Alison's House Summary
by Susan Glaspell

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(Masterpieces of American Literature)

Alison’s House, the last produced play by Glaspell, was first presented at the Civic Repertory Theater in New York City on December 1, 1930. The production, produced and directed by Le Galliene, ran for forty-one performances and won for Glaspell the 1931 Pulitzer Prize in drama—a decision that outraged some critics who disliked her play and thought it too literary.

Alison’s House concerns a noted fictional poet, Alison Stanhope, who has been dead for eighteen years when the curtain rises. Her poetry, published after her death, has brought her posthumous fame. The play begins on December 31, 1899, in the library of the Stanhope estate. John Stanhope, Alison’s brother, is selling the property, and there is much confusion as family members gather to say goodbye and pick up keepsakes. One of the recently arrived relations is Elsa, Alison’s niece and John’s daughter, who had scandalized the family some years earlier by running off with a married man. A Chicago newspaper reporter, Ted Knowles, has also come to do a story on Alison; he is curious to know if all Alison’s poetry has been published.

Slowly, the dark secret buried inside the house comes to life. Alison’s family has withheld some of her poetry. Agatha, Alison’s spinster sister and close friend, decides to burn down the mansion to destroy the papers and bury the secret. Failed in her attempt, she gives Elsa the unpublished poetry and dies shortly after of a heart attack. The final act takes place in Alison’s old room. Alison’s secret is revealed: She was in love with a married man, but unlike Elsa, she sublimated her secret passions into poetry. The play ends with Elsa planning to publish Alison’s lost poetry because it belongs to the world and the new century.

Glaspell based the play loosely on the life of the New England poet Emily Dickinson; she moved the setting to Iowa. Unable to use Dickinson’s poetry, Glaspell freely borrowed from the work of Ralph Waldo Emerson. She again used one of her favorite literary devices; the title character is never seen, but her presence is felt through the other characters. The newspaper reporter Knowles sums it up best:You know, I think all your family have something of the spirit of Alison Stanhope. . . . Yes, coming in fresh, I can tell better than you. It’s as if something of her remained here, in you all, in—in quite a different form.

The dramatist ends the play on the note of rebirth and love. The play is tightly constructed and adheres to the classical dramatic unities. Through the various characters, Alison becomes a reality, an ideal who brings hope and regeneration.


(Drama for Students)

Act 1
Alison’s House begins in the library of the Stanhope house, with Ann, the family secretary, sorting through old papers in a trunk. The housekeeper, Jennie, shows Knowles, a young reporter, into the library. He is looking for information about the late Alison Stanhope before the family finishes clearing out the house and sells it. He also desperately wants to see Alison’s room. Knowles shares his passion for Alison’s poetry with Ann, even showing her a poem he wrote. Ted, the youngest Stanhope, comes into the library. Ann introduces Knowles to Ted, and Ted is persuaded to take Knowles up to Alison’s room, against the rest of the family’s wishes.

Shortly after they leave, Louise comes in and questions Ann sharply about the reporter. Ann pretends not to know where Knowles has gone. Irritated, Louise calls for her father-in-law, Mr. Stanhope, to question Ann. She admits to him that Knowles is here because of Alison. Mr. Stanhope is not perturbed, but Louise is distraught at the talk that will be stirred up. She brings up Mr. Stanhope’s daughter, Elsa, comparing her to Alison, which angers him. Louise and Mr. Stanhope find out from Ann that Knowles is with Ted and has gone to see Alison’s room. Louise continues to complain about the gossip she is sure will come, and Mr. Stanhope tells her to go into the dining room and pack...

(The entire section is 3,116 words.)