Susan Glaspell Glaspell, Susan (Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism) - Essay

Principal Works

(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

The Glory of the Conquered (novel) 1909

The Visioning (novel) 1911

Lifted Masks (short stories) 1912

Fidelity (novel) 1915

Suppressed Desires [with George Cram Cook] (drama) 1915

Trifles (drama) 1916

Close the Book (drama) 1917

The Outside (drama) 1917

The People (drama) 1917

Tickless Time [with George Cram Cook] (drama) 1918

Woman's Honor (drama) 1918

Bernice (drama) 1919

Inheritors (drama) 1921

The Verge (drama) 1921

Chains of Dew (drama) 1922

The Road to the Temple (biography) 1926

A Jury of Her Peers (short story) 1927

Brook Evans (novel) 1928

The Comic Artist [with Norman Matson] (drama) 1928

Fugitive's Return (novel) 1929

Alison's House (drama) 1930

Ambrose Holt and Family (novel) 1931

Cherished and Shared of Old (juvenilia) 1940

The Morning Is Near Us (novel) 1940

Norma Ashe (novel) 1942

Judd Rankin's Daughter (novel) 1945

Ludwig Lewisohn (essay date 1922)

(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

[A German-born American novelist and critic, Lewisohn was an authority on German literature, and his translations of Gerhart Hauptmann, Rainer Maria Rilke, and Jakob Wassermann are widely respected. In 1919 he became the drama critic for the Nation, serving as its associate editor until 1924, when he joined a group of expatriates in Paris. In the essay below, originally published in the Nation, Lewisohn provides a mixed assessment ofGlaspell's early plays. ]

In the rude little auditorium of the Provincetown Players on MacDougall Street there is an iron ring in the wall, and a legend informs you that the ring was designed for the tethering of Pegasus. But the winged horse has never been seen. An occasional play might have allured him; the acting of it would invariably have driven him to indignant flight. For, contrary to what one would expect, the acting of the Players has been not only crude and unequal; it has been without energy, without freshness, without the natural stir and eloquence that come from within. This is the circumstance which has tended to obscure the notable talent of Susan Glaspell. The Washington Square Players produced Trifles and thus gave a wide repute to what is by no means her best work. Bernice, not only her masterpiece but one of the indisputably important dramas of the modern English or American theatre, was again played by the Provincetown Players with more than their accustomed feebleness and lack of artistic lucidity. The publication of Miss Glaspell's collected plays at last lifts them out of the tawdriness of their original production and lets them live by their own inherent life.

That life is strong, though it is never rich. In truth, it is thin. Only it is thin not like a wisp of straw, but like a tongue of flame. Miss Glaspell is morbidly frugal in expression, but nakedly candid in substance. There are no terrors for her in the world of thought; she thinks her way clearly and hardily through a problem and always thinks in strictly dramatic terms. But her form and, more specifically, her dialogue, have something of the helplessness and the numb pathos of the "twisted things that grow in unfavoring places" which employ her imagination. She is a dramatist, but a dramatist who is a little afraid of speech. Her dialogue is so spare that it often becomes arid; at times, as in The Outside, her attempt to lend a stunted utterance to her silenced creatures makes for a hopeless obscurity. The bleak farmsteads of Iowa, the stagnant villages of New England, have touched her work with penury and chill. She wants to speak out and to let her people speak out. But neither she nor they can conquer a sense that free and intimate and vigorous expression is a little shameless. To uncover one's soul seems almost like uncovering one's body. Behind Miss Glaspell's hardihood of thought hover the fear and self-torment of the Puritan. She is a modern radical and a New England school teacher; she is a woman of intrepid thought and also the cramped and aproned wife on some Iowa farm. She is a composite, and that composite is intensely American. She is never quite spontaneous and unconscious and free, never the unquestioning servant of her art. She broods and tortures herself and weighs the issues of expression.

If this view of Miss Glaspell's literary character is correct, it may seem strange upon superficial consideration that four of her seven one-act plays are comedies. But two of them, the rather trivial Suppressed Desires and the quite brilliant Tickless Time, were written in collaboration with George Cram Cook, a far less scrupulous and more ungirdled mind. Her comedy, furthermore, is never hearty. It is not the comedy of character but of ideas, or, rather, of the confusion or falseness or absurdity of ideas. Woman's Honor is the best example of her art in this mood. By a sound and strictly dramatic if somewhat too geometrical device, Miss Glaspell dramatizes a very searching ironic idea: a man who refuses to establish an alibi in order to save a woman's honor dies to prove her possessed of what he himself has taken and risks everything to demonstrate the existence of what has ceased to be. The one-act tragedies are more characteristic of her; they cleave deep, but they also illustrate what one might almost call her taciturnity. That is the fault of her best-known piece, Trifles. The theme is magnificent; it is inherently and intensely dramatic, since its very nature is culmination and crisis. But the actual speech of the play is neither sufficient nor sufficiently direct. Somewhere in every drama words must ring out. They need not ring like trumpets. The ring need not be loud, but it must be clear. Suppose in Trifles you do not, on the stage, catch the precise significance of the glances which the neighbor women exchange. There need have been no set speech, no false eloquence, no heightening of what these very women might easily have said in their own persons. But one aches for a word to release the dumbness, complete the crisis, and drive the tragic situation home.

The same criticism may be made, though in a lesser degree, of Miss Glaspell's single full-length play, Bernice. No production would be just to the very high merits of that piece which did not add several speeches to...

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Isaac Goldberg (essay date 1922)

(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

[As a critic, Goldberg's principal interests were the theater and Latin-American literature. His Studies in SpanishAmerican Literature (1920) and Brazilian Literature (1922) are credited with introducing two neglected national groups of writers to English-language readers. In the following essay, Goldberg surveys Glaspell's plays, noting the emphasis on thought and self-conscious emotional expression evident in her characterizations of women.]

Between Susan Glaspell and Eugene O'Neill there lies a fundamental artistic difference that may be rooted in the difference of sex as well as of temperament. Allowing for the fact that clear-cut contrasts are more or less illusory, we may...

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Andrew E. Malone (essay date 1924)

(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

[In the following essay, Malone places Glaspell at the forefront of early twentieth-century American dramatists and judges her plays to be "perfectly constructed. ']

The drama in America is gathering strength and individuality. Little more than a year ago Europe became aware of Eugene O'Neil; it must now recognise a very considerable dramatist in Susan Glaspell. Behind these two is a host of playwrights of more than average quality: Elmer Rice, Channing Pollock, Lula Vollmer, Gilbert Emery, and many others. While it remains perfectly true that one swallow does not make a summer, it remains equally true that a number of swallows certainly indicates that "Sumer is icumen in." The number of...

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The Spectator (essay date 1926)

(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

[In the following review, the critic faults Glaspell for being too strident in her plays, but ultimately praises her work for its experimental themes and characterizations.]

We owe Mr. Norman Macdermott, and the company of the Liverpool Repertory Theatre, a great deal for an excellent performance of Miss Susan Glaspell's Inheritors, at the Everyman Theatre.

It is the most ambitious play of this very remarkable American dramatist, the one that obviously ranges farthest—traversing a long stretch of time, and including an extensive criticism of American mental limitations. This is not to say that Inberitors is Miss Glaspell's best play. If, in the theatre,...

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Bartholow V. Crawford (essay date 1930)

(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

[In the essay below, Crawford presents an overview ofGlaspell's works up to 1930 and discusses the influence of her Iowa upbringing on her writing.]

Unlike some of the literary great, who, in making themselves into cosmopolites, have travelled so far actually and figuratively from the place of their birth as to pass quite out of any connection with it, Susan Glaspell is still at heart a daughter of Iowa. The surroundings of her girlhood, it is evident, made an ineffaceable impression upon her memory. While some of the stories in Lifted Masks, her first volume, have a Chicago background, and at least one other, that of Paris, several have the settings that she knew so well while...

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Arthur E. Waterman (essay date 1966)

(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

[ Waterman is an American critic and educator. In the following excerpt from his book Susan Glaspell, he examines Glaspell's early novels The Glory of the Conquered, The Visioning, and Fidelity.]

During the years in which she was writing her short stories [Susan] Glaspell was also writing novels, and she published three between 1909 and 1915. In these longer works she moved beyond the restricted local-color tradition to the larger and more significant movement called "regionalism." The turn to the longer form of the novel meant that she would have to develop different techniques, more complicated plots, larger characters, and, most importantly, she would have to come to...

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Marcia Noe (essay date 1980)

(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

[In the following essay, which was originally presented as a paper in 1980 at the annual convention of the Modern Language Association of America, Noe analyzes the metaphorical significance ofGlaspell's dramatic settings, asserting that they represent her characters' psychological isolation and need for human contact.]

Susan Glaspell is best known today, if she is known at all, as one of the Provincetown Players, the little theater group active during the second decade of this century whose eagerness to stage original American dramas brought to light the talents of Eugene O'Neill. What is generally unknown today is that during this period, Glaspell shared the spotlight with O'Neill as...

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Elaine Hedges (essay date 1986)

(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

[An American critic and educator, Hedges is the author of Land and Imagination: The Rural Dream in America (1980; with William L Hedges) and In Her Own Image: Women Working in the Arts (1980; with Ingrid Wendt).

In the essay below, she argues that a full understanding of the symbolism in Glaspell's story "A Jury of Her Peers" requires an academic reconstruction of women's social history in the nineteenth-century American West.]

Susan Glaspell's "A Jury of her Peers" is by now a small feminist classic. Published in 1917, rediscovered in the early 1970s and increasingly reprinted since then in anthologies and textbooks, it has become for both readers and...

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Leonard Mustazza (essay date 1989)

(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

[In the essay below, Mustazza argues that in adapting Trifles to the short story form in "A Jury of Her Peers," Glaspell changed the focus from the elements of women's lives judged as trivial by men to women's lack of power in the American legal system.]

Commentators on Susan Glaspell's classic feminist short story, "A Jury of Her Peers" (1917), and the one-act play from which it derives, Trifles (1916), have tended to regard the two works as essentially alike. And even those few who have noticed the changes that Glaspell made in the process of generic translation have done so only in passing. In his monograph on Glaspell, Arthur Waterman, who seems to have a higher regard for...

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Linda Ben-Zvi (essay date 1989)

(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

[In the following essay, Ben-Zvi discusses Glaspell's influence on modern women playwrights.]

The name Susan Glaspell is followed in her biographical sketches by some of the most illustrious credentials in all of American theater history: cofounder of the Provincetown Players, the seminal American theater company; prodigious playwright, who contributed eleven plays to the Provincetown theater in its seven years of existence, surpassed only by Eugene O'Neill, who wrote fourteen under the aegis of the group; talented actress, praised by the visiting French director Jacques Copeau for her moving depiction of character; director of her own plays, including The Verge, one of the first...

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Barbara Ozieblo (essay date 1990)

(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

[In the essay below, Ozieblo argues that Glaspell's female characters reveal her personal ambivalence about the role of women in society, oscillating between rebellion against and dependence on men.]

Susan Glaspell (1876-1948) is a prime example of the "peculiar eclipsing" so frequently suffered by women writers. She devoted eight years to the Provincetown Players, and her plays alone would have justified the claim that the sand dunes of Provincetown were the birthplace of modern American drama. But Glaspell's voice was silenced, and although feminist literary criticism has rediscovered some of her work, she is still largely unknown. Experimental in form and content, her plays brought...

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Further Reading

(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)


Bach, Gerhard. "Susan Glaspell (1876-1948): A Bibliography of Dramatic Criticism." Great Lakes Review 3, No. 2 (Winter 1977): 1-34.

Annotated bibliography of secondary sources on Glaspell's plays.

Papke, Mary E. Susan Glaspell: A Research and Production Sourcebook. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 1993, 299 P.

Contains a complete bibliography of Glaspell's works, including archival material; plot summaries, production histories, and review summaries of the plays; and an annotated bibliography of secondary sources.

Waterman, Arthur E. "Susan Glaspell (1882?-1948)." American Literary...

(The entire section is 694 words.)