Susan Glaspell’s The Verge: A Socratic Quest to Reinvent Form and Escape Plato’s Cave
Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 3851
Susan Glaspell’s play The Verge (1921) depicts the story of Claire Archer, who attempts to breed a unique plant while her husband, sister, daughter and friends worry that her obsessive quest is driving her mad and vainly attempt to divert her attention. Glaspell refers to Plato in the first stage direction, asserting that a winter storm outside Claire’s greenhouse would reveal the inherent Platonic forms of nature on the frost patterns of the glass. From that moment forward, ‘‘form’’ becomes the pivotal term of the drama. Claire tends her horticultural experiments and protests the confining forms of language, art, motherhood, and traditional relationships between people while expressing her desire for destruction and avoiding explanations of her experiment unless coerced. Glaspell utilizes ancient Greek philosophy and culture to dismantle Plato’s static metaphysical form theory. At the same time, Glaspell’s main character cleverly mimics Socrates’ ironic style of dialogic interaction, questioning those who oppose her, and only minimally indicating the kind of new form that she seeks, suggesting that Claire Archer is a philosopher who has escaped Plato’s cave.
Because recent feminist critics have questioned the gendered foundation of Platonic metaphysics, Glaspell’s charge against Plato’s forms obtains a sharper relevance. Platonic forms are the essential templates which make ideas or things the kinds of things that they are. Independent of the imperfect material world, forms are more real than any instantiation or copy of a form. Forms are the source of our personal conceptions and cause material things by serving as the model which they imitate. For example, the form of a rose in a greenhouse imitates the perfect Platonic form of rose. Although Socrates sometimes used ordinary objects to explain forms, his goal is to elucidate the forms of abstract ideas like virtue, justice and goodness. Ideally, human interpretations of virtue and justice could be measured against the unchanging, pure forms of those ideas. Unfortunately, people often act as if there are forms for behavior and societal roles. Because Platonic forms are unchanging, the application of the idea of forms beyond their intended scope can wreak havoc with human lives. Therefore, Glaspell’s main argument against forms stems from their permanence. Glaspell revises Platonic metaphysics by using the term ‘‘form’’ to represent a new and original creation rather than a preexisting metaphysical form. She applies the term more broadly than Plato did by including gender roles and species of plants in order to demonstrate how pervasively the idea limits human activity. Using Judith Butler’s work on gender as a constructed social category and her work on the implicit gendered role of matter in Platonic metaphysics, I argue that Glaspell foreshadows late-twentieth century criticism of Plato and depicts clearly why forms can hinder creativity, language, and societal roles. Glaspell’s play is important in American dramatic and theatrical history not only because of its feminist agenda, but also because it anticipates late twentieth-century criticism of Platonic metaphysics.
Susan Glaspell (1876–1948) grew up in Des Moines, Iowa, and attended Drake University where she studied Greek and philosophy. She worked as a newspaper reporter for a few years, quit and moved to Chicago and then to New York, where she cofounded the Provincetown players with Eugene O’Neill. She wrote thirteen plays, fourteen novels, and more than 50 short stories and essays, and was the second woman to earn a Pulitzer prize in drama, for Allison’s House (1931). She was a popular, formidable success surrounded by supportive, intelligent friends. Because her husband, George Cram Cook, loved ancient Greek culture, they moved to Greece in 1922, though Glaspell returned to the United States after his death in 1924.
The Verge has puzzled critics, though it has not been widely circulated or performed. Until the Cambridge edition of selected Glaspell plays was published in 1987, The Verge was out of print, and there are no known reviews of it between 1925 and 1991. The play has been described as ‘‘tormented and bewildering,’’ a ‘‘remarkable piece of psychological literature’’ that combines ‘‘comedy and melodrama, feminism and a critique of feminism, social criticism and metaphysical enquiry’’ reflecting its internal complexity. Although Glaspell’s Trifles and the fictional version of the same plot, ‘‘A Jury of Her Peers,’’ have been widely anthologized since their recovery in the 1970’s, the majority of Glaspell’s work has been neglected. The Verge provides far less resolution than Trifles, a realistic drama that employs domestic clues to determine whether a woman has murdered her husband. The Verge is an expressionistic story about a scientist determined to breed a new form of plant purely for the sake of its invention.
The existing scholarship on The Verge focuses mainly on Glaspell’s revolutionary treatment of gender. Several scholars note Glaspell’s tendency to link women’s freedom to language. In ‘‘Susan Glaspell’s Contributions to Contemporary Playwrights,’’ Linda Ben-Zvi discusses Glaspell’s ability to forge ‘‘women-centered’’ drama with its own language and distinct point of view. Ben-Zvi maintains that language oppresses women unless they invent their own dialects to signify their distinct meanings. Similarly, Ann Larabee indicates that for Glaspell, language makes direct correspondences and metaphors that capitulate to old men and ancestors. Other critics have emphasized Glaspell’s treatment of gender roles. Barbara Ozieblo claims that The Verge shows humankind trapped by patriarchally established norms within which only men are permitted to pursue a quest for self-discovery. Ozieblo calls Glaspell’s theme ambivalent because Claire’s project requires a stressful, perhaps impossibly continuous innovation of new forms. C. W. E. Bigsby’s introduction to Glaspell’s plays notes that around 1913 Greenwich Village ‘‘came to stand for the determination of women not to be trapped in the roles offered to them’’ and implies that this attitude pervaded Glaspell’s plays once she and her husband moved there. Veronica Makowsky’s sweeping study of Glaspell’s fiction and drama, Susan Glaspell’s Century of American Women, traces themes of the entrapment of motherhood, the maternal role of the artist, and the cost of children to mothers, all of which appear in The Verge. Christine Dymokowski states that Glaspell stresses the organic nature of truth, the natural violence of creation, and the uniquely female capacity to give birth to new life.
A smaller number of critical responses take a psychological tact. David Sievers’ 1955 study of Freud’s influence on the American theater calls The Verge a portrait of manic depressive psychosis and ‘‘possibly the most original and probing play that has been written in America by 1921.’’ Isaac Goldberg’s 1922 study of modern drama calls The Verge ‘‘one long abstraction in three acts.’’ Focusing on its theoretical agenda, he insists, ‘‘there is more than rebellious womanhood in these dramas; there is consciousness of valid self, or of a passion for freedom, of dynamic personality; there is craving for life in its innermost meaning.’’ Both the feminist and psychological interpretations of The Verge recognize Glaspell’s emphasis on individual freedom and the entrapment of women through traditional roles as well as ordinary language.
Glaspell’s play critiques Platonic metaphysics and the societal limitations on gender roles. It is fruitful to study The Verge in the context of Judith Butler’s recent explication of the connections between gender, Platonic metaphysics, and contemporary phenomenology. Butler has argued both that gender is a performative category, created by its repetition and reinforced by cultural constructions, and that the ancient Greek distinction between matter and form is created ‘‘through an exclusion and degradation of the feminine.’’ In ‘‘Performative Acts and Gender Constitution,’’ Butler dismantles the notion that gender is a permanent form rooted in biological sex. She uses a phenomenology that takes the social agent as an object rather than a subject of constitutive acts, to demonstrate her contention that gender is ‘‘an identity constituted in time’’ through a stylized repetition of acts, rather than a stable locus of identity from which acts proceed, acts which express supposedly essential gender traits. The repetition conceals the origin of this created category which is so pervasive that we are tempted to assume that those who resist it are unnatural or deviant. In Bodies That Matter, Butler links the body’s materiality to the performance of gender by discussing the gender-related terms in Plato’s metaphysics. Comparing Plato’s Timeaus with Irigaray’s deconstruction of Plato in two chapters of Speculum of the Other Woman, Butler claims that Plato’s form theory depends on seeing matter as ‘‘a substitution for and displacement of the feminine.’’ There are two modes of materiality: one formed and intelligible, the other displaced by the binary opposition between matter and form. The latter cannot be named because, properly speaking, pure unformed matter does not exist. For Plato, all objects participate in a form. Butler believes that the feminine aspect of metaphysics is simultaneously locked outside the matter / form distinction, but is also its condition; the composite structure between matter and form relies on invisible, unformed ‘‘feminine’’ matter.
Butler’s reading depends on the connotations of ancient Greek terms in Plato’s Timeaus, which she reads as ‘‘a collapse and displacement of those figures . . . that secure a given fantasy of heterosexual intercourse and male autogenesis.’’ Because of the masculine bias Butler sees within the metaphysics, she argues that material bodies ought not be an uncontested ground of feminist theory or practice. Whether or not one agrees with Butler that gender is constructed, her reading of Plato sheds light on the anomalous circumstance of Claire Archer’s role: a female artist who dares to re-form matter, and who disdains the repetition of form and wants to replace it with something new and more flexible. It also brings to the fore Glaspell’s sensitivity to her own position as a female playwright experimenting with gender, language and invention in a patriarchal culture.
The Verge creates a complex critical response to Plato’s confining forms. In addition to using the term ‘‘form’’ and alluding to Plato’s cave scene in The Republic, Glaspell’s Claire Archer cleverly mimics the character and attitude of Socrates in The Verge. The historical Socrates was Plato’s teacher, but Socrates was suspicious of writing, and preferred to exchange his ideas with his students through dialogue. Plato preserves Socrates’ style of teaching by writing dialogues in which Socrates is the main character, although there is considerable academic debate about the accuracy of Plato’s depiction. Claire Archer repeats Socrates’ comic and ironic posture and questions people’s mistaken understanding in order to destroy conventions that inhibit human potential, including her own. Like Socrates, she evades direct questions, claiming ignorance and protecting her project. Her quest is solitary and concrete; she develops a new plant just as she tries to develop a lifestyle unconfined by the conventions of marriage and motherhood. Although Socrates is married and has children, his family only appears briefly in The Phaedo before his execution. Claire Archer’s life is less conventional. During the play she is living with her second husband while two of her former lovers, her sister and her daughter from her first marriage visit. In spite of their seeming openness to unusual marital and family relationships, their flexibility does not extend to Claire’s work. She defends its merit and her absorption in it while they suspect that she endangers her health by challenging so many conventions. They seek soothing explanations of her erratic behavior which Claire refuses to provide because the words would contain and limit her endeavor. The forms she seeks are not binding, but liberating precisely because of their originality. Thus Glaspell modifies the static, patterned metaphysics of Platonic form theory using a Socratic style of inquiry in order to replace it with original, revisable forms.
A pervasive Platonic allusion that Glaspell employs is a reference to the cave scene from the Republic. For Plato, the philosopher’s task is to acquire knowledge of the forms which order the cosmos. Ordinary people routinely assume information based on limited and erroneous perceptions. It is efficient, but misguided. The Allegory of the Cave illustrates human beings’ habitual misperception. The Allegory is central to Glaspell’s play because Claire Archer accuses her friends and family members of being like Plato’s cave dwellers, unable to see what she has discovered outside. The Allegory depicts people living in a cave with a long entrance open to the light along its entire width. Their legs and necks have been fettered since childhood, so that they remain in the same spot and cannot turn their heads. Behind and above them a fire burns. Between the fire and the prisoners, shadows are cast from puppets. Plato compares human beings to prisoners watching shadows of objects on a wall. They mistake the shadows for the objects because they have had no reason or experience to question that belief. When someone escapes the cave and sees the sun and learns what things look like in real light, he returns to teach the others, but appears crazy because his perspective is so unusual.
By pursuing her work as an amateur horticultural scientist trying to breed a hybrid plant, Claire has left the cave of convention which dictates the behavior of genteel women. Her horticulture becomes a symbolic and practical means of moving beyond traditional forms of womanhood. Like Socrates, she is an ironic figure with a project she does not expect others to understand or approve. Yet Claire does not advocate her inquiry for anyone else and she has no students. She does not voice an agenda to change women in particular or people in general to go with her ‘‘to The Verge,’’ beyond form. Having created a greenhouse of her own in which she labors, she is disinterested in other people’s curiosity. Anti-social and solitary, her scientific work separates her from the surrounding community.
Like Socrates in the Republic and the Apology, Claire defends herself to a mini-polis of family, friends and servants. The male characters in The Verge could be placed on various levels of Plato’s divided line, which immediately precedes the Allegory of the Cave. The line shows varying levels of reality in ascending order in order to illustrate the metaphysical relationship between ideas and objects. The line is divided into four sections. The lower sections represent things that can be seen; the upper sections represent things known by the intellect. The lowest segment of the line contains the sensual qualities of matter, like the redness and smoothness of an apple, ‘‘shadows, then reflections in water and on surfaces of dense, smooth and bright texture.’’ The second section contains ‘‘that of which this is a likeness or an image.’’ Items at this level include matter and form composites, like plants, animals, people, and artifacts. The lower intelligible section of the line contains the mathematical descriptions of things, such as the numerical property of roundness, and the highest section contains the form itself, the idea of the pure form. Claire’s husband, Harry Archer, is rooted in the sensual and the physical as he seeks comfort and entertainment at the lowest level of the divided line. He thinks Claire should be happy because she ‘‘has everything.’’ Dick Demming is an abstract artist who draws ‘‘[l]ines that don’t make anything’’ and can’t tell a person anything. Tom Edgeworthy, Claire’s lover, understands her fear of language, but is wary of her search for pure forms. He recommends that Claire be left alone because she ‘‘isn’t hardened into one of those forms she talks about. She’s too—aware. Always pulled toward what could be—tormented by lost adventure.’’ His name alludes to the project that almost succeeded, her Edge Vine, which, like Tom, returned to its source rather than exploding into a new species. Only Claire seeks transcendence at the top of the Platonic line, where she can identify old forms and attempt to create new ones.
Plato’s Republic takes place outside Athens’ walls, where Socrates can more safely discuss the perfect political state. The Verge takes place in Claire’s territories, her greenhouse and her tower, but both places are frequently invaded by others. Glaspell’s language emphasizes boundaries and borders which Claire desires to transcend. As the play opens, Claire and her assistant, Anthony, are working in the greenhouse. Due to a storm and a broken furnace, Claire has diverted the house’s heat to the greenhouse; her Breath of Life, ‘‘the flower that I have created that is outside what flowers have been,’’ is about to blossom and needs a constant temperature. Because the house is cold, Harry Archer orders the maid to serve breakfast in the greenhouse, and is clearly more interested in salt for his eggs than in Claire’s project. Claire thinks of little besides her plants which outweigh anyone’s needs. Harry worries condescendingly that Claire takes her plants too seriously. He explains, ‘‘I don’t want to see it get you—it’s not important enough for that.’’ Unfortunately, Claire is less self-assured and articulate than Socrates and dependent on Harry to understand her project so that he will leave her alone.
Most of the plot revolves around the attempts of Harry and the other characters to make Claire behave the way they think she should, while she tries to complete her work in spite of them. Claire is frustrated by the traditional choices her sister, Adelaide, and her daughter, Elizabeth, have made, though Elizabeth admits that she has to be wellmannered because she doesn’t do anything interesting. Both relatives are concerned with the utility of Claire’s horticultural experiment. Elizabeth describes Claire’s work as ‘‘doing one’s own thing’’ and ‘‘doing a useful, beautiful thing.’’ Elizabeth can’t understand the use of making plants ‘‘different if they aren’t any better.’’ This perturbs Claire, who seeks the intrinsic challenge of creating a new form without respect to its extrinsic value. Unfortunately but predictably, Elizabeth charges that Claire’s project is morally wrong unless she improves the plants by making them more beautiful. Adelaide suggests that Claire find a way to be like her, ‘‘free, busy, happy. Among people, I have no time to think of myself.’’ This conformist choice strikes Claire as a conspiracy in which people try to be alike ‘‘in order to assure one another that we’re all just all right.’’ Claire accuses Adelaide of ‘‘staying in one place because she hasn’t the energy to go anywhere else’’ through a creative venue of her own. Claire does not want to be like the people that surround her. Instead it is as if she is in the cave trying to escape, hoping that there are more options outside, but not knowing for certain.
Claire frequently ignores Harry’s directions and suggestions. When Claire refuses to explain to Dick the procedure for cross-pollenating a plant to give it fragrance, Harry charges that Claire doesn’t try to make her work less mysterious, and insists that she should answer Dick’s questions if she can. It is almost as if he suspects there is safety in its articulation, and danger in its mystical, unspoken state. She complies, and in the process, says that she is giving her flower a scent she’ll call ‘‘Reminiscence,’’ which echos Plato’s suggestion in The Phaedo and The Phaedrus that knowledge depends on recollection. Claire worries that her new plant might find itself ‘‘lonely out in what hasn’t been.’’ The scent provides a metaphorical kind of memory of the plant’s biological predecessors. When Dick insists he understands Claire’s explanation, Claire responds in skeptical Socratic fashion, ‘‘I wonder if you do.’’ Because her attitude disturbs Harry, he encourages her to be amusing for Tom, her former lover who will be leaving soon. Instead, Claire flirts with Dick, speaking about perversion and suggesting that Harry might think she is Dick’s latest strumpet. Harry chastises her for not behaving like the refined ‘‘flower of New England’’ that she is, ironically invoking a plant to correct her. The hint of New England ancestors upsets Claire, and she insists that ‘‘[w]e need not be held in forms molded for us. There is outness—Land otherness.’’ Glaspell constantly shifts Claire’s moods, conveying the unstable but provocative basis of Claire’s personality, making her mimic the flexible form she seeks. Glaspell suggests that forms confine and contain individual beings rather than reveal true being.
Claire’s evasiveness is underscored by her irony and her refusal to explain her goal. Her attitude is attractive and frustratingly elusive. When Harry and Dick discuss Claire, Harry stammers, unable to categorize Claire easily because she is not archetypal:
. . . you might know all there is to know about women and not know much about Claire. But now about (does not want to say passion again)—of, feeling—Claire has a certain—well—a certain—
HARRY: Which is really more—more—
DICK: More fetching, perhaps.
HARRY: Yes! Than the thing itself. But of course, you wouldn’t have much of a thing that you have irony about.
Harry is as unable to articulate Claire’s personality as she is unable to describe what a new form might accomplish for her. When Harry asks Claire why she refers to World War I as a ‘‘gorgeous chance’’ and she replies, in true Socratic fashion, ‘‘I don’t know—precisely. If I did—there’d be no use in saying it.’’ For Claire, language is most interesting when one’s knowledge is tentative and imprecise. To practical Harry, this makes no sense. Tom seems to understand that articulation can damage an idea or emotion when he replies to Claire, ‘‘The only thing left worth saying is the thing we can’t say.’’ Harry repeatedly pushes Claire to articulate her project in order to demystify it. After rejecting Elizabeth’s offer to assist her in the greenhouse, Harry again pushes Claire ‘‘[t]o get down to brass tacks and actually say what she’s driving at’’ so that she can ‘‘realize just where’’ she is. Claire prefers not to ‘‘nail it to a cross of words’’ but explains that her plants have found otherness, ‘‘They have been shocked out of what they were—into something they were not; they’ve broken from the forms in which they found themselves. They are alien. Outside. That’s it, outside’’ and she continues, ‘‘when you make a new pattern you know a pattern’s made with life. And then you know that anything may be—if only you pattern’s made know how to reach it.’’ Claire Archer’s new patterns include the new plant and the lifestyle she has created for herself. Implicitly, Glaspell reinforces the relation between language and forms. Since language consists primarily of categories, and categories are directly related to forms because they indicate the kind of being things are, it is necessary that Claire be frustrated by words and by Plato’s forms.
Source: Julia Galbus, ‘‘Susan Glaspell’s The Verge: A Socratic Quest to Reinvent Form and Escape Plato’s Cave,’’ in Journal of Dramatic Theory and Criticism, Vol. 15, No. 1, Fall 2000, pp. 81–95.
Building on the Abyss: Susan Glaspell’s The Verge in Production
Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 4451
Shortly after seeing my 1993 production of Sam Shepard’s Fool for Love at the University of East Anglia, Christopher Bigsby, my PhD supervisor, handed me his edition of Susan Glaspell’s plays and told me that if I really wanted a directing challenge, I should tackle The Verge (1921). After reading it, I politely told him that I would not dare. Perhaps the play was, as Bigsby writes, ‘‘a remarkable, if imperfect work,’’ which attempts a ‘‘radical revisioning of all aspects of theatre,’’ but I was also inclined to agree with his suggestion that it often ‘‘dissolve[s] into mere pretension, a frantic posturing by characters about whom we know little.’’ Yet the play continued to haunt me: could its perceived shortcomings be overcome in production, or would they simply become more obtrusive? Three years later, I mounted The Verge at the University of Glasgow as the centerpiece to the first international conference devoted to Glaspell’s work. In this article, I would like to chart some of the thinking that led to this change of heart and to the key choices made in our production process. Not only did The Verge prove to be one of the most challenging and personally rewarding plays I have ever worked on, but the experience of staging it rendered numerous insights directly relevant to current critical debates over Glaspell’s work.
The playwriting of Susan Glaspell has attracted an increasing amount of long overdue critical attention in recent years. Yet scholars’ enthusiasm for her work on the page has not been matched by a corresponding enthusiasm from theatre producers willing to stage them. Consequently, most articles on Glaspell’s plays deal only with their textual potential, often in relation to contemporary literarycritical theory or the socio-historical context framing her work. (Glaspell’s playwriting career was fairly short, mostly concentrated within the period from 1915 to 1922, not coincidentally the heyday of the Provincetown Players, the company she cofounded with her husband George Cram Cook.) The continuing viability of Glaspell’s plays as texts for performance in our own era, as opposed to their importance as historical documents, has remained a moot point, especially in relation to The Verge. Almost universally regarded as her most radical and exciting writing experiment—many view its idiosyncratic linguistic extravagance as an early example of l’ecriture feminine—the play has nevertheless been considered deeply problematic as a blueprint for production, if not totally unstageable.
Our Glasgow production attempted to disprove that latter assumption, although admittedly it was not without flaws of its own. This was a studentacted production with a tiny design budget in a severely limited black box studio, and several parts of the show never quite gelled. The conference participants were divided over its effectiveness, some remaining suspicious of our more stylized production choices, while others applauded them as a logical extrapolation of Glaspell’s writing. Nonconference audience members were similarly divided, many perceiving the play as exactly what its detractors claim: an overly long, seriously prolix piece of confused feminist invective. Yet enough people left commenting on the ‘‘inspiring’’ and ‘‘emotionally draining’’ quality of the experience to suggest we had tapped at least something of the play’s potential.
Given The Verge’s boundary-breaking subject matter, perhaps any production of it would prove to be contentious. The play focuses on Claire Archer, a visionary who has abandoned all the conventional niceties of her upper middle class existence in the pursuit of what she calls ‘‘otherness.’’ In her bizarre greenhouse, she crossbreeds plants into strange new forms that break beyond what was previously conceived to be ‘‘natural,’’ her obsessive devotion to this task appearing to be an expression of a more personal quest to break beyond the roles available to her as a ‘‘natural’’ woman (wife, mother, charitable worker, flower arranger). On the page, Claire’s restless urge for personal transcendence is most apparent in her words; periodically exploding into vivid monologues that defy simple comprehension, she stretches the limits of the English language in a bid to express her unspeakable desires.
My initial impression upon reading the play in 1993 was that any attempt at production would stand or fall on the question of how it dealt with Claire’s linguistic ‘‘excesses.’’ For if the character is a flawed genius, it seemed equally true that her verbal flights obtrude awkwardly into otherwise naturalistic scenes between her friends and family. One option would be to cut back those speeches, to let Claire’s actions, rather than her words, speak for her, and so smooth the play into a fairly consistent piece of sub-Ibsenite symbolistic naturalism. Yet that still left the problem of the play’s highly melodramatic climax, in which Claire tips over The Verge into madness (or otherness?), strangling her platonic soulmate, Tom Edgeworthy, at the very moment he has agreed to become her lover, the commitment she has just spent two acts trying to win from him. This scene comprehensively shatters any neat, logical reading of the play’s plot progression; it remains dramatically viable only if Claire’s earlier use of unhinged language is left intact, thereby indicating an instability that could signal either creeping insanity or the threshold of revelation. It seemed to me that cutting these speeches or doctoring the ending would destroy precisely what was most radical and provocative about the play as a script, rendering Claire a mere pawn within the overly familiar plot mechanics of three-act naturalism (rather than a figure whose spiraling words frequently imply a desire to transcend the frame of representation itself). In short, The Verge is compelling precisely insofar as it is not a ‘‘well-made play’’; yet these same qualities at first prevented me from seeing how I could bring it to life onstage.
My conviction that the play would be unworkable if presented ‘‘straight’’ was borne out by a production at the Orange Tree Theatre in Richmond, London (a small, professional fringe venue), which, by sheer coincidence, mounted The Verge in April 1996, in a run that closed on the very same night as did our five-nights-only Glasgow production. In order to present the play as period-set naturalism, the director of the Orange Tree version, Auriol Smith, made extensive cuts in the script, most notably reducing Claire’s lengthy (and highly ‘‘unnatural’’) verse monologue in act II from 33 lines to only 12. Glaspell scholar Marcia Noe cites this speech as ‘‘the most radical example of Glaspell’s innovative use of language to break free of the prison of forms.’’ The sadly ironic result of such changes was that, though the theatre was praised for its high production standards, the play itself was almost universally dismissed by reviewers as an awkward and unconvincing piece of out-of-date naturalism ‘‘that is trying to flower into something quite different, and in spite of the care lavished upon it, doesn’t quite.’’
In a paper on the Orange Tree production delivered at the Glasgow conference, Sheila Stowell argued that The Verge is, at root, a naturalistic piece; the perceived failure of Smith’s approach therefore exposed the basic weaknesses of the play. Stowell explicitly rejected Gerhard Bach’s argument that The Verge is expressionistic, pointing out that there is little in the script to justify that contention. For while the two settings of greenhouse (acts I and III) and tower retreat (act II) are both Claire’s private spaces, whose bizarre descriptions can thus be read as visual projections of Claire’s unsettled mind, the action that takes place in those settings mostly consists of a kind of heightened realism. Furthermore, though the three men in Claire’s life are named Tom, Dick, and Harry—suggesting laughable cartoon males revolving around Claire, the central female consciousness—they are far from being mere expressionist ciphers. Rather, they are clearly drawn individuals with hopes and fears of their own. Stowell argued that any production that presented the play in a more stylized or expressionist manner than had the Orange Tree would be more a product of directorial re-visioning than an interpretive development from Glaspell’s text.
Although I agree that The Verge is neither an expressionist nor symbolist play per se, simply to label it as naturalistic seems equally misleading. Just as Claire seeks to transcend the forms established for plant life and femaleness, to create deviations from the norm that she can only describe as ‘‘queer,’’ so the form of Glaspell’s play constantly deviates from its baseline naturalism toward not only expressionism and symbolism, but also melodrama and outright farce (witness the pepperpot sequence in act I, or the opening of act III). The Verge is best described as a ‘‘queer,’’ hybrid play that refuses to settle into a single pattern as adamantly as Claire refuses to settle for a fixed gender identity. The challenge, then, for any production team, is to find a form of presentation that can reflect the stylistic restlessness of the text, and so provide an updraft for Claire’s attempts to rise above the banality of her surroundings, rather than to confine her in the prisonhouse of naturalism. I felt strongly that, in this case at least, to suggest that final creative authority rests with either the playwright’s text or auteur director is to present a false dichotomy. The Verge, quite simply, demands an innovative approach to staging, and this should come as no surprise when one considers that Glaspell wrote it for production by the Provincetown Players, in the year after they had reconstructed their theatre to mount (triumphantly) Eugene O’Neill’s equally ‘‘unstageable’’ experiment, The Emperor Jones. The Verge’s very refusal to conform also inspired Edy Craig and Sybil Thorndike’s desire to produce it in London in 1925. Their intention from the start was to embrace the play’s ambiguous, unsettled form rather than render it ‘‘assimilable’’: ‘‘People will think it entirely mad,’’ Thorndike wrote to Craig, ‘‘but I’m longing to do it, aren’t you?.’’
The Working Concept
My own solution to the challenge of staging The Verge was inspired by two very different books: Michael Vanden Heuvel’s Performing Drama/ Dramatizing Performance and Diane Elam’s Feminism and Deconstruction. Vanden Heuvel’s notion of dialogic performance contributed significantly to my understanding of, and approach to, the play’s formal demands. Rather than trying to create a consistent, unified stage illusion, Vanden Heuvel suggests that much is to be gained by developing situations in which text and staging exist in a kind of double-exposed creative complementarity, each informing the other with neither assuming final (monologic) authority. This principle proved fundamental to the development of our production concept. Without Diane Elam’s anti-essentialist exploration of gender identity in Feminism and Deconstruction, however, the production itself might never have happened. Elam countered the concerns I had as a male director tackling such a boldly woman-centered piece of theatre with her assertion that men’s worried avoidance of participation in feminist discourse can amount to ‘‘ignoring responsibility in the guise of conceding authority (to women),’’ something as potentially dangerous as the opposing pitfall of crudely appropriating feminist discourse for one’s own ends.
Elam’s work also strongly influenced my thinking about the play itself. Building on the work of both feminist and poststructuralist scholars, she contends that women have too often sought to liberate themselves from objectification within patriarchally prescribed gender roles, only to fix themselves in equally limiting alternatives: ‘‘the achievement of a definitive or calculable subjectivity is, as Derrida points out, not solely liberatory.’’ The potential of deconstruction for feminism, she argues, thus lies in its ability to both legitimate and facilitate an endless deferral of gender-role definitions. Such a notion equates closely with Claire’s lone struggles in The Verge: her need to transcend definition entails not only a resistance to male preconceptions, but also a refusal to allow herself to rest in an understanding of who she wants to be. ‘‘Let me tell you how it is with me,’’ she tells Tom in that pivotal verse speech in act II:
I do not want to work,
I want to be;
Do not want to make a rose or a poem
Want to lie upon the earth and know. (closes her eyes)
Stop doing that!—words going into patterns;
They do it sometimes when I let come what’s there.
Thoughts take pattern—then the pattern is the thing.
Claire’s repeated cry of ‘‘[s]top doing that!’’ underlines her sense that the greatest threat to her dream of ‘‘otherness’’ comes not from the rather ineffectual men in her life, but from her own need to stop and settle. That search for otherness can perhaps be understood in terms of Elam’s notion of pursuing ‘‘incalculable subjectivities.’’ A key to staging The Verge, then, might be to pursue this idea in Claire’s characterization. Her linguistic flights are often regarded as literary experiments on Glaspell’s part, and difficult to realize effectively onstage; but could they not be presented so as clearly to emphasize the fluid subjectivity of a character who will not allow herself to define herself even to herself?. . .
One of my chief interests in mounting the play was to discover how Claire might come across in production, since critical opinion based on textual readings stands firmly divided over the way she is to be perceived. As Marcia Noe writes:
Much of the critical commentary on this play. . . centers on Glaspell’s attitude toward her protagonist. . . C. W. E. Bigsby states that ‘‘Clearly Glaspell is critical of Claire,’’ and Arthur Waterman writes that ‘‘we must realize that Claire has gone too far.’’ By contrast, Christine Dymkowski believes that ‘‘Claire’s madness at the end of the play is a personal triumph.’’
The tendency to view Claire’s fate as a kind of cautionary tale—a depiction of the dangers of pushing individualism or self-absorption to extremes— is not limited to male critics, and has also been influenced by research into Glaspell’s own biography. She herself remained childless and later in life wrote of motherhood as the ultimate achievement for a woman. Do such biographical details throw light on Glaspell’s attitude toward Claire’s somewhat narcissistic rejection of familial responsibility? And yet Claire is also clearly the driving force and center of the play, a passionate voice for liberation and nonconformity. Karen Malpede goes so far as to suggest that Claire’s murder of Tom should be read as an act of revolution. For Noe, ‘‘the fact that there is no consensus on this point suggests that Claire should be viewed from a new critical perspective,’’ and her own theoretical reading seeks to refute criticism that the play’s language is ‘‘obscure and tedious.’’
From a practitioner’s perspective, however, the best defense for theatre writing is to hear it spoken onstage. Indeed, in my view, as long as one continues to read The Verge simply as a text for literary analysis, the either/or dichotomy of cautionary tale versus laudatory tract will keep reproducing itself. Noe’s own article is a case in point; for all its crucial insights, it concludes by reverting to intentionalism of the she’s-gone-too-far variety: ‘‘Through this remarkable play Susan Glaspell attempts to show us the futility of attempting to transcend form, a lesson which the proponents of l’ecriture feminine would do well to heed.’’ Embarking on the production, I hoped that Claire’s embodiment onstage might offer a way out of this conceptual binary trap by altering the question from ‘‘What is Glaspell’s attitude toward Claire?’’ to ‘‘Who is Claire?’’
The question of embodiment is fundamental in Claire’s case because Glaspell resists the usual, ‘‘truth’’-revealing mechanics of the naturalistic text: Claire’s words are quite explicitly inadequate for expressing how she feels, what she needs. Onstage, the body language of the actor should allow Claire to ‘‘speak’’ far more fluently about her state of mind than she can with English. And yet the actor only has Claire’s words as a starting point for building characterization: somehow they need to be internalized before what they fail to express can be externalized physically. To discover and manifest the subtext one has first to absorb the text, and yet that text is, by Claire’s own account, not a reliable representation of her subjectivity. How were we to deal with this paradox? Again, Glaspell seemed to demand a creative leap from us that would mirror Claire’s own; here, too, a kind of dialogic interaction of text and performance would be crucial. The performer would need not merely to extrapolate a portrayal of the character from Claire’s words, but actively to interpolate herself actively into the undecidable blanks of the text.
This conviction led me to cast as Claire a local performer, Judith Milligan, whom I had seen in various physical/visual theatre productions, but who had never previously worked with spoken text or dramatic character. Although a risky choice, we would be working without inculcated habits regarding the use of text as an indicator of character psychology: Judith would not be looking to perform the usual Method miracle of submerging oneself beneath a distinct, well-rounded entity. Moreover, she loved the part from the outset, sensing a personal affinity with the character despite the fact that much of the script at first seemed opaque to her. Over the rehearsal period, Judith worked to discover and refine points of contact between herself as a performer and the words she spoke as Claire, until a hybrid figure, whom we playfully tagged ‘‘Judith- Claire,’’ emerged with a life of her own.
In effect, the approach adopted in exploring Claire’s characterization was a more complex version of the outside-in method used with Tom, Dick, and Harry. Because Judith felt she needed some basic sense of the character’s physicality before she could begin working in depth with the text itself, we isolated some of Claire’s most convoluted speeches and treated them as suggestions for choreography. Examining the recurrence of certain basic concepts in Claire’s vocabulary (‘‘otherness,’’ ‘‘reminiscence,’’ ‘‘by-myselfness,’’ and so forth), signifiers for which she clearly has very precise emotional referents but which for her listeners remain frustratingly undefined, we created abstract physical ges tures suggesting something of the quality of those terms. Thus ‘‘otherness’’ gave rise to what we began calling the ‘‘thwarted tree’’ gesture (after the ‘‘thwarted tower’’ of act II and the botany of acts I and III): Judith would thrust her left arm out directly in front of her, at a right angle from her body, with her forearm then jutting skyward at a right angle from her upper arm. In this aborted reaching-out gesture, her palm was open, fingers half-curled like gnarled twigs, the whole gesture animated by a kind of forced tension, a twisting of tendons around the central fixed axis of the arm. By contrast, the gesture for ‘‘reminiscence’’ was very small and delicate, akin to the scent she names after it: Judith would bow over her hands, which cradled something unseen, the fingers of one hand rotating around its tiny center, while the palm of the other rotated around them in shielding protection.
Working on the speeches in this way, we generated a vocabulary of movements that Judith gradually began to internalize emotionally. As with the other aspects of the production, these external elements started out fairly large and crude, but developed into something far subtler and more nuanced. When interviewed about the production some time later, she noted:
The more we physicalized it, the more real the gestures seemed. And it’s not that we made them larger, but that they got smaller. . . I didn’t find them all for myself, but once I had them, it actually became easier to use them. Once I’d got into the physicality of it, it just felt right, when I was doing it. It’s difficult to explain, because we did start with the words, but the words never felt right, she doesn’t like the words, which is why we found the gestures. Which is not a failing of the text; the text is so important.
As this creative dialogue between the text and performance developed, Judith reached the point where she would freely use a gesture developed to illustrate one phrase in juxtaposition with a completely different one, and because of that juxtaposition would find herself able to key into an emotional sense of what was underlying the speech. This fluid use of physical and verbal registers meant that, by the time of the production, few instances were left of signature movements actually being used alongside the phrases they had been created to illustrate. Judith felt this separation was necessary; otherwise the gestures would be too schematic, a fixing of meaning when the whole dynamic of the character moved away from such fixity. As she explains,
every time she says that word ‘‘outside,’’ you don’t always need the gesture, because it’s a very specific thing that goes beyond the word ‘‘outside.’’ There are moments when she uses that word, but this is her problem with language. It doesn’t always fit . . . and that’s where the physical side comes in. This is how it feels! I don’t know how to tell you, but this is how it feels!
Judith thus arrived at an intuitive sense of Claire’s hunt for incalculable subjectivity through the interplay of text and movement. This in turn became apparent to the audience, who could tune into a sense of her search without actually being able to pin her down. For example, in his article for the Eugene O’Neill Review, Seth Baumrin found that the production ‘‘ably transformed Glaspell’s theoretical posture into performance’’ by realizing her ‘‘leitmotifs . . . in the underlying gestus of the actor. Milligan found a physicality to Claire Archer which asserted and clarified the character’s thoughts without falling into the trap of merely relying on language.’’
The process of developing Claire was not without its difficulties. The first act, in particular, remained a problem for Judith right up until production week. ‘‘It’s the most difficult to play as Claire, by miles,’’ she notes, because this act is dominated by the men, through whose perspectives the exposition is mostly elaborated. Claire appears three times, reacting to their comments with long speeches before disappearing again. Though we could choreograph Claire’s outbursts as set pieces, providing some conceptual understanding of her concerns, Claire interacts very little with those around her. In Judith’s words, ‘‘there isn’t anything to grasp as an actor.’’ Struggling for a way ‘‘in,’’ her initial instinct was to respond to the men with dismissive indignation, even contempt: they are in her space, they are taking up her time, they are talking nonsense. From my directorial perspective, however, it became clear that a softer, more playful edge was also needed if Claire were not to alienate the audience entirely before she had had a chance to express herself on her own terms, in her own time. Such contradictory demands proved difficult until we hit on the solution of Judith playing ‘‘outside’’ Claire for much of the first act, presenting the character as she is seen by the men, as the fascinating, infuriating, beguiling enigma whom they all love but do not comprehend. ‘‘The character as Tom, Dick, and Harry look at her,’’ Judith concluded, ‘‘is the person the audience needs to see at that point.’’ Not until the scene with her daughter, Elizabeth, at the end of the act does the audience sense how high the emotional stakes are for Claire. This intensification of mood allowed Judith to begin to move ‘‘inside’’ Claire, building toward the climactic moment of tearing up of the Edge Vine, the action that propels her into the traumatized isolation of the second act.
Acts II and III came together more smoothly, since they revolve far more tightly around Claire. Although Judith initially found the huge tracts of language with which she had to grapple quite daunting, my suggestions regarding pacing and tone shifts again provided an external structure (in this case rhythmic, temporal) from which to work her way ‘‘inside.’’ And as she gradually found a way into these scenes, it became clear to us that Claire’s behavior, however erratic and bizarre it might appear at first glance, follows a throughline that is supremely logical in its own way. Put simply, that throughline is itself a trajectory of deferral. After destroying the Edge Vine, which Claire perceives as having failed to ‘‘break out’’ into otherness (instead falling back into a stable, predictable form), Claire finds herself casting around desperately to refocus her energies. Throughout acts II and III she engages in a restless transference of her hopes from one object to another, turning in particular to her other new plant, Breath of Life, and to her platonic relationship with Tom, which she now seeks to transform into a fuller, sexual one. Each possibility, precisely insofar as it remains unfulfilled, holds out the chance of providing her with the otherness she craves.
While Claire’s wild casting about seems, on one level, a traumatized response to her own precipitous destruction of the Edge Vine, the events of Claire’s past also seem characterized by this search for hope in things outside of herself, and in which she makes enormous psychic investments. Her marriage to Harry, for example, manifests this same urge: she once saw in his life as a pilot the chance of taking flight into something beyond, and her disappointment in him stems from his stubborn insistence on keeping his feet firmly on the ground. Likewise, Claire’s rejection of Elizabeth can be understood as disappointment with another failed ‘‘experiment,’’ something underscored when she tears up the Edge Vine at precisely the moment she wishes to lash out at her daughter. The sheer intensity of Claire’s emotional investments also led us to conclude that her fascination with strange plants is far from being merely symbolic—a dramatic metaphor for her own inner search. Rather, Claire needs to get outside herself by forging identifications with other objects. In Deleuzian terms, her search to unchain her subjectivity from the usual feminine prescriptions inspires an urge for constant ‘‘becoming’’; becomingplant, becoming-flight, becoming-(one with)-Tom, and so on. ‘‘She’s looking for exactly the same thing in everything that she does,’’ Judith suggests. ‘‘Everything she does is for that feeling . . . flight! Call it what you like, but the way I played Claire, that feeling was utterly central.’’
Source: Stephen J. Bottoms, ‘‘Building on the Abyss: Susan Glaspell’s The Verge in Production,’’ in Theatre Topics, Vol. 8, No. 2, September 1998, pp. 127–47.
Susan Glaspell’s The Verge: An Experiment in Feminism
Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 3051
The plays written by Susan Glaspell for the Provincetown Playhouse between 1915 and 1922 illustrate a characteristic not usually found in avantegarde playwrights and little theatres, but one that is common to both this playwright and the theatre that produced her plays; namely, an unusual blending of traditional values with radical attitudes typically associated with an experimental artistic group. The traditional outlook derives mainly from the midwestern background of so many of the Players, especially George Cram Cook, the founder and director of the Provincetown, and Susan Glaspell, Cook’s wife and the theatre’s leading playwright. They were like many midwesterners who were born late in the nineteenth century in a small rural town and were brought up with a conscious awareness of their pioneer ancestry, with its heritage of freedom and independence, only to discover in the staid, conservative society around them a disregard, even a denial, of their forefathers’ ideals. They fled, these midwestern children, first to Chicago, then to New York, where they were joined by eastern counterparts, who also arrived in Greenwich Village bringing with them attitudes that were at once oldfashioned and bohemian.
Inheritors, produced by the Provincetown in 1921, clearly shows the midwestern basis for most of Susan Glaspell’s art. The play covers three generations of Iowans, beginning in 1879 when a Hungarian immigrant and an American pioneer work together to establish a state university, hoping that future generations will continue their vision of hope and faith for America. The next generation is represented by the son of the immigrant, now the university President, who stifles campus dissent in order to appease a state Senator; and the son of the pioneer, who has turned bitter after the death of his son in World War I, perverting his father’s idealism into misanthropy. The third generation consists of Madelaine Morton, one of the campus radicals, meaning she defends the rights of minorities, and the President’s son, who is an incipient Nazi in taking repressive actions against the dissenters, especially Madelaine. The play questions whether the old vision can endure unchanged as time passes, as the Midwest develops from an isolated, agrarian locale to a complex, modern society, whose sons die on foreign soil and whose twentieth century culture complicates its once uncomplicated idealism. The success of the play comes in large measure from our acceptance of the midwestern setting as the region where the American Dream once found its greatest expression and now faces its greatest challenge. Born in Davenport, educated at Drake University, a political reporter for the Des Moines Daily News, Glaspell knew her region intimately and dramatizes brilliantly the essential dangers facing the old liberalism, seeing how it could be narrowed and corrupted into political expendiency and suppressive acts—all in the name of the very beliefs now being threatened. With a conscious irony she shows how the tradition that fostered the Dream could be used to restrict it, and with a foresight that is prophetic she chose the campus as the place where the testing of inherited values would lead to an explosive confrontation between defenders of the ‘‘American’’ way of life and individuals insisting on their rights at any cost.
Inheritors is probably Glaspell’s best play. But it was a play that faced its author with few overwhelming dramatic problems. Its development, characters, language, and tone are all clearly available and readily created once the essential plot has been established. The personal and ideological differences between Madelaine and her Uncle create a conflict that is inherently dramatic, so Susan Glaspell’s strategy, by no means an easy one, was to choose from a great many dramatic possibilities for presenting this conflict on stage. Indeed, the play’s success undoubtedly depends on this given situation: forceful, universal, compelling—in short, good, sound theatre.
When she came to write her next play, The Verge, also produced in 1921 by the Provincetown, she faced a different problem, which was how to find the dramatic equivalents—the words, gestures, symbols, and setting—that would depict a liberated woman who was also an experimental biologist, as radical in her profession as she was in her sexuality. Claire, the heroine of The Verge, is quite unlike Madelaine; Claire is more alone, more desperate, more visionary, and more dangerous than is the younger girl. Claire is what Madelaine might have become if she hadn’t been raised in the Midwest and had not inherited her grandfather’s belief in communal responsibility as a part of this idealism. The play shows how far Susan Glaspell had advanced from her nineteenth-century Davenport background to where she could by 1921 present the ‘‘new’’ woman in all her orginality, yet still retain enough of her midwestern background to qualify her response to Claire and to question the validity of her search. In her laboratory Claire experiments with plants in order to train them to alter their natures and grow into new forms. During the play her horticultural attempts are scoffed at, sympathized over, ignored, misunderstood, and abused; consequently, she becomes increasingly more hysterical. Obsessed by her own inner need to reach a new feminine identity and frustrated by her plants’ failures to create their own radical forms, she kills the one man trying to understand her and ends the play singing insanely against a backdrop of twisted biological freaks.
The Verge borders on the edge of being absurd and the plot certainly has its melodramatic moments. Moreover, Claire’s aspirations, which shape the entire play, are more lyrical than dramatic, so they need someone to explain and interpret her feelings, someone, that is, more like a novelist than a playwright. Glaspell has to express Claire’s obsession in terms that make her understandable, even acceptable; yet she has to present the conflicts within and around Claire in a dramatic and effective way. She had to draw upon everything she had learned in her seven years of playwriting for the Provincetown, then invent several new techniques to make meaningful and dramatic her new woman. For Claire is seeking a new feminine self, trying to become a Nietzschean woman-artist, superior to the ordinary person and, thereby, justified in her extreme behavior. To her credit, Susan Glaspell succeeded in making Claire the most talked about dramatic character of the season and The Verge the most interesting play of its time.
Alexander Woolcott complained that Miss Glaspell ‘‘could not think of any other way of dramatizing Claire than by having her talk and talk and talk about herself with the egocentric ardor and helpless garrulity of a patient in a psychoanalyst’s office.’’ Although Woolcott failed to appreciate many of the fine things in The Verge, he is right in criticizing Claire’s talkiness. Late in the play, after Claire has been driven almost mad by the massive refusal of the other characters to take her idealism seriously, she begins to speak poetry, desperately trying to find the verbal equivalents for her radical vision, while at the same time she senses that this speech pattern is warning of instability:
‘‘Sometimes—from my lowest moments—beauty has opened as the sea. From a cave I saw immensity.’’
Let me tell you how it is with me
I do not want to work,
I want to be;
Do not want to make a rose or make a poem—
Want to lie upon the earth and know.
(Closes her eyes)
Stop doing that!—words going into patterns
They do it sometimes when I let come what’s there.
Thus Claire does sound at times more like a woman in a novel than one on stage. Her talkiness obviously places an extraordinary burden on the actress who plays Claire and who must somehow provide suitable stage actions to accompany Claire’s many long speeches. In the Provincetown production, Margaret Wycherly, in a sequin dress and wearing long beads, portrayed Claire as a nervous, fidgety woman, who, dressed as she was and moving as abruptly as she did, gave striking visual counterpoint to Claire’s set speeches. Woolcott called her ‘‘gorgeous,’’ but Stark Young objected to her busy stage manner, saying it interfered with the intellectual content of the play.
If Claire’s extreme character required Susan Glaspell to interpret her heroine through words, the special emphasis of the play on psychological and biological experiments gave her an opportunity to create two brilliant and symbolic stage sets. The two settings of The Verge comprise the most innovative technique in the play and were the one aspect of it praised by all the critics. As the lights come up on the opening scene, we see a greenhouse:
This is not a greenhouse where plants are being displayed, nor the usual workshop for the growing of them, but a place for experiment with plants, a laboratory.
At the back grows a strange vine. It is arresting rather than beautiful. It creeps along the low wall, and one branch gets a little way up the glass. You might see the form of a cross in it, if you happened to think it that way. The leaves of this vine are not the form that leaves have been. They are at once repellent and significant.
Dominated by the brooding shadow of the vine, spotted with light and shadow, enveloped in the wind’s sound, this set superbly conveys the bizarre and groping qualities of Claire’s experiments. This is her world, strange, a bit frightening, but also attractive and powerful. The partially concealed room at the rear and the trap-door leading below allow for some interesting staging, with a variety of exits and entrances, and also indicate the private nature of Claire’s domain, with certain areas marked out as hers alone. Act Two opens on a twisted, incomplete tower room. This is a distorted, straining place, where the madness that ends the play can be anticipated in this jagged, ominous landscape. It is also a private place, not a womb necessarily, but a retreat certainly, suggesting the aloneness of Claire and her psychological withdrawal from the human voices below. This set particularly illustrates how far Susan Glaspell had developed in her dramatic skills, so that here she could draw upon the rich theatrical experience and training she had undergone with the Players, and apply her intimate knowledge of what could be done on that tiny stage, with its dome at the rear, to create a symbolic picture as experimental as the new expressionistic sets being created in Europe. In The Verge Susan Glaspell moves away from the heritage of stage realism she followed in Inheritors to invent one of the most suggestive sets ever seen on the American stage.
Although the sets of The Verge indicate how experimental Susan Glaspell could be, other aspects of the play show how traditional she was, and how much her midwestern background was still influencing her art. Claire is surrounded by five people— two women and three men—and Susan Glaspell goes back to old-fashioned well-made procedures by illuminating Claire through these five, to show by contrast how Claire’s feminism is different from and preferable to the flat, insipid natures of most of the other characters. Her husband, Harry, is a typical male chauvinist, so totally insensitive to his wife’s behavior that he is more comical than pathetic. Harry worries more about getting some salt for his breakfast egg than he does about his wife’s apparent infidelity with a house guest and her increasingly strange behavior. Dick, who is Claire’s lover, is attracted sexually to her and can sense something of what she is striving for since he is an artist. But he cannot accept her willingness to destroy her plants when they refuse to grow. He protests when she rips out her latest creation the Edge Vine at the close of Act I and by his protests he loses her. She will no more wait for him than she will let her plant retreat to what is was. The third man is Tom, who is closest to Claire in vision and affection. Tom was once Claire’s lover, but now has moved beyond physical passion to mystical contemplation and at first plans to leave to search her spiritual oneness, but by Act Three decides to stay and protect Claire. With Tom Claire finds her closest partner, one who understands her, a lover-thinker capable of going with her to ‘‘otherness,’’ to, that is, as far as it is humanly possible to go. Most of Act III centers on the growing response Tom makes to Claire’s need of him, culminating in the last scene where he promises to stay and love her. When Claire realizes, however, that with her Tom has found enough and will try to stop her from going beyond even his love and his faith, she strangles him.
We have to understand that it is precisely because she is drawn to Tom’s offer of a safe haven that Claire kills him. He is her true enemy, for he is the tempter drawing her back from ‘‘otherness,’’ so in a frenzy of love for him and out of her own desperate need to go on, she strangles him, crying ‘‘It is you puts out the breath of life.’’ As the play ends, Claire is completely alone and apparently transfigured—close to religious ecstasy, and beyond the human community—nearer, literally, to God. We can understand why Claire appealed to the Village feminists: in killing Tom she rejects the most sinister temptation of all, namely her own desire to conform to an identity better than any other, except this identity is one given her by Tom. It is his version of what she should be and, as far as he is concerned, it will not change once she accepts it. Like her plants, Claire will not stagnate, be fixed into a role. She will not, that is, be like the other women in the play: her conventional daughter and her middle-class sister, both of whom disapprove of and misunderstand Claire.
Susan Glaspell meant us to agree that Claire has lost control and gone too far. There are actually two currents in The Verge; one is Claire: so powerful a presence that her energy and strength dominate and direct the flow of action and events; the other a current of stability, best exemplified by Tom and the other woman, a quieter flow attempting to channel Claire’s more dangerous and strident flood. Unfortunately the forces of stability are unable to satisfy adequately the greater force of exceptional power. In other words, we have not yet found the means to give the exceptional person in our society the expression of her fullest capacity without sti- fling her, and, as a result, we have driven her to extremes dangerous to both herself and to us. Claire is as much a victim as a heroine: a victim, not of male chauvinism, although Harry might like to think so, but of a closed world which restricts her identity by forcing on her roles of wife and mother, that insists on dulling her brilliance as a woman and a scientist, and that twists her desire for ‘‘otherness’’ into something depraved and crazy. Claire is a pariah because she is different as a woman, a person, and a biologist, and there is not room in the ‘‘normal’’ world for her difference.
The true opposition to Claire has to be from the audience. Moved by her desperation, we are nonetheless shocked at her murderous behavior at the end. We reject her. We have to, although the play does not provide any suitable alternative. This is the true radical nature of The Verge and it explains why the critics were divided so widely over its success. With a hindsight not given to the critics of the 1920’s, we can see that The Verge is a remarkable achievement, one that in its attitude toward woman’s identity is far ahead of almost any other play written in the next decades or so, and in its dramaturgy shows how far Susan Glaspell had advanced in her years with the Provincetown. Living in the Village she absorbed many of the bohemian notions of the then ‘‘radical-chic,’’ and from the Provincetown she learned a new craft of playwriting. In The Verge she brings together her dramatic gifts with the intellectual milieu of the avante-garde and balances these against her more conservative midwestern background. For all of its limitations: a language flow at times close to rant, a careful boxing in of her heroine with well-made supporting characters, a lack of any complexity in plot or mood, The Verge is a major play. It brilliantly fulfills the avowed purpose of the Provincetown: to produce only original plays by native playwrights. Also, it gave to the American stage a play that spoke not simply to the Village audience that patronized the tiny theatre, but also a play that faced by extension the question of the limits being enforced by the American society on her most gifted and extraordinary citizens. In 1919 the Palmer raids began, in 1920 Sacco and Vanzetti were arrested, and in 1921 immigration quotas were established—events that signified for a liberal and generally permissive person and artist like Susan Glaspell that limits, indeed, were being invoked and that conformity to the status-quo was the desired aim of the 1920’s, that what she had presented in Inheritors was, in fact, an actuality.
It is possible, therefore, and I believe entirely accurate to view The Verge as a play reaching beyond its obvious feminist emphasis to the larger question of how a society can best direct the energies of its more gifted eccentrics to constructive ends, without, on the one hand, repressing those exceptional qualities that define the genius nor, on the other hand, allowing that eccentricity license to move beyond normal and legal limits to violent and disastrous ends. The Verge does not resolve the question, perhaps no resolution is possible, but it does dramatize the issue. Like Inheritors, The Verge deserves a place in American theatre, and should be revived, for it transforms a serious social question into a moving and rewarding play.
Source: Arthur Waterman, ‘‘Susan Glaspell’s The Verge: An Experiment in Feminism,’’ in Great Lakes Review: A Journal of Midwest Culture, Vol. 6, No. 1, Summer 1979, pp. 17–23.