Critical Context

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Susan Glaspell was part of a group of artists and thinkers devoted to a broad range of progressive causes, such as feminism, socialism, Darwinism, and legal reform. She and her husband, George Cram Cook, founded the Provincetown Players, a theater group committed to transforming American theater from mere entertainment into an artistic medium in which serious social issues could be treated realistically. The group was crucial in establishing American drama. In addition to Glaspell’s work, the Players produced work by Edna St. Vincent Millay and Eugene O’Neill. Glaspell wrote several plays for the company, but Trifles is the best known and helped introduce the use of expressionist technique to the American stage.

Trifles is also important for its place in Glaspell’s individual career and for its place in American theater history. While writing for newspapers in her native Iowa, Susan Glaspell covered a murder trial in which a wife killed her husband. This trial became the basis not only of Trifles, but also of A Jury of Her Peers (1927), the story version of the play. Clearly, this story haunted Glaspell, and understanding this play is central to understanding Glaspell’s career as a dramatist. Her deep involvement in the play’s topic led her to play Mrs. Hale (her husband played Mr. Hale) in the original production.

Trifles demonstrated that the emerging popular genre of detective fiction could be used for higher artistic aims. Glaspell achieved this in part by the technical perfection of the play: Trifles is one of the classics of the one-act form. It is economically written, something not always true of Glaspell’s later work, even of Alison’s House (pr., pb. 1930), the play that earned for Glaspell the 1931 Pulitzer Prize. Trifles also introduces a technique that Glaspell reuses in other plays: the pivotal character never appears onstage. Trifles is the first major work of feminist theater written by an American playwright. It was well known when it was first performed, playing successfully throughout the United States and Europe, but was not performed as often during the middle of the twentieth century. Some critics argue that this absence indicates the way that women have traditionally been eclipsed on the American stage. However, with the emergence of a feminist consciousness late in the twentieth century, Trifles once again received the attention it so richly deserves.

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Critical Overview