Susan Glaspell 1876-1948
Glaspell is known as an important figure in the development of modern American drama and as a cofounder of the influential Provincetown Players theater group. In many of her plays Glaspell used experimental techniques to convey her socialist and feminist ideals, portraying female characters—some of whom never appear onstage—who challenge the restrictions and stereotypes imposed on them by society.
Glaspell was born in Davenport, Iowa. She graduated from Drake University in Des Moines in 1899 and accepted a position as a reporter at the Des Moines News the same year. After she published several short stories in such magazines as Harper's Monthly and the American Magazine, Glaspell left journalism to concentrate on publishing novels and short fiction. In 1913, Glaspell married George Cram Cook, a noted socialist. Dissatisfied with American popular theater, the couple moved to Provincetown, Massachusetts, and cofounded, with a group of writers, artists, and intellectuals, the Provincetown Players. Inspired by the independent theater movement in Europe, which had presented the works of Henrik Ibsen, Emile Zola, August Strindberg, and Maurice Maeterlinck, among others, the Provincetown Players were dedicated to developing an American theater movement alternative to the commercial theater of Broadway. The Provincetown "little theater" group included such writers as Djuna Barnes, Edna Ferber, Neith Boyce, Edna St. Vincent Millay, Paul Green, and Eugene O'Neill, most of whom wrote, directed, and acted for the group. The Provincetown Players began to disband with the personal successes of some of the members, including Glaspell. After the failure of his own work outside the company and what he considered the defection of other members, Glaspell's husband also resigned from the group. Glaspell and her husband moved to Greece and resided there until Cook's death in 1924. The following year, Glaspell married Norman Matson. In 1931, she received a Pulitzer Prize for Alison's House, the last of her plays to be produced. She served as midwestern director of the Federal Theater Project for a brief period before returning to Provincetown to write novels. Glaspell died of pneumonia in 1948.
While Glaspell achieved some success with her novels—most notably her last two, Ambrose Holt and Family and Judd Rankin's Daughter—she is best remembered as one of the first American experimental playwrights. For one of her first plays, Trifles, Glaspell turned for inspiration to a murder case she had covered as a reporter. Glaspell's lead characters, Mrs. Hale and Mrs. Peters, accompany the sheriff and two other men to the isolated farmhouse of Minnie Wright—who dominates the play, yet never appears onstage—to collect some clothes for her while the men search for evidence to use in her trial for the murder of her husband. Surveying Minnie Wright's kitchen, the women piece together a motive from such evidence as untidy stitching on a quilt Minnie was constructing and a strangled canary in her sewing basket. The three male characters search the rest of the house fruitlessly, leaving the women to their "trifles." In her starkly realistic rendering of the characters and incidents, Glaspell disputed the notion that women's concerns and activities within the home are trivial, and exposed the harsh life frontierswomen endured in a male-dominated social and legal system. In Bernice, Glaspell again used the technique of keeping offstage the character who motivates the action of the play, which takes place following the death of the title character. Glaspell focuses on Bernice's friends and relatives, who attempt to understand her life and death, but can only articulate their thoughts in abstract, usually meaningless words and phrases. The Verge, which is generally acknowledged to be Glaspell's most ambitious work, is presented from the point of view of Claire Archer, a botanist who develops new species of plants. Claire rejects traditional gender and social roles and, with the exception of her friend Tom, is misunderstood by everyone because of her desire to transcend the limits of human reality. The play ends with Claire on the brink of madness, having failed to create a new form of life, speaking in a cryptic mix of poetry and prose.
After receiving critical acclaim during her lifetime, Glaspell fell into obscurity after her death and has only lately been rediscovered due to an increase in feminist scholarship. Because of the experimental nature of many of her plays, she is considered with Eugene O'Neill to be a founder of modern American drama. Her one-act play Trifles and the short story into which she adapted it, "A Jury of Her Peers," are widely anthologized as exemplars of their respective forms. Additionally, critics note Glaspell's contribution to the canon of midwestern American literature, citing her use of frontier landscapes and elements of her Iowa upbringing in her work. While some commentators initially regarded her plays as overly intellectual and inaccessible to the average audience, she is now generally considered to be one of the most important figures in modern American drama and twentieth-century feminist literature.