Critical Overview

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 892

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.

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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 Haunting Beauty from the Life We’ve Left: A Contextual Reading of Trifles and The Verge,’’ Nelligan suggested, ‘‘Tri- fles neatly encapsulates what historians have named the ’cult of domesticity’ of the nineteenth century.’’ Accordingly, women were ‘‘pious, gentle, instinctive and submissive than men,’’ and therefore suited to creating and maintaining a nurturing home environment.

While on the surface this may sound condescending and limiting, in practice, Nelligan contended, it may also have provided women a stronger common bond and purer sense of propriety and justice. ‘‘Clearly,’’ Nelligan wrote, ‘‘Glaspell intended to show that women in the domestic sphere were vulnerable to the brutality of men like John Wright, but she also dramatizes the powerful sense of solidarity women shared and assumes that this solidarity was somehow responsible for superior female morality.’’

The same culture that largely confined women to the home, also excluded them from the ballot box and the courtroom. Karen Alkalay-Gut explored the legal issues of a play that presents the inconsistency of America’s legal system at the turn of the century, when women could be tried for crimes, but were forbidden to vote for judges or sit on juries themselves. ‘‘The objective plot of Glaspell’s most successful play, Trifles, is very much at odds with the triviality of the title,’’ Alkalay-Gut asserted.

To her, the conundrum of the female characters in the play is no trifling matter. She contended: ‘‘Women, in the context of Trifles and even more in the story ‘‘Jury of Her Peers,’’ are trapped by a social system that may lead them into crime and punish them when they are forced to commit it. It is this situation of the double bind with which the women of the play identify and which readers and audiences continue to explore.’’

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