Susan Glaspell Susan Glaspell Drama Analysis

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Susan Glaspell Drama Analysis

(Critical Edition of Dramatic Literature)

Although Susan Glaspell considered herself a novelist, she is best known for her plays. Her playwriting period lasted fifteen years, seven of which were during the time of her association with the Provincetown Players. In only one season, that of 1919-1920, did Glaspell not present at least one new play. Although her work in short fiction and the novel is somewhat conventional, her work in the theater is not. She experimented, taking risks with her plays. She was an early advocate of expressionism, the use of nonrealistic devices to objectify inner experience. She experimented with language, sometimes incorporating poetry into the dialogue, and her plays are more often about ideas—feminism and socialism—than they are about characters and plot. The general critical response of her contemporaries to her plays was praise for her realistic ones and a reaction of confusion to her more experimental ones.

Her plays have a range of themes, but most concern the individual and the individual’s need to find self-fulfillment. Specifically, she focuses on women who attempt to go beyond societal roles, searching for independence and autonomy. Often, however, these women pay a price: in love or acceptance by family and friends, in money, or, in the case of Claire Archer in The Verge, in mental health. Sometimes the search is for the “otherness” of life, that which makes life worth living and takes one beyond the trivial and the commonplace. This search is often aided by a guide or mentor who, some critics argue, is patterned after Cook.


Glaspell’s best-known and most anthologized play is the one-act Trifles, written for the Provincetown Players’ second season, 1916-1917, to fill out a bill with Eugene O’Neill’s play Bound East for Cardiff (wr. 1913-1914, pr. 1916, pb. 1919) and later rewritten as the short story “A Jury of Her Peers” (1917). In The Road to the Temple, Glaspell describes the origin of the play, writing that she sat in the empty theater until the image of a Midwest farm kitchen with its occupants appeared before her. Trifles, based on an event that Glaspell covered as a reporter in Des Moines, takes place in the kitchen of Minnie Wright, a woman accused of murdering her husband. Minnie Wright, in jail, remains offstage for the entire play. Trifles marked Glaspell’s first use of the device of the absent protagonist, which would be employed again in other plays, most notably in Bernice and Alison’s House. The play, with its grounding in realism and regionalism, is not representative of her later, more experimental plays, but it is said to be the best structured of her plays, and it is certainly the most often performed.

Trifles opens as five people enter a farmhouse kitchen. The three men—the sheriff (Mr. Peters), the county attorney (Mr. Henderson), and a neighbor (Mr. Hale)—are there to uncover evidence to link Minnie to the murder of her husband, John Wright, who was choked to death with a rope while he slept. The two women—the sheriff’s wife and the neighbor’s wife—are there to gather a few items to take to Minnie. As the men examine the kitchen, the bedroom, and the barn, the women remain in the kitchen. They notice the preserves Minnie had canned, the quilt she was sewing, things that the men belittle, but through their observations, the women solve the murder. The uneven stitching of the quilt indicates Minnie’s anxiety, and when the women discover a canary with a broken neck, they know the motive. Minnie, who loved to sing as a young woman, was, in a sense, caged by John, cut off from her interests and isolated. She was figuratively strangled by John as the bird had literally been. After he killed what she loved, the only thing that gave her joy, she responded by choking him. Although the women have information that could convict Minnie, they remain silent. Mrs. Hale, the neighbor, had already failed Minnie by not visiting her when she knew that Minnie’s life was bleak, and she will not fail...

(The entire section is 1,254 words.)