- Trifles is a one-act play set in a small farmhouse. The action takes place in the course of a single day, satisfying the Aristotelian theory of unity.
- Gender is the central theme of the play. All three of the men are so focused on gathering evidence to use against Minnie in court that they ignore the signs that illuminate her emotional state leading up to the murder.
- Minnie's dead canary is a symbol of lost freedom. Its cage, broken during one of John Wright's rages, is symbolic of Minnie's marriage, which isolates her from her community.
The structure of a play affects all of its most important elements—the plot, characters, and themes. An episodic play, such as William Shakespeare’s Hamlet, requires many twists and turns of plot, numerous characters and locations, and great stretches of time in order for the story to unfold. A climactic play, such as Sophocles’s famous tragedy Oedipus Rex, typically presents only a handful of characters involved in a single plot, which builds toward a climax—the most important moment in the play.
One of the most restrictive forms is the one-act play, a style favored by Trifles author Susan Glaspell. In every respect the one-act play is more tightly compressed than a full-length climactic Greek tragedy. Because one-acts are typically short, with playing times of fifteen to forty-five minutes, the number of characters introduced must be limited, and their personalities must be developed quickly.
Glaspell takes full advantage of this limitation in Trifles. The men in the play are stereotypical characters. Their actions and words immediately suggest personalities that are condescending, egotistical, and self-important. The women, meanwhile, begin the play timidly, allowing their husbands to blunder about the crime scene. Then, given the chance to be alone, they open up to each other and show a strong sense of female intuition that allows them to solve the play’s mystery very quickly.
Because of the limited time frame, the one-act format also tends to focus on a single location and a tight plot. Each of these aspects holds true for Trifles. There is a single setting, the Wright farmhouse, which is located in the countryside and set back from the road, a lonely, desolate place. The plot involves seeking clues to suggest a motive for the murder of John Wright. Furthermore, there are no unimportant words or actions. Everything that is said and done, from the way the characters enter Mrs. Wright’s kitchen to the discovery of her dead canary, relates in some way to the mystery at hand.
In the late nineteenth century, a popular style of writing known as ‘‘local color’’ emerged, a style characterized by its vivid description of some of the more idiosyncratic communities in the American landscape. Writers such as Bret Harte, Mark Twain, and Nathaniel Hawthorne created characters whose speech and attitudes reflected the deep South, the western frontier, or New England Puritanism. Their short stories and novels particularly appealed to people in larger cities, who found these descriptions of faraway places exotic and entertaining.
Susan Glaspell began writing during this age of regionalism, and Trifles incorporates many of the elements of local color: regional dialect, appropriate costuming, and characters influenced by a specific locale.
Trifles is filled with a strong sense of place. The characters in the play are deeply rooted in their rural environment. Lewis Hale was on his way into town with a load of potatoes when he stopped by the Wright’s house to see about sharing a party line telephone, a common way for people in small communities to afford phone service during the first few decades of the century. The lives of the women seem to consist of housekeeping chores, food preparation, sewing, and raising children, with little time left for socializing.
The characters’ manner of speech reveals their limited education and rural, Midwestern environment. They use a...
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