Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 589
Glaspell’s moralistic midwestern origins and her acquaintance with radical thought both served to foster the themes of her major plays. Coupled with a dedication to the traditional values of integrity and social responsibility are such issues as the freedom of individuals (especially women) to self-expression or to experience life fully and experimentally, the right of true feeling over prescriptive morality, the compassionate justice of women versus instituted male laws, and the constriction of women’s achievement in a man’s world. In Trifles, the women realize in examining Minnie Wright’s effects that she was caged and strangled like the songbird, choked to death by her hard, insensitive husband. The symbol of Minnie as songbird, although unmistakably obvious, is telling: A cheerful, lively woman has been stifled. Male condescension motivates the women to ally with Minnie, conceal the incriminating clues ironically found in what the men consider trifles, and reject male justice. It is significant that the sheriff’s wife takes the decisive step of concealing the evidence. Within the context of a short play in which the author’s exposition masterfully reconstructs a whole life through a series of trifles, from broken fruit jars to a dead bird, Glaspell clearly articulates issues of justice and the deserved fulfillment of women confronting a male-controlled world.
Inheritors is Glaspell’s most serious comment on the American Dream, with its early promise of freedom and hope and its diminishment before the forces of extreme nationalism. A college founded on the ideals of freedom must survive in an uncertain postwar era (following World War I). Each major character represents a different approach to the problem. To win support for state funds from a jingoistic senator who thinks that the college is a radical hotbed, the founder’s second generation (who are also the college’s administrators and supporters) attempt compromise and repression; a liberal professor compromises his ideals to keep his position; and a third-generation student attacks foreign-student protests with hooligan tactics. Protagonist Madeline Morton, despite such pressures as her isolationist father’s admonition to stay clear of others’ struggles, refuses to forgo humanistic causes and freedom of thought. Although the play fails to answer the question that it raises, its young heroine adheres to her ancestors’ initial vision of freedom and brotherhood. The dialogue and characters insufficiently illustrate differences in period and personae, yet a significant theme and a lively “new woman” heroine are presented.
The Verge critically dissects the actions of radical feminist protagonist Claire Archer. Influenced by Swedish dramatist August Strindberg and German philosopher Friederich Neitzsche, Glaspell advances a heroine who skillfully explores the limits of radical anarchism through transmutation, rejecting all conventional obligations. Immense, exotic plants in Claire’s greenhouse become the play’s symbolic center, asserting a parallel between motivation in the world of plants and of humans. Claire wishes the plants to transform themselves, just as she wishes herself to do. When by act 3 she finds both goals impossible, she is driven to madness and murder. The drama posits a warning that radical interference with nature leads to disaster. Although eclectic and inventive in exposing the issue, the action of The Verge is overdependent on lengthy discussion by underdeveloped characters and lacking in sufficient transitions between incidents.
Overall, in Glaspell’s dramas intellect prevails over lyricism, with dramatic language inexpressive of the characters’ thoughts. Two of her plays, however, can be considered successful by contemporary dramaturgical standards: Alison’s House (1930), which is now outdated, and Trifles, which remains a one-act masterpiece both structurally and thematically.
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