Trifles Critical Overview
by Susan Glaspell

Trifles book cover
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Critical Overview

(Drama for Students)

Unfortunately, there has never been a high-profile performance of Trifles in a major, mainstream theatrical venue, so production reviews are scarce and tend to describe performances at regional, amateur theaters, and colleges across the country. Most critical commentary has focused on the published literary work and its contributions to feminist thought and literature.

In a preface to a collection of essays, Susan Glaspell: Essays on Her Theater and Fiction, contemporary playwright Megan Terry lauded Glaspell’s work. She maintained:

I admire the control, the precision and the power of Trifles. It never tires. It seems to be a perfect play and accomplishes all the playwright’s intentions. It is a model of subtlety and understatement. I marvel at its compactness and perfection, and the satisfaction it conveys to the reader or audience in the sure achievement of its creator. The play is more than an inspiration, it’s a quiet, firm and constant standard to match. The wry warmth of her mind, the compassion of her heart combine with the architecture of her play to give you a total feeling of these Mid-West people. The work is suffused with the sense of justice, wit, and fairness Glaspell must have possessed as a person.

This sentiment is echoed in the work of other critics. In an essay from the same collection of essays, Linda Ben-Zvi was encouraged by the playwright’s portrayal of women in Trifles, particularly in the actions of Mrs. Peters and Mrs. Hale at the end of the play. ‘‘Glaspell does not actually present the victimization of women or the violent acts such treatment may engender,’’ Ben-Zvi noted, ‘‘instead, she stages the potential for female action and the usurpation of power. By having the women assume the central positions and conduct the investigation and the trial, she actualizes an empowerment that suggests that there are options short of murder that can be imagined for women.’’

Ben-Zvi examined the Hossack murder trial that inspired Glaspell to write Trifles. She also explored the role of women at the turn of the century and found parallels with the lives of women in the present day.

She asserted: ‘‘It is either a testament to the skill with which Glaspell constructed Trifles and ‘‘A Jury of Her Peers’’ or proof of how little women’s lives have changed since 1916 that contemporary feminist critics still use the play and story as palimpsests for their own readings of contemporary feminist issues, and these readings still point to some of the dilemmas that faced Glaspell and her personae in 1901 and 1916.’’

Elaine Hedges, in an essay titled ‘‘Small Things Reconsidered: ‘A Jury of Her Peers’,’’ agreed that the most important theme of the story is the role of women in society—then or now—and praises Glaspell’s mastery of local color. ‘‘Women’s role, or ‘place,’ in society, their confinement and isolation, the psychic violence wrought against them, their power or powerlessness vis-à-vis men, are not concerns restricted to Glaspell’s time and place,’’ Hedges asserted, ‘‘But these concerns achieve their imaginative force and conviction in her story by being firmly rooted in, and organically emerging from, the carefully observed, small details of a localized way of life.’’

From the baking shelf in Minnie’s kitchen, to her apron, shawl, and pieces of quilt, it is the rural environment and the tiny details of life on a Midwestern farm that speak volumes about the plight of women on the American frontier.

Liza Maeve Nelligan maintained that those same details reinforce the idea of women as mere household objects. In...

(The entire section is 892 words.)