The Play (Masterplots II: Drama, Revised Edition)
Trifles tells the story of two investigations into the murder of John Wright. The male characters carry on the official investigation while the female characters carry on their own unofficial investigation.
The play opens when its five characters enter the kitchen of the Wright farmhouse. The county attorney takes charge of the investigation, guiding the sheriff and Mr. Hale in recounting their roles in the discovery of the crime. Mr. Hale tells how he came to the house to ask John Wright about sharing the cost of a phone line, only to find Mrs. Wright sitting in a rocker. When he asks to speak with her husband, Mrs. Wright says that he cannot speak with Mr. Hale because he is dead. Mr. Hale investigates and finds that Wright has been hanged. After commenting on Mrs. Wright’s poor housekeeping in ways that irritate the women present, the county attorney leads the men upstairs so he can search the scene of the crime for a motive.
The women are left alone. While gathering some household goods to make Mrs. Wright feel more at ease in jail, they discuss Minnie Wright, her childhood as Minnie Foster, her life with John Wright, and the quilt that she was making when she was taken to jail. The men reenter briefly, then leave. The women discuss the state of the Wright household before Mr. Wright’s death. In the process, they communicate how greatly Mrs. Wright had changed over the years and how depressing her life with John Wright had...
(The entire section is 575 words.)
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Dramatic Devices (Masterplots II: Drama, Revised Edition)
In De poetica (c. 334-323 b.c.e.; Poetics, 1705), Aristotle’s treatise on drama, he argued that a tragedy should consist of a single action, completed in one place and taking no longer than one day. Trifles follows these rules perfectly, taking place in a single room and far less time than one day. However, Trifles is more a social criticism than tragedy. Glaspell uses a variety of dramatic devices to critique her society. There are no formal scene breaks in Trifles. Instead, the entrances and exits of the male characters define the play. Each time the men leave, the women exchange private information; each time they enter, the men force or prevent crucial decisions. This action controls the pace of the play and symbolizes how men run women’s lives, controlling and silencing them as John Wright silenced his wife.
The many doubles in Trifles create a symbolic structure. Mr. Hale is accompanied by his wife; the sheriff is accompanied by his wife, Mrs. Peters. The county attorney is there because another pairing, Mr. and Mrs. Wright, was disrupted, indicating that the law must step in when the symbolic foundations of society breaks down. To underscore this point, the county attorney looks for a way to speak for Mrs. Wright, who refuses to speak for herself, and who is, indeed, completely absent from the play, making her invisibility to the social order literal. The final...
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Topics for Further Study
What Do I Read Next?
Bibliography and Further Reading
Bibliography (Masterplots II: Drama, Revised Edition)
Sources for Further Study
Ben-Zvi, Linda, ed. Susan Glaspell: Essays on Her Theater and Fiction. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1995.
Glaspell, Susan. “Lifted Masks” and Other Works. Edited by Eric S. Rabkin. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1993.
Ozieblo, Barbara. “Rebellion and Rejection: The Plays of Susan Glaspell.” In Modern American Drama: The Female Canon. Cranbury, N.J.: Associated University Presses, 1990.
Shafer, Yvonne. American Women Playwrights, 1900-1950. New York: Peter Lang, 1995.
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