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...
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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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In many ways, Susan Glaspell’s success at the turn of the century signaled a new age for women, and Trifles, still her best-known play, represents the struggles women of her era faced. Born in 1876, Glaspell’s grandparents were some of the pioneers who settled her hometown of Davenport, Iowa.
In an age when few women went to college, and even fewer actually sought careers beyond menial labor outside the home, Glaspell did both, graduating from Drake University with a Ph.D. in Philosophy in 1899, and immediately embarking on a lifetime of freelance journalism, playwriting, and fiction writing.
In 1916, the year Glaspell wrote Trifles for the Provincetown Players, some of the important issues of the day were women’s suffrage, birth control, socialism, union organizing, and the psychological theories of Sigmund Freud. Women had not yet achieved the right to vote, and in most states women could not sit on juries. It wasn’t until 1920 that the 19th Amendment granted women the right to vote.
Only a year after she was jailed for writing Family Limitation, the first book on birth control, Margaret Sanger opened America’s first birth control clinic in Brooklyn, New York. Charged with ‘‘maintaining a public nuisance,’’ she was once again arrested, and served thirty days in the Queens County Penitentiary. It wasn’t until 1973 that the Supreme Court’s Roe v. Wade...
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The structure of a play affects all of its most important elements—the plot, characters, and themes. An episodic play, such as William Shakespeare’s Hamlet, requires many twists and turns of plot, numerous characters and locations, and great stretches of time in order for the story to unfold. A climactic play, such as Sophocles’s famous tragedy Oedipus Rex, typically presents only a handful of characters involved in a single plot, which builds toward a climax—the most important moment in the play.
One of the most restrictive forms is the one-act play, a style favored by Trifles author Susan Glaspell. In every respect the one-act play is more tightly compressed than a full-length climactic Greek tragedy. Because one-acts are typically short, with playing times of fifteen to forty-five minutes, the number of characters introduced must be limited, and their personalities must be developed quickly.
Glaspell takes full advantage of this limitation in Trifles. The men in the play are stereotypical characters. Their actions and words immediately suggest personalities that are condescending, egotistical, and self-important. The women, meanwhile, begin the play timidly, allowing their husbands to blunder about the crime scene. Then, given the chance to be alone, they open up to each other and show a strong sense of female intuition that allows them to solve the play’s mystery very...
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Compare and Contrast
1916: In the United States, the women’s rights movement began in earnest in the nineteenth century. Margaret Sanger opens the first birth control clinic in 1916. In 1920 the 19th Amendment gives women the right to vote. The average life expectancy for men is 53.5 years; for women it is 55 years.
Today: Women have made great strides worldwide, and their average life expectancy remains 2-3 years longer than that of men (both are expected to live well past age seventy). The Supreme Court’s decision in Roe v. Wade (1973) gives women the right to choose an abortion during the first few months of pregnancy.
1916: In cities, dance halls are popular places for young men women. ‘‘Ragtime’’ music moves into mainstream America in 1911 when Irving Berlin writes a syncopated dance tune called ‘‘Alexander’s Ragtime Band.’’ The sheet music to the song sells more than a million copies.
Today: Rap is a very popular musical genre in America. Like the ragtime music at the turn of the century, rap has its roots in black American culture, but has fans in all segments of society. While overall music sales increase a mere 9%, rap music boasts a 31% gain.
1916: Alcohol abuse is deemed one of the biggest problems faced by Americans. As a result, twenty-three states have anti-saloon laws in 1916. By 1919, the 18th Amendment to the Constitution is passed, prohibiting the...
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Topics for Further Study
Read John Millington Synge’s famous one-act play Riders to the Sea and compare it to Glaspell’s Trifles. How does each play employ symbolism and local color? How is the one-act format important to each work?
One of the most important characters in Trifles is Mrs. Wright, yet she never appears on the stage. Why did Glaspell leave her out of the play? How does her absence impact Mrs. Hale and Mrs. Peters? Discuss the ways the play would be different if Mrs. Wright was present.
Research the lives of women in rural American communities at the turn of the century. What were typical tasks assigned to women? How did the requirements of frontier life determine the role women played in the family? Explore how the frontier experience affected the decisions made by Mrs. Peters and Mrs. Hale in the play.
Trifles contains several important symbols. In literature, a symbol is something that represents something else, and is often used to communicate deeper levels of meaning. What are some of the important symbols in Trifles? How does Glaspell use these symbols to propel the plot, and convey deeper levels of meaning about her characters or themes??
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Trifles is based on a Glaspell short story entitled ‘‘A Jury of Her Peers.’’ A short film version of A Jury of Her Peers was produced in 1981 by Texture Films. The program aired on PBS in 1987.
Another film adaptation of A Jury of Her Peers, entitled An Eye for an Eye, was created by Diana Maddox for the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation’s ‘‘Guest Stage’’ television series in 1956.
The Canadian Broadcasting Corporation aired a radio drama version of Trifles, directed by Denis Johnston, in February, 1999.
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What Do I Read Next?
Trifles is an adaptation of ‘‘A Jury of Her Peers,’’ a short story based on an actual trial Glaspell covered as a reporter in Des Moines, Iowa.
Other Glaspell plays include The Outside, The Verge, Inheritors, and Alison’s House, which earned her the Pulitzer Prize in 1931.
John Millington Synge’s Riders to the Sea is a well-written one-act mystery play. In Synge’s play, the women of the Aran Islands watch helplessly as their husbands and sons sacrifice their lives to the sea as fishermen.
Fried Green Tomatoes at the Whistle Stop Cafe by Fannie Flagg, is a novel chronicling the story of Idgie and Ruth, two women who fight sexism and racism in a small Alabama town in the 1930s.
Eugene O’Neill is one of the most recognized names in American drama, and certainly the most famous playwright to emerge from the Provincetown Players, the small amateur theater company Glaspell helped create in 1915. Like Glaspell, O’Neill wrote several one-act, ‘‘slice of life’’ plays that were first performed in Provincetown, including Bound East for Cardiff, In the Zone, The Long Voyage Home, and The Moon of the Caribbees.
Sandra Dallas’s The Diary of Mattie Spenser is the fictional account, told in diary form, of an Iowa woman who weds in 1865. After her marriage, she travels with her husband to the Colorado Territories,...
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Bibliography and Further Reading
Alkalay-Gut, Karen. ‘‘Murder and Marriage: Another Look at Trifles,’’ in Susan Glaspell: Essays on Her Theater and Fiction, University of Michigan Press, 1995, pp. 71-81.
Ben-Zvi, Linda, editor. Susan Glaspell: Essays on Her Theater and Fiction, University of Michigan Press, 1995.
Ferguson, Mary Anne. Images of Women in Literature, Houghton Mifflin Company, 1977, p. 390.
Hedges, Elaine. ‘‘Small Things Reconsidered: ‘A Jury of Her Peers’,’’ in Susan Glaspell: Essays on Her Theater and Fiction, University of Michigan Press, 1995, pp. 49-69.
Kolodny, Annette. ‘‘A Map for Rereading: Or, Gender and the Interpretation of Literary Texts,’’ in New Literary History, University of Virginia, Spring, 1980, p. 451-67.
Nelligan, Lisa Maeve. ‘‘The Haunting Beauty from the Life We’ve Left: A Contextual Reading of Trifles and The Verge,’’ in Susan Glaspell: Essays on Her Theater and Fiction, University of Michigan Press, 1995, pp. 85-104.
Stein, Karen F. ‘‘The Women’s World of Glaspell’s Trifles,’’ in Women in American Theatre, Crown Publishers, Inc., 1981, p. 251-54.
Stephens, Judith. ‘‘Gender Ideology and Dramatic Convention in Progressive Era Plays, 1890-1920,’’ in Performing Feminisms: Feminist Critical Theory and Theatre, Johns Hopkins...
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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.
Waterman, Arthur E. Susan Glaspell. New York: Twayne, 1966.
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