Alison’s House, by Susan Glaspell, is a play in which the central character never appears on stage. Alison Stanhope has been dead for eighteen years when the play begins. Her sister, her brother, and his children are breaking up the house they all grew up in, and in this process, they stir up memories that have laid in waiting, unfaded and powerful. The house itself belongs to Alison’s brother, Mr. Stanhope, who is the patriarch of the family, but many of the house’s contents give references to Alison, famous for her poetry and particularly dear to each of her family members who remember her with fierce affection. Alison lived as a near-recluse, but despite her hermitic life, she was larger-than-life to the people close to her and full of whimsy and wisdom. Eben and Elsa’s memories of Alison from their childhood are charged with wonder. They all feel that she was the greatest of them and in some way more alive, stronger, more authentic.
The play’s title refers to Alison’s metaphorical house: the world she built with words. Alison’s poetry, although never recited during the course of the play, is understood to be a thing of great beauty, wisdom, and love. It is fitting, therefore, that the first two acts of the play take place in the library, a common area where everyone can come together and be surrounded by words—both hers and others—which may express secondhand thoughts and feelings readers do not know to say themselves.
The first person to bring up Alison in Glaspell’s play is the young reporter from Chicago, Richard Knowles. Unlike other reporters the Stanhope family has encountered, Knowles is sensitive, a poet himself, and passionate about Alison’s writings. Knowles is representative of Alison’s earnest fans. The family is suspicious of him as they are of any outsider, but as romance blossoms between Knowles and Ann, they slowly accept him. Mr. Stanhope, warming to Knowles as he feels he must, seems to finally accept that Alison’s spirit also lives on in those who truly love her poetry. He gives Knowles one of Alison’s favorite books, marked by her own hand, Ralph Waldo Emerson’s Poems. From this volume, Mr. Stanhope reads the poem, “The House,” for Knowles, which evokes Alison’s presence: “She lays her beams in music / In music every one.” The end of the poem seems to describe Alison’s family: “That so they shall not be displaced / By lapses or by wars / But for the love of happy souls / Outlive the newest stars.” Knowles immediately understands what Mr. Stanhope is describing: “Alison’s house,” he says.
The poem Knowles reads to Mr. Stanhope from the Emerson volume is titled “Forbearance,” which is a commentary by the playwright on how the Stanhope family has practiced self-control, even to its detriment: “And loved so well a high behavior / In man or maid, that thou from speech refrained.” Alison, in her lifetime, was unable to cleave to the man she loved, and her brother stayed in an unhappy marriage while loving another woman. But Alison’s niece, Elsa, born into a different time, had the bravery to do what they could not. She followed her love.
Act 3 takes the audience into the innermost chamber of the house, Alison’s bedroom. It has been left untouched—partly because the room was not needed in the mostly empty house and partly in tribute to the beloved poet, aunt, and sister. Alison’s room is the last one to be packed. The family seems reluctant to disturb this shrine. When Alison’s secret stash of poems is discovered in act 3, the question quickly rises about whether it should be published because doing so would generate a scandal. Alison, although a recluse, was a passionate woman. She once fell in love with a...
(The entire section is 1534 words.)