Form and Content

(Masterpieces of Women's Literature)

Susan Glaspell’s thirteen plays, treating mostly feminist themes, were produced by the to-become-renowned Provincetown Playhouse and in New York City between 1915 and 1922. Four of her works are found in the 1987 collection entitled Plays by Susan Glaspell: Trifles, Inheritors, The Verge, and The Outside.

From 1915 to 1919, Glaspell wrote six one-act plays. Several were satiric comedies, but some were less amusing. The Outside (1917) focuses on two recluses, a young grass widow and her widowed servant, dwelling in a remote former seacoast lifesaving station. They leave self-imposed isolation after realizing that abandonment by men, through either desertion or death, need not require burial from life.

Glaspell’s most outstanding, popular, and durable work is Trifles (1916), a short play whose genesis stemmed from a trial, attended by Glaspell, of an Iowa woman accused of murdering her husband. The play, set in a rural midwestern farmhouse kitchen and taking place on one day, centers on the fate of the accused offstage character, Minnie Wright. Two women are patronizingly relegated to the kitchen by their husbands, a sheriff and a farmer, while the men with the county attorney search elsewhere for evidence. As the women examine Mrs. Wright’s belongings, “trifles” attesting the life of a once-cheerful woman married to an abusively hard man who had forbidden her even a telephone, they discover incriminating...

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(Masterpieces of Women's Literature)

Glaspell brought her background as a novelist acquainted with important writers and ideas of her day to her plays, and the issues contained therein became influential sources for feminist scholars and playwrights of the final decades of the twentieth century. Modern for their time, her dramas introduce a panorama of rebellious heroines in extreme situations, struggling to articulate their needs to men whose lives revolve around other priorities. The onstage women in Trifles support a victimized member of their sex by valuing humane justice over man-made law that is insensitive to a woman’s complexity and needs. The student heroine of Inheriotrs is on the cutting edge of liberality: She risks imprisonment by uncompromisingly championing freedom of thought and expression, deemed inseparable from the American Dream. Claire Archer of The Verge represents the dangers of excessive individualism and antisocial behavior in exploring the frontiers of experience beyond human scope. Glaspell brought to the American stage a procession of memorable women, from repressed midwestern wives to radical feminists. She did so while advancing the issues and women of a new age without abandoning the more cherished traditional aspects of American culture. The coexistence of modern themes and characters with such traditional beliefs, which she often integrates into harmonious dramatic unity, stands as her major achievement.

Critical reviews of Glaspell’s published plays cite her success as a dramatist of ideas. For example, Ludwig Lewisohn, in Expressions in America (1932), describes her as an artist harboring the composite of the Puritan schoolteacher espousing pioneer virtues and a modern radical whose plays for their time were second only to those of Eugene O’Neill in contributing to serious American dramatic literature. The awarding of the 1930 Pulitzer Prize for Alison’s House afforded her recognition as a serious dramatist. Her work at the Provincetown certainly led to the appearance in the 1920’s of other serious realistic plays, particularly ones by or about women: Zona Gale’s Miss Lulu Betts, dealing with a repressed midwestern woman who is similar to Minnie Wright in Trifles, or Rachel Crothers’ plays on the position of the modern woman, reaching conclusions found in The Verge. Although Glaspell published no plays after Alison’s House, she retained an active interest in the theater. As director of the Midwest Play Bureau for the Federal Theater in 1934-1945, she offered further inspiration to others in the writing of plays.


(Masterpieces of Women's Literature)

Ben-Zvi, Linda. “Susan Glaspell’s Contributions to Contemporary Women Playwrights.” In Feminine Focus: The New Women Playwrights, edited by Enoch Brater. New York: Oxford University Press, 1989. Discusses Glaspell’s importance as a feminist playwright, for introducing a new type of female character and employing structure and dramatic language to express feminist sensibility.

Bigsby, C. W. E. Introduction to Plays by Susan Glaspell. Cambridge, England: Cambridge University Press, 1987. An invaluable thirty-one-page introduction to the collection. Encompasses a chronology, biographical information, and perceptive analysis of the four plays.

Chinoy, Helen Kroch, and Linda Walsh Jenkins, eds. Women in the American Theatre. Rev. ed. New York: Theatre Communications Group, 1987. Glaspell is discussed in several collected essays. Chinoy’s introduction cites Glaspell’s avant-garde qualities, focusing on The Verge. Rachel Frances and Karen Stein discuss Trifles in two separate essays as an intensely feminist work. Judith Louise Stephens records the contribution of Alison’s House to women characters in Pulitzer Prize-winning plays.

Malpede, Karen, ed. “Susan Glaspell.” In Women in Theatre: Compassion and Hope. New York: Drama Book, 1983. Includes a chapter on Glaspell’s dramatic work and stresses her commitment to women and to humanistic social movements.

Papke, Mary E. Susan Glaspell: A Research and Production Sourcebook. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 1993. A detailed, definitive sourcebook giving summaries, production history, and criticism of all Glaspell’s plays. Includes a chronology, a bibliography of primary sources, and annotated secondary sources such as reviews and author and general indexes.

Waterman, Arthur E. Susan Glaspell. New York: Twayne, 1966. A comprehensive description of Glaspell’s life and work, including analyses of her plays and novels. A chronology and a bibliography with annotated secondary sources are provided.