'd come over here once in a while! That was a crime! That was a crime! Who's going to punish that? … I might have known she needed help! I know how things can be—for women. I tell you, it's queer, Mrs. Peters. We live close together and we live far apart. We all go through the same things—it's all just a different kind of the same thing" (p. 44). The empathy both women feel for Minnie leads them to suppress the evidence they have found, patiently enduring the men's condescension instead of competing with them on their own ground. Conventional moral values are overturned, just as the expected form of the murder mystery is ignored: the play differentiates between justice and law and shows that the traditional"solution" is no such thing.
Just as Glaspell sets the play in the seemingly marginal kitchen, she makes the absent Minnie Wright its focus, a tactic she was to use again in Bernice and Alison's House; although noted by critics,5 this use of an absent central character has not received much comment. It is yet another way in which Glaspell makes central the apparently marginal—indeed, in stage terms, the non-existent. It is a point I will return to in discussing the later plays.
Woman's Honor (1918),6 like Trifles, is concerned with the gulf between female and male experience, centering on the ways men define and limit the world in which both sexes live and the ways in which women challenge those definitions and limitations. At its start, it appears to focus on Gordon Wallace, a man accused of murder who refuses to give an alibi because his "silence shields a woman's honor" (p. 121); without his knowledge, his lawyer Foster has leaked the fact to the press in the hope that "Wives—including … jurors' wives—will cry, 'Don't let that chivalrous young man die!' Women just love to have their honor shielded" (pp. 123-24).
Foster is quickly proved wrong as a succession of women enter the sheriff's conference room, all ready to provide Wallace with the alibi he so desperately needs, despite the loss of "honor" this will entail. Unlike the men, none of the women have names but are described somewhat expressionistically in the stage directions as the Shielded One, Motherly One, Scornful One, Silly One, Mercenary One, and Cheated One. As these seemingly anonymous figures discuss their motives and attitudes towards "woman's honor," they acquire far more reality than the men, who become ciphers pushed from center stage.7 What has seemed the play's central human situation—a young man "ready to die to shield a woman's honor" (p. 124)—becomes totally unimportant, indeed farcical, as the action progresses. The women have gathered not so much to save Gordon Wallace as to destroy an empty idea.
The reasons behind the women's action are as varied as their names and, except for the Silly One who finds Wallace's attitude "noble beyond words," belie male attitudes towards them; however, the behavior of the Silly One undermines her position—she is a "fussily dressed hysterical woman [who] throws her arms around the Lawyer's neck," exclaiming "I cannot let you die for me!" (pp. 135, 131). The only other dubious motive comes from the Mercenary One, who makes it quite clear she has financial reasons for her presence; it eventually emerges that the women have been talking at cross-purposes, and she has come to apply for a stenographer's job.
The discussion among the rest of the women identifies "woman's honor" as a male concept, beneficial only to men; the Scornful One indicates its hypocrisy on several levels:
So you were thinking of dying for a woman's honor. (He says nothing.) Now do you think that's a very nice way to treat the lady? (He turns away petulantly.) Seems to me you should think of her feelings. Have you a right to ruin her life? … A life that somebody has died for is practically a ruined life. For how are you going to think of it as anything but—a life that somebody has died for? … Did it ever strike you as funny that woman's honor is only about one thing, and that man's honor is about everything but that thing? … Now woman's honor means woman's virtue. But this lady for whom you propose to die has no virtue.… You aren't dying to keep her virtuous. I fancy few lives have been laid upon that altar. But you're dying to keep us from knowing what she is. Dear me, it seems rather sad.
The Motherly One agrees that the notion is an empty one not worth dying for, but wonders if it should perhaps "be kept us, as … it gives men such noble feelings." The Scornful One replies: "That man—the one [who seduced me] when I was seventeen—he's that sort. He would be of course. Why this instant his eyes would become 'pools of feeling' if any one were to talk about saving a woman's honor" (p. 139).
Eventually the discussion focuses on which of the women should stay to provide the alibi. It is agreed that the Motherly One has "too many other things to do" and that the Scornful One is not appropriate because "Woman's honor never hurt" her (p. 150); since the Silly One subscribes to male ideals, the choice is between the Shielded and Cheated Ones.8 The decision involves choosing between personal and political objectives: the Cheated One insists on providing the alibi as a means of self-determination and personal fulfillment ("It's the first thing I ever wanted to do that I've done," p. 154), while the Shielded One wishes to claim she spent the night with Wallace as a means of freeing "all [women] smothered under men's lofty sentiments towards them" (p. 146). A vagueness about the way in which the Shielded One will liberate all others of her type weakens the play somewhat: the women are inconsistently treated as types or as individuals according to thematic needs. Nevertheless, the women aim at a resolution that will involve both the Shielded and the Cheated Ones, thus encompassing both personal and general salvation.9 Although we do not hear what this solution might be, it is clear that it is reached: "Here! Yes! On the night of October 25—(Their heads together in low-voiced conference with Lawyer …)" (p. 155). At this point, however, the prisoner, who is now both marginal and powerless, attempts to regain control; he "slips around the Cheated One … and makes for the door. It opens in his face, and the doorway is blocked by a large and determined woman. Prisoner staggers back to Lawyer's arms" and says, "Oh, hell. I'll plead guilty" (pp. 155-56), as the play ends.
The comedy of the conclusion entails one of Glaspell's serious concerns; her preoccupation with "the battle between the life force and the death force" has already been admirably discussed elsewhere.10 Wallace's life-denying attitude, however, gains added meaning when placed within the context of being on the edge. The imbalance of power between the sexes acts as an advantage to women, a disadvantage to men, when they reach the "front line" of struggle and change. It is precisely because "men … determine the world in which … women are … required to live" that women may have a perspective on it of which men are incapable;11 they have always been on the outside looking in. Their position on the edge gives them an alternative power—the power to move beyond what is, just as the women in Trifles and Woman's Honor move beyond male definitions of crime and justice and honor. Men placed on the edge, however, are excluded from a power to which they subscribe—Wallace, put in this position, cannot reshape his world from a new perspective; he can only affirm the old one. He prefers to die rather than redefine his notion of woman's honor. The perspective of gender can go some way to explain the inherent optimism of Glaspell's plays, even though they center on women who have died or go mad or face long spells in prison, as well as the unwitting pessimism and defeatism of so much of O'Neill's work.12
By recreating the Provincetown coastline that Glaspell describes in The Road to the Temple, the setting of The Outside (1917) embodies the life/death struggle inherent in the edge:
… through [an] open door are seen the sand dunes, and beyond them the woods. At one point the line where woods and dunes meet stands out clearly and there are indicated the rude things, vines, bushes, which form the outer uneven rim of the woods—the only things that grow in the sand. At another point a sand-hill is menacing the woods.… The dunes are hills and strange forms of sand on which, in places, grows the stiff beach grass—struggle; dogged growing against odds. At right … is a drift of sand and the top of buried beach grass is seen on this.
The set's significance is not left to the audience's inference but is underlined by the dialogue: Allie Mayo, embracing "The edge of life," speaks "tenderly" of the "Strange little things that reach out farthest," while Mrs. Patrick gloats that they "will be buried soonest"; Allie recognizes that they will nevertheless "hold the sand for things behind them" and so contribute to life (pp. 54, 53). Mrs. Patrick, who throughout the play has denied life and struggle, finally starts to "feel… her way into the wonder of life, " understanding what it is to "Meet… the Outside" (p. 55).
Both women had originally retreated from life as a result of losing their husbands, and in dramatizing their re-embracing of it, the play affirms women's autonomy. The relationship between women and men in the play is, however, more complex than this statement suggests, and, not surprisingly, the perspective of gender also informs critical interpretation of it: Bigsby regards the male life-savers, who at the beginning of the play struggle unsuccessfully to revive a drowned man, as catalysts of the change ("paradoxically, [with Allie they] succeed in their efforts 'to put life in the dead,'" 1987, p. 13), while Ben-Zvi sees Glaspell's focus "on the failure of men to accomplish what women can do.… [The men's] physical activity has proven a failure. The passive, mute Allie, however, is victorious in her own personal resuscitation of Mrs. Patrick" (1982, pp. 25-26). While a persuasive interpretation of the play can encompass both viewpoints, Glaspell's focus is unquestionably on the women and on the triumph of Allie's vision, which goes beyond the men's mere recognition of the life/death struggle to an understanding of the way in which that struggle itself shapes life.
While the line between woods and dunes in The Outside locates its focus in a symbolic struggle between life and death, the edge in Bernice (1919),13 Glaspell's first full-length play, is the interaction between literal life and death. The play focuses on the recently-deceased title character, whose body lies in a room just off-stage. Despite her physical absence from the action, the play creates and reinforces Bernice's presence in several ways. First, the setting is "The living-room of Bernice's house in the country, " and it is clear that Glaspell expected the stage set to create a powerful sense of her character: "You feel yourself in the house of a woman you would like to know … " (p. 159); furthermore, the house's evocation of its dead owner begins the action of the play:
Father Bernice made this house. (Looking around.) Everything is Bernice. (A pause.) Change something, Abbie! (With growing excitement.) Put something in a different place. [He moves some of the furnishings.] (… helplessly.) Well, I don't know. You can't get Bernice out of this room.
In addition, the other characters all focus on their relationships to Bernice, and indeed, relate to each other through that relationship. Their focus on the dead woman is theatrically realized by their constant approaches to the closed door behind which her body lies, the door itself acting as this play's concrete symbol of the edge. In fact, these approaches dramatize the continuing development of their relationship to her—for example, Bernice's faithless husband cannot bring himself to enter the room when he first arrives at the house, but eventually finds a solace mere unavailable from any of his fellow-mourners. Through the characters' discussions and the action on stage, Glaspell makes her dead hero the vital mover of the drama.
That drama focuses, as implied, on the way the other characters—father, friend, husband, sister-in-law, and maid/companion—understand Bernice, and on the way that understanding shapes and transforms their lives.14 Craig, horrified to learn from killed herself, blames his infidelities for her action and berates himself for underestimating her passion for him: Margaret, her friend, cannot believe that Bernice took her own life, and when she forces the truth from Abbie—that Bernice, ill on her deathbed, made her promise to deceive Craig—she is devastated by the thought that Bernice's "life was hate" (p. 206). By the end of the play, Margaret understands that the deception was Bernice's final gift to Craig, one that breaks the mould of his life up till then and so gives him the opportunity to reach beyond his limits.
As always, this need to "break through" the "bounded circle" of Ufe is Glaspell's central concern (p. 202), and again, it is the character on the edge who is most successful in doing so; the dead Bernice has far more effect on the other characters than anyone else in the play. However, this influence is not simply due to the way death can alter relationships; despite Bernice's isolated country Ufe, Margaret, who has devoted herself to active work for political and social causes, can say:
I do things that to me seem important, and yet I just do them—I don't get to the thing I'm doing them for—to life itself. I don't simply and profoundly get to life. Bernice did.
The audience need not take Margaret's assessment on trust, but recognition of Bernice's achievement does depend on an understanding of power, an understanding determined in the play by gender. Craig's unfaithfulness to Bernice arose from his failure to dominate her, to "have" her completely (see pp. 174, 186); as Margaret explains, he "turned to women whom [he] could have" and "'had' all of them simply because there was less to have" (p. 197). He could not appreciate Bernice because he had not "the power to reshape" her, and as Margaret astutely remarks, he wanted "no baffling sense of something beyond" him (pp. 174, 197). Thus, Glaspell depicts male occupation of the central position in a woman's life as limiting for both, keeping them within the "bounded circle" of life. This is not "the power to reshape" that Craig thinks it is, but merely the power to circumscribe.
By using her death to convince Craig that he had the power over her he yearned for, Bernice, from her remote position, exercises a liberating power of her own. Craig now rejects his old life as "make-believe": "Pretending. Fumbling. Always trying to seem something—to feel myself something" (p. 226). Bernice's father recognizes that her spirit was generous enough to give as much as possible, but that paradoxically its very greatness meant she could not give "all she was" (p. 223). Even more paradoxically, the play shows how that magnanimity could clothe itself as something venal, and in so doing, manage "to give—what couldn't be given" (p. 226). Glaspell makes clear that Bernice's power over Craig is not one imposed on him, like man's power over woman, but one which allows him free scope. As Bernice's father remarks, "she wanted me to do what—came naturally to me.… She was never trying to make us some—outside thing" (p. 194).15
Inheritors (1921), Glaspell's next play, emphasizes that growth into new ways of being is organic rather than imposed: just as the pollen from Ira's corn blows across neighboring fields, making other corn richer (see p. 155), so humankind develops from a desire to extend oneself; in discussing the evolution of the hand, for example, one character explains that "from aspiration has come doing, and doing has shaped the thing with which to do" (p. 116). True life is process, not product: "we aren't finished yet" (p. 117). Thus, the edge in this play is "the impulse to do what had never been done" (p. 116), which develops human potential. Importantly, this potential is both individual and social; the two are inextricable in this play.
The structure of Inheritors allows Glaspell to explore the development from impulse to achievement. Act I takes place in 1879, when the pioneer Silas Morton and his Hungarian refugee friend Felix Fejevary discuss Silas's intention to found a college for the girls and boys of the cornfields; the next three acts, set in 1920, show what has happened to the ideals of forty years before. Right from the beginning of the play, Glaspell takes every opportunity to highlight ironically the betrayal of earlier ideals through present self-interest. The action is set on the fourth of July, 1879—Independence Day, but the celebrations mentioned commemorate the Civil War of a decade earlier. Grandmother Morton, the first settler in the area with her husband and son Silas, "never went to bed without leaving something on the stove for the new ones that might be coming" (p. 107), but now balks at Silas's plan to give away some of their vast land holdings to start a college. The portrait of Lincoln which hangs in the Morton farmhouse during Act I is ironically recalled by the audience in the next act when his inaugural address, affirming the right to revolution, is subverted by a state senator and a bigoted student (pp. 123-24); the latter, the grandson of the "revolutionist" Fejevary, is hounding Indian students who call for an end to British imperialism in their country. He can say without any conscious irony: "This foreign element gets my goat" (p. 122). The dangers of moving from the edge to the center are made very apparent.
It is entirely appropriate and theatrically effective that the portrait of Silas Morton hanging in the college library should overhear the giddiness and snobbery of students in whom he had hoped to nurture sensitivity and love of learning: they dissolve into hysterical giggles because another student is "trying to run a farm and go to college at the same time" (p. 125). It also overhears the discussion between Fejevary's son, now president of the Board of Trustees, and State Senator Lewis about the "radical" views of Professor Holden, who has championed the cause of his former student Fred Jordan, a conscientious objector still held in solitary confinement two years after the war's end (see pp. 119-20, 136); so that the college can receive money from the state, Fejevary agrees to silence the professor. As he later explains to Holden, "we [the college] have to enlarge before we can grow.… Yes, it is ironic, but that's the way of it" (p. 131).
Everything in the play goes to show that that is not "the way of it"; while Holden is eventually compromised by the need to pay his wife's medical bills, Madeline Fejevary Morton, granddaughter of the pioneer and the revolutionary, is able to "go … against the spirit of this country" (p. 140), standing up for the rights of the persecuted Indian students and refusing to use her privileged position as a way of escaping the consequences of her assault on the police. In discussing her decision with Holden, Madeline articulates the dangers and potential of being on the edge: "I'd like to have been a pioneer! Some ways they had it fierce, but think of the fun they had! A whole big land to open up! A big new life to begin! … Why did so much get shut out? Just a little way back—anything might have been. What happened?" Holden answers that "It got—set too soon," and Madeline concludes that prosperity was the cause: "That seems to set things—set them in fear." She understands the importance of "Moving" and regrets that "We seem here, now, in America, to have forgotten we're moving. Think it's just us—just now" (p. 151). The town itself epitomizes her analysis: once a settlement at the very edges of civilization, nurturing people of vision and courage and generosity,16 it is now a city in the heart of the nation, full of unthinking conformists. Its college students are happy to act as strike-breakers, and the only courage that is recognized is in fact a fear of being different: those who went to war "had the whole spirit of [their] age with [them]" (p. 134), unlike the truly courageous Fred Jordan.
In the last three acts of the play, those characters with the greatest integrity are the most marginal ones. Seen by society as both extremists and outsiders, in stage terms Fred Jordan and the Indian students do not exist: they never appear. However, near the beginning of the last act, Glaspell provides this stage direction, which occupies several minutes of performance time:
Rises, goes to [the] corner closet. … She gets a yard stick, looks in a box and finds a piece of chalk. On the floor she marks off Fred Jordan's cell. [It is "two and a half feet at one end, three feet at the other, and six feet long."] Slowly, at the end left unchalked, as for a door, she goes in. Her hand goes up as against a wall; looks at her other hand, sees it is out too far, brings it in, giving herself the width of the cell. Walks its length, halts, looks up.
In this way, Glaspell makes the absent Fred Jordan the center of our attention, without having him appear on stage. The audience is forced to imagine the experience of this political prisoner through Madeline's imagining of it; indeed, because the focus is on Madeline's attempt to experience Fred Jordan's confinement, the audience's mental and emotional engagement is greater than it would have been if Jordan were actually shown on stage in his cell.
Madeline, as hero, is of course central in terms of plot and stage presence, but she chooses to marginalize herself in the society which the play depicts. When Holden tries to dissuade her from "do[ing] a thing that [will put her] apart," fearing she will thereby lose the "fullness of life," Madeline pinpoints the self-interest mat leads him to this view: "You don't think that—having to stay within—or deciding to, rather, makes you think these things of the—blight of being without?" She dismisses his argument, neatly summarizing Glaspell's own view: "I don't see it—this fullness of life business.… I think that in buying it you're losing it" (p. 152).
While Inheritors deals with the social and political significance of being on the edge, The Verge (1921) is concerned solely with the individual. Its hero, Claire, experiments with plants, hoping to shock them "out of what they were—into something they were not." Her goal is to break "the old pattern," a prison that substitutes form for life. For Claire, the edge is a jumping-off-point for "otherness," for liberation from old and dead ways of being: "anything may be—if only you know how to reach it" (pp. 76-77, 86). Her experiments have led to two potentially new plants: the Edge Vine, which eventually runs "back to what it broke out of," and Breath of Life, "alive in its otherness" (p. 62).17
Claire's attempt to create new plant forms is, of course, analogous to human potential: "We need not be held in forms moulded for us. There is outness—and otherness." The way to such creation is through destruction of the old order: "If it were all in pieces, we'd be … shocked to aliveness.… Smash it" (p. 64). Claire's understanding informs her otherwise incomprehensibly urgent plea to her conventional husband to "Please—please try [your egg] without salt" (p. 62) and validates a response to her daughter which others condemn as unnatural: Elizabeth, in her own words, studies "the things one studies" and does "the things one does" and "Of course … is glad one is an American" (p. 74); it is not surprising that Claire is repulsed by the idea that such a daughter "ever moved [her] belly and sucked [her] breast" (p. 78).
Although another critic has fould Claire's name ironic,18 her vision is essentially the same as Madeline's Morton's, and as clear. Indeed, her clarity seems to be underlined by the amorphousness of the names of the men who surround her—Tom, Dick, and Harry, respectively her friend, lover, and husband. However, Tom's surname, Edgeworthy, distinguishes him somewhat from the others; it links him with the idea of the edge and, more particularly, with Claire's Edge Vine, which had the chance to be other, but "Didn't carry life with it from the life it left" (p. 77). Tom shares Claire's aspirations and values, but to a limited extent: whereas she is terrified that she will "die on the edge," without achieving "otherness" (pp. 86, 78), he is content with merely being "outside life" (p. 72). When Claire suggests to him that their friendship and shared sympathy should lead to a fulfilling sexual relationship, one that may help to achieve the otherness she desires (p. 89), Tom refuses on the grounds that it would instead be a going-back. His concern for her, however, is suspect: while in sympathy with Claire's aims and ideas, he has also shown himself afraid of them. Tom realizes that the "door [to otherness is] on the far side of destruction" (p. 71), but he cannot face the risks, even vicariously. He warns Harry not to try to stop Claire's botanical experiments: "If she can do it with plants, perhaps she won't have to do it with herself' (p. 71). Again, Glaspell shows woman as the risk-taker and seer.
Tom's position as an avoider is not redeemed by his ultimate desire for sexual union with Claire. Instead of meeting her on the basis she had earlier proposed, he claims her according to the old pattern of female and male relationships: "I'm here to hold you from where I know you cannot go" (p. 99). Claire, who like Breath of Life wants to create herself anew, recognizes that Tom "fill[s] the place—should be a gate" and strangles him, ultimately achieving her freedom in madness.19
That Claire's madness is liberating in the way she desires is determined by her own attitude to madness and sanity. She repeatedly refers to the latter as a prison: "sanity.… [is] made a virtue—to lock one in.… Things that [grow] take a sporting chance—go mad—that sanity mayn't lock them in—… from life—that waits" (p. 65; see also ) She has always supposed that "If one ever does get out … it is—quite unexpectedly, and perhaps—a bit terribly" (p. 63). In this way, Claire's madness at the end of the play is a personal triumph, but one to be understood symbolically rather than realistically.20
Glaspell's choice of settings gives her further opportunity to emphasize her theme. Acts I and HI take place in Claire's greenhouse laboratory, Act II in her private tower. Both places are extremities of the house she lives in, and yet all the action of the play occurs there. Moreover, these edges force awareness of their centrality—all the characters are drawn into them, must enter them, in order to engage with Claire. Indeed, the comedy of the first act revolves around the retreat of Tom, Dick, and Harry to the greenhouse in order to eat breakfast comfortably; Claire has diverted to it all heat from the house so that the plants' temperature may be consistently maintained in the freezing weather.
Glaspell's decision to depict Claire's tower complete on stage actively involves the audience in the tension berween the edge and the center; her stage directions at the beginning of Act n explain that the tower's "back is curved, then jagged lines break from that, and the front is a queer bulging window. … " Claire is seen through the huge ominous window as if shut into the tower (p. 78). It is most unusual for a playwright to separate characters from the audience with an actual physical barrier rather than a merely imagined fourth wall; seen through and enclosed by the glass, Claire is both the focus of the audience's attention and an outsider in its world. The tower, at once isolating Claire and making her its center,21 resembles Breath of Life, an "outer shell" with "something alive" and glowing within it (p. 96; s.d., p. 92); we hardly need Tom's reference to the plant as a "womb [Claire] breathes to life" (p. 97) to recognize the metaphor's aptness both for Claire's experiment and Glaspell's stage-picture. By identifying Claire in her tower with an embryo in the womb, Glaspell underlines several ideas: the organic nature of growth and development, the naturalness of the violence of creation, and the uniquely female capacity to give birth to new life; it is not only Tom's personal failings which prevent his journeying as far as Claire.
The Verge, which itself moves across different dramatic genres, is in many ways Glaspell's most complete expression of the complexities of being on the edge, and forms a fitting conclusion to this discussion.22 Throughout her career as a playwright, Glaspell was preoccupied with the central importance of people and ideas outside the mainstream of life, and the sterility of the status quo. Her consistent point-of-view, however, did not lead to a depressing staleness but to wide experimentation with different dramatic genres and theatrical devices which would embody her ideas. Her present appeal should in fact be wide: her relative critical neglect offers scholars and theatre historians varied research opportunities; her perspective on women and her creation of a variety of strong female protagonists should attract feminist critics, actors, and audiences; her insistence on the dangers of complacency should find a ready response in those who despair of the social and political myopia not just of Reagan's America but also of most other western democracies.
Glaspell clearly deserves a more central place in the history of twentieth-century American drama than she has so far been given. That she has not is in large part due to her sex. To those who will retort that Glaspell gave up the theatre, writing only one play between the end of her association with the Provincetown Players in 1922 and her death in 1948, while O'Neill went on from strength to strength, the answer is simply that gender contributed to those developments as well.23 Theatre, like the critical scholarship that determines "major figures," is still male-dominated, its edges inhabited by women. It is time those edges were seen as the challenging and important areas Glaspell recognized them to be.
1 Quotation from Introduction, Plays by Susan Glaspell, ed. C.W.E. Bigsby (Cambridge, 1987), p. 30 [hereafter referred to as Bigsby, 1987]. For recent reappraisals of Glaspell, see also and An example of Glaspell's contemporary reputation can be found in James Agate's review of Inheritors for the Sunday Times: "I am inclined to think it ranks with The Master Builder," quoted on flyleaf, Susan Glaspell, The Road to the Temple (London, 1926).
2 Bigsby's recent collection of Glaspell's plays contains only Trifles, pp. 35-45; The Outside, pp. 47-55; 77ie Verge, pp. 57-101; and Inheritors, pp. 103-57; future references to these plays will be to this edition.
3Road to the Temple, p. 221.
4 Glaspell had a year earlier co-authored a play, Suppressed Desires, with Jig Cook.
5 E.g., Bigsby, 1982, pp. 25-26; Sharon Friedman, "Feminism as Theme in Twentieth-Century American Women's Drama," American Studies, 25 (1984), 75.
6Susan Glaspell, Woman's Honour, in Plays (Boston, 1920), pp. 119-56. All further references to this play appear in the text.
7The lawyer is off stage for a good part of the play, and stage directions indicate Wallace looking "like one at bay" (p. 129), giving "the impression of being crowded into a corner" (p. 138), and finally attempting to escape (p. 156).
8At this point the lawyer returns, and as she does in Trifles, Glaspell takes the opportunity to underscore female solidarity and male incomprehension of it:
Lawyer Ladies—-ladies—quarreling? I'm sorry to find you in this mood. I had hoped while you were here together you might—arrive at some understanding.… Now why must women always dislike each other?
Motherly One (In her motherly way.) If I were you I'd try not to talk much.
Lawyer Why not?
Scornful One She has a kind heart. Now I—I'd let you talk.
Lawyer Sometimes it seems quite as well not to try to follow women.
Scornful One Sometimes even better.
9Tlie Scornful One makes this clear in suggesting that they "save both of them through Gordon Wallace," p. 155.
10 See Bigsby, 1987, pp. 12 ff.
11Bigsby, 1987, p. 12, makes this comment without seeing its implications; he continues: "But, remarkably it seems, [women] retain a grasp on moral realities.…" (my italics).
12Cf. Bigsby, 1982, p. 44: "More often than not, [O'Neill's] plays are not about a glorious struggle against fate, an heroic pursuit of the unobtainable. They are concerned with the desperate illusions which are the acknowledgement of defeat." Similarly, in comparing the two playwrights, Linda Ben-Zvi comments that "O'Neill [is] committed to a tragic world where human suffering leads to awareness, perhaps, but not to victory; Glaspell, to a more optimistic, meliorative world" ("Susan Glaspell and Eugene O'Neill: The Imagery of Gender," The Eugene O'Neill Newsletter, 10 (1986), 27). I was able to obtain only a photocopy of Ben-Zvi's article, together with her previous one, "Susan Glaspell and Eugene O'Neill," The Eugene O'Neill Newsletter, 6 (1982), 21-29, after I had finished writing my own; although her emphases are different, many of her ideas anticipate and complement mine.
13"Bernice: A Play in Three Acts, in Plays (Boston, 1920), pp. 157-230. All further references to this play appear in the text.
14 The responses range from her sister-in-law's total incomprehension to her friend's eventual complete understanding.
15 The discrepancy in Glaspell's judgement of the likely effects on "A life that somebody has died for" (Woman's Honor, p. 134) is more apparent than real, if one considers gender. Margaret expects Craig to be destroyed by the belief that Bernice has killed herself for him: "I … can't stand it to see anyone go down under a thing he shouldn't have to bear" (pp. 215-216); she shares the view of the Shielded One in Woman's Honor that such knowledge will ruin a life. This is the female perspective, one very different from that of the male in his dominant position. Ironically, Craig's transcendence of his limitations would not be possible without those limitations being present in the first place: his very self-centeredness and self-importance (which Glaspell presents not just as personal but as generic failings) allow him to accept Bernice's sacrifice as proof of his value and then to act from that validated sense of self. Glaspell implies that a woman in a similar situation would not think herself worth such a sacrifice.
16 Glaspell's concern in this play with the betrayal of American Indians might seem to belie my point. However, she makes clear that the relationship between the earliest settlers and the Indians was not exploitative, but one of mutual respect (see p. 105). It was "after other white folks" came that trouble began—in other words, once this edge was subsumed into the normal.
17 Glaspell is also aware of the trap of creation; Claire, in speaking of Breath of Life and its achieving otherness, says, "Out? / You have been brought in" (p. 96). The battle at the edges of life is a constant one: stasis is defeat.
18 Bigsby, 1982, p. 30.
19"it is worth pointing out that Tom has told Harry he would "go so far as to stop [his] existence" if it would help Claire; Claire herself calls her murder of Tom her "gift" to him. (She echoes Margaret in Bernice, p. 229: Bernice's lie to Craig was "a gift to the spirit") Considering these points together with Tom's identification with the Edge Vine, the action should perhaps also be understood as a way of keeping Tom true to the best in himself. Cf. Claire's explanation of her earlier action: "I should destroy the Edge Vine. It isn't—over the edge. It's running, back to—'all the girls' [a reference to Elizabeth's conformity]," p. 77.
20 The way in which the play's own changing form mirrors its content has already been pointed out by Bigsby, 1982, p. 29.
21 While it is true that the other characters are also seen through this window, the tower is Claire's and very much identified with her.
22 It is worth noting that Alison's House (1930), Glaspell's last play, concerns itself with the same ideas and uses many of the same tactics as her earlier works (New York, 1930). Focusing on the way old-fashioned, conventional morality hinders self-fulfillment, the play is appropriately set on December 31, 1899—the edge between one century and another—and ends at midnight, with "distant bells ring[ing] in the century" and new values (pp. 154-55). The battle between the old and the new in the Stanhope family takes place through the agency of their aunt/sister Alison, a famous poet, who has been dead for eighteen years and in whose house the action is set. The resolution of Act III occurs in Alison's bedroom, and Glaspell conjures up a sense of her presence and influence in ways similar to those used in Bernice.
23 Glaspell's last play for the Provincetown Players was Chains of Dew (1922), which was never published. Besides Alison's House (1930), she also wrote The Comic Artist (1928) with Norman Matson. It is significant that Glaspell's productive years coincided with her involvement in an amateur group which, besides supporting new writers, was equally open to women as to men.
Linda Ben-Zvi (essay date 1989)
SOURCE: "Susan Glaspell's Contributions to Contemporary Women Playwrights," in Feminine Focus: The New Women Playwrights, edited by Enoch Brater, Oxford University Press, 1989, pp. 147-66.
[Ben-Zvi assesses the ways that Glaspell's work paved the way for modern feminist writers, arguing that while Glaspell's "particular experiments may at first glance seem removed from those of women writing in modern and postmodern modes of the sixties, seventies, and eighties … they are in fact part of the same ongoing search for dramatic means to depict female experience. "]
The name Susan Glaspell is followed in her biographical sketches by some of the most illustrious credentials in all of American theater history: cofounder of the Provincetown Players, the seminal American theater company; prodigious playwright, who contributed eleven plays to the Province-town theater in its seven years of existence, surpassed only by Eugene O'Neill, who wrote fourteen under the aegis of the group;1 talented actress, praised by the visiting French director Jacques Copeau for her moving depiction of character;2 director of her own plays, including The Verge, one of the first expressionist dramas seen on the American stage; winner of the Pulitzer Prize for drama in 1931 for her play Alison's House, only the second woman to be so honored; head of the Midwest bureau of the Federal Theatre Project in Chicago in the thirties, credited with reviewing over six hundred plays and instrumental in the production of several important works by black playwrights; significant influence on others, particularly Eugene O'Neill, who she brought to the Provincetown theater in the summer of 1916 and with whom she continued to have a close personal and professional relationship until her departure for Greece with her husband in 1923, thus ending the original Provincetown experiment.3
Few have been so successful in so many areas of theater, yet, ironically, few have so completely disappeared from the dramatic canon as Susan Glaspell. Critics in her own period such as Heywood Broun, Ludwig Lewisohn, Isaac Goldberg, and Barrett Clark praised her and O'Neill for creating an indigenous American dramatic idiom, experimenting with new forms and new subject matter, and leading the way for those who followed.4 Yet while O'Neill's reputation grew over the years, Glaspell was virtually ignored by subsequent critics.5 In the forty years following her death, only one book devoted to her dramas and novels and only one biographical essay on her life appeared.6 And with the exception of her first one-act play, Suppressed Desires, which has remained a standard work for amateur theater companies, her other writings—six one-act and six full-length plays and eleven novels—were allowed to go out of print.7
Interest in Glaspell and her work began to resurface only in the last ten years, when research devoted to women writers uncovered her masterpiece Trifles, and the play, along with the short story version, "A Jury of Her Peers," began to appear in anthologies of women's writing, particularly Mary Anne Ferguson's popular Images of Women in Literature and Judith Barlow's drama collection Plays by American Women: The Early Years.
While feminist criticism has brought Glaspell's name back from the dead and uncanonized, it has not yet produced studies of Glaspell's contributions to dramatic writing. Most discussions of her plays concentrate on them as documents of female exploitation and survival.8 Certainly, they are important because they are among the first modern writings to focus exclusively on female personae, but they go even further. They offer a new structure, a new dramatic language appropriate to their angle of vision, and a new depiction of character which accommodates the experience of the central figure they delineate, a woman seeking her way in a hostile and often unfamiliar world.
Glaspell's relevance to women playwrights is particularly important because she illustrates in the body of her works the kinds of questions they must face, questions of form determined by the sensibility that the plays embody. Glaspell was among the first writers to realize that it was not enough to present women at the center of the stage. If there were to be a radical break with plays of the past, women would have to exist in a world tailored to their persons and speak a language not borrowed from men. She shared this awareness with her contemporary Virginia Woolf, who, in a 1920 essay, described the problems of female representation on the stage:
It is true that women afford ground for much speculation and are frequently represented; but it is becoming daily more evident that lady Macbeth, Cordelia, Clarissa, Dora, Diana, Helen, and the rest are by no means what they pretend to be. Some are plainly men in disguise; others represent what men would like to be, or are conscious of not being; or again they embody the dissatisfaction and despair which afflict most people when they reflect upon the sorry condition of the human race.
Glaspell's women are what they seem to be: tentative and often halting, trying to find themselves and their voices. Her explorations on the stage are similar to those described by the critic Susan Rubin Suleiman in her 1986 essay entitled "(Re)Writing the Body: The Politics and Poetics of Female Eroticism":
Women, who for centuries had been the objects of male theorizing, male desires, male fears and male representations, had to discover and reappropriate themselves as subjects.… The call went out to invent both a new poetics and a new politics, based on women's reclaiming what had always been theirs but had been usurped from them; control over their bodies and a voice with which to speak about it.
Glaspell, seventy years earlier, was aware of both responsibilities. She offered a form, a poetics, and a politics which Suleiman and others writing today describe as vital to female-centered art. Glaspell saw that if the world portrayed is the world of women—if the locus of perception is female—then her plays would have to strive for a shape which reinforces this new vantage point and a language which articulates it. And while her particular experiments may at first glance seem removed from those of women writing in modern and postmodern modes of the sixties, seventies, and eighties—who employ transformations, nonrepresentational situations and characters, fragmented temporal and spatial distinctions—they are in fact part of the same ongoing search for dramatic means to depict female experience. A study of Glaspell's works thus provides illustrations of how women can function as protagonists and how structures, language, and subject matter can act as extensions of such women-centered drama.
When Susan Glaspell first came to New York with her husband George Cram Cook in April 1913, she was disturbed by the theater she saw. In The Road to the Temple, her biography of Cook, she writes, "Plays, like magazine stories, were patterned. They might be pretty good within themselves, seldom did they open out to—where it surprised or thrilled your spirit to follow. They did not ask much of you, those plays." Like O'Neill and the other contributors to the Provincetown Players, she was conscious of the limitations of traditional dramatic form. The Dublin-based Abbey Theatre had toured America in 1911 and had shown the possibilities of dramas not limited to narrowly defined shapes. Yet Glaspell's desire to smash existing structures stems from more than the contemporary abhorrence of limitation, permeating the society in which she moved: Greenwich Village in the first decades of the century. To understand Glaspell's work with form and language, it is necessary to understand something of her biography....
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Beverly A. Smith (essay date 1982)
SOURCE: "Women's Work—Trifles? The Skill and Insights of Playwright Susan Glaspell," in International Journal of Women's Studies, Vol. 5, No. 2, March/April 1982, pp. 172-84.
[In the following, Smith examines Glaspell's presentation of women in Trifles and she analyzes the play as "a possible fictional representation of a [spouse] battering. "]
Sheriff (rises): Well, can you beat the woman! Held for murder and worrin' about her preserves.
County Attorney (getting down from chair): I guess before we're...
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Bach, Gerhard. "Susan Glaspell (1876-1948): A Bibliography of Dramatic Criticism." The Great Lakes Review 3, No. 2 (Winter 1977): 1-34.
Annotated bibliography of secondary sources on Glaspell's plays.
——. "Susan Glaspell—Provincetown Playwright." The Great Lakes Review 4, No. 2 (Winter 1978): 31-43.
Traces the influence of the Provincetown Players on Glaspell's development as a writer.
Bigsby, C. W. E. Introduction to Plays by Susan Glaspell, pp. 1-31. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1987.
Presents a history of Glaspell's life and her involvement with the Provincetown Players, as well overviews...
(The entire section is 312 words.)