Susan Glaspell Biography

Susan Glaspell is one of the most important female voices in twentieth-century theater. However, several decades ago, the average student might not have known who she was. Glaspell was popular enough during her lifetime to help support herself and her husband as they embarked on their work with the now-famous Provincetown Players. Unfortunately, after her death in the late 1940s, she and her writing fell into relative obscurity. With the rise of feminism and the renewed interest in unsung female voices the movement generated, Glaspell has been restored to her rightful place in the canon literary. Her most famous play, Trifles, hinges on the discoveries of two women whose understanding of the domestic sphere is overlooked and ignored by the men around them.

Facts and Trivia

  • An Iowa native, Glaspell studied at Drake University in Des Moines, graduating just before 1900.
  • In her youth, Glaspell worked as a journalist while still in Iowa. Her coverage of a local murder trial inspired some of her most famous writing, including the short play Trifles and the short story “A Jury of Her Peers.”
  • Following her marriage to George Cram Cook, Glaspell moved to Provincetown, Massachusetts. There, she formed a highly influential theater group, The Provincetown Players, which helped launch the work of playwright Eugene O’Neill.
  • Later in life, Glaspell briefly worked for the Federal Theatre Project in Chicago.
  • In 1931, Glaspell won the Pulitzer Prize for her play Alison’s House.

Biography

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 741

Mystery surrounds the birth date of Susan Glaspell. Both 1876 and 1882 have been given. Glaspell always asserted that the latter date was correct, and it was often used in past studies. Recent evidence suggests, however, that the earlier date is accurate. Why she would deny a linkage to the nation’s centennial and make herself appear younger has never been explained. Susan was born to Elmer S. and Alice Keating Glaspell in Davenport, Iowa. Her father’s family was among the first of the Davenport settlers. Her father was solidly middle class with some affluence, but he was not a wealthy man. Her parents instilled in their daughter a love of the region that she would retain to the end of her life.

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Glaspell was educated in the public schools of Davenport. She then went to Des Moines, Iowa, to attend Drake University. She graduated in 1899 with a Ph.B. degree, having studied literature, classics, and the Bible. By all accounts, she was popular; she was also noted for her storytelling abilities and gained experience as a writer. Her first job after graduation was as a reporter for the Des Moines Daily News. While there, she met and befriended Lucy Huffaker, who became an influential and lifelong friend.

Glaspell worked at the paper for two years, became expert at political writing, and had her own column, “The News Girl,” which began with political commentary and then strayed to fictional forays and personal observations. The column’s success prompted Glaspell to quit her job at the newspaper in 1901, return to Davenport, and begin earning a living as a freelance writer. The “Freeport” stories, twenty-six in all, based on the city of Davenport, were escapist and romantic works filled with local color and unexpected plot twists.

The turning point in her private and literary career occurred in 1907, when she met George Cram Cook, a charismatic man. Nicknamed “Jig,” he opened Glaspell’s eyes to new forms of literary expression, especially in the theater. They married six years later, on April 14, 1913, in Weehawken, New Jersey. Both Glaspell and Cook had become involved with several free-thinking, nontraditional groups, most notably the Monist Society and the Liberal Club. Between the time they met and married, Glaspell published her first novel, The Glory of the Conquered: The Story of a Great Love (which Cook heartily disliked) in 1909; a second novel, The Visioning, in 1911; and Lifted Masks, a collection of short stories, in 1912.

In 1915, two years after their marriage, Glaspell and Cook cofounded the Provincetown Players at the Wharf Theatre in Provincetown, Massachusetts. They had summered there the year before and had put on some amateur theatricals. Now the new little group, patterned after the New Theatre movement in Europe, began a quest to produce works by new playwrights.

Many artists became attracted, and attached, to the Provincetown Players. Some of the most notable were Robert Edmond Jones, John Reed, Edna St. Vincent Millay, Edna Ferber, Theodore Dreiser, Djuna Barnes, and, most important, Eugene O’Neill. In 1916, the Provincetown Players, which also took on the name “The Playwright Theater” at O’Neill’s request, opened in New York City in Greenwich Village. The playbill included Glaspell’s best short play, Trifles, and O’Neill’s Bound East for Cardiff, the first of his “S.S. Glencairn” quartet. The Provincetown Players, which continued as an organization until 1929, became an important theater laboratory that took creative risks with budding playwrights, actors, and designers.

On March 22, 1922, Glaspell and Cook, having recently dropped their association with the Provincetown Players (now led by O’Neill, Jones, and Kenneth Macgowan), moved to Greece. Cook had always dreamed of moving to Delphi and creating theater where classical drama had once flourished. Less than two years later, on January 24, 1924, Cook died in Delphi and was buried there.

Glaspell returned to Provincetown to resume her professional literary career as a novelist. She married writer Norman Matson in 1925 (they divorced in 1931) and collaborated with him on several works, most notably a play, The Comic Artist, in 1927. A year earlier, she had published The Road to the Temple, a loving biography of her first husband. Glaspell was awarded the 1931 Pulitzer Prize in drama for her play Alison’s House (1930), produced by Eva Le Galliene. Three years later, she was briefly appointed Midwest Director for the Federal Theater Project. Glaspell remained in Provincetown writing novels, the last of which was Judd Rankin’s Daughter (1945), until her death from pneumonia on July 27, 1948.

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