Historical Context

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The early 1920s were a time of great change for the United States. World War I had ended in 1919 but was still exerting its influence. There was a postwar letdown in the country during which a large part of the population began to get restless. After the stress of the war, it seemed that much of American society was looking for a release. The country had been disillusioned by the devastating war and much of society was now questioning old values and beliefs. The old Victorian ideals of decorum and etiquette were going out of style and were being replaced by a new ‘‘modernity’’ that was much less restrictive. Attitudes toward sex became more open and a general eroding of family life began to occur. Many people adopted a looser moral code than they had followed previously, and society saw a real questioning of long-held beliefs and values. Even though much of the country was embracing new attitudes and beliefs, there was also a longing to return to a former, more innocent time. Warren G. Harding was elected President of the United States in 1920. His campaign slogan promised a ‘‘return to normalcy,’’ and he won by a wide margin. Prohibition, which made it unlawful to sell and consume alcohol unless it was for ‘‘medicinal’’ purposes, was in force after the passage of the Eighteenth Amendment in 1919. This drove partying and alcohol consumption ‘‘underground,’’ and a great wave of decadence broke out that was to culminate in the flapper era of the late 1920s. Gangsters took advantage of the opportunity to bootleg liquor for large profits, which also led to a great deal of mob violence during the era.

Concurrent with this new modernity, women were moving into a new position in society. They had gained the right to vote with the passage of the Nineteenth Amendment in 1920 and they continued to push for more freedom and equal rights. They began to take a wider variety of jobs outside the home. Up to this time, women who held jobs had been largely restricted to school-teaching, nursing, social service, or clerical work. They now began to work in publishing, real estate, and numerous other professions that had previously been considered appropriate for men only. Many women who did stay at home were able to spend less time on their domestic duties, as many laborsaving devices such as electric irons and washing machines became available. Some women were able to embrace their newfound freedom and found it to be a very liberating time. Others, like Claire in The Verge, were not able to reconcile their inner desires with the expectations of women that society had ingrained in them for so long. They found themselves caught in an inner struggle that was emotionally devastating for some. Many of the women writers of the day, such as Virginia Woolf and Charlotte Perkins Gilman, wrote about this inner turmoil.

Sigmund Freud’s theories became very popular in America during this time. Freud had given his first lectures in the United States at Clark College, Massachusetts in 1909. The war temporarily drew attention away from domestic issues, however, so Freud’s popularity did not really take hold in the United States until after World War I. Freud posited that mental illness was caused by ‘‘repression’’ of memories and experiences and could be cured if the underlying causes were discovered. This discovery would be affected by conducting extensive conversations between the patient and the doctor. Some psychoanalysts immediately subscribed to Freud’s ‘‘talking cures,’’ while others still held on to the traditional ways of treating patients...

(This entire section contains 951 words.)

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through rest, isolation, and electroshock therapy. Popular magazines and newspapers ran articles about psychoanalysis, and many ‘‘Freudian terms’’ made their way into everyday conversation.

World War I had a major impact upon the United States. Even though the war was fought overseas, many people had relatives in the military and thus, it played a significant role in their lives. Also, numerous young men returned wounded from battle and this became a constant reminder for many, of the horrors that human beings could perpetrate upon each other. As Harry notes in The Verge, ‘‘I’d like to have Charlie Emmons see her—he’s fixed up a lot of people shot to pieces in the war.’’ World War I heralded a kind of ‘‘loss of innocence’’ for America. Americans now realized that there was a significant threat from countries that once seemed very far away. Ironically, in Glaspell’s play, Claire has a somewhat different view of the war. She sees it as a missed opportunity for society to remake itself, ‘‘The war. There was another gorgeous chance. . . . But the war didn’t help. Oh, it was a stunning chance! But fast as we could—scuttled right back to the trim little thing we’d been shocked out of.’’ To Claire, the war is a symbol of the possibility for the creation of a new world.

In this time of great transition, there was also a great deal of activity in the art world. The country was beginning to establish a cultural heritage. Movements in the European arts such as expressionism influenced many modern artists. Greenwich Village, New York, established itself as a haven for bohemian artists, who experimented with style and form in their work. The little theater movement also took hold during this time. It was a movement in which local artists established their own small theaters in order to produce cutting-edge works by American playwrights. The movement’s beginning can be traced to Maurice Brown’s founding of the Chicago Little Theatre in 1912. Many other little theaters were to follow, including the Provincetown Players established by Susan Glaspell and George Cram Cook.

Literary Style

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Expressionism was a movement in literature and the arts that took hold in the early twentieth century. It uses techniques of distortion and symbolism to try and convey inner human experience. In drama, expressionism can be thought of as ‘‘seeing the world through a particular character’s eyes.’’ For example, in The Verge, the sets appear deformed and certain elements are exaggerated because they represent Claire’s experiences. When Claire feels trapped in her situation, Glaspell uses visual elements to clue in the audience. For example, in the second act, Glaspell has the audience view Claire in the tower through a ‘‘bulging window,’’ one that might seem as if it is being pushed on from the inside. This helps to convey Claire’s emotional isolation and also her desire to escape from the ‘‘prison’’ of her world. Other distorted elements are used throughout the play to also try and convey a physical expression of Claire’s inner emotional state. For example, at the opening of the play, a strong shaft of light emanates from the trap door to illuminate the Breath of Life plant, giving it a special significance. The plant emerges as a bright spot in this dark world. The severe lighting lends a mystical quality to the scene. The plant itself is described as having ‘‘a greater transparency than plants have had,’’ and it is in a ‘‘hidden place’’ within the greenhouse. This again emphasizes that it is a unique and yet strange living thing, much like Claire herself.

Blank Verse
Blank verse is lines of poetry that do not rhyme. Blank verse is most often associated with iambic pentameter in which each line contains five sections or feet (‘‘iambs’’), each one containing one soft and one hard accent as in the line, ‘‘I wish I had a dog to call my own.’’ Blank verse does not necessarily have to conform to this iambic model as long as it maintains some degree of meter. Claire speaks in blank verse when she is trying to convey her dreams and emotions to the other characters. The more agitated she becomes, the more she uses this poetic device to try and get her point across. Claire’s scene in act II with Tom in the tower is particularly full of blank verse.

Symbolism uses objects to stand for or represent something else. The play is filled with symbolic images that help to convey the playwright’s message. For example, in The Verge, the Edge Vine symbolizes Claire’s desire to create something that is new and has no pattern. The play is also filled with visual and textual symbols that allude to Claire’s sense of isolation and entrapment. There are also numerous symbols that refer to the patterns that Claire is trying to break, such as the patterns of frost on the greenhouse window and the broken pattern of the tower into which Claire retreats. There are also many symbolic elements that refer to twisting and breaking such as the twisting stems of the Edge Vine and the twisting spiral staircase that leads up to Claire’s tower.

Farce is exaggerated humor that contains unlikely situations. It is often characterized by raucous physical comedy and the comings and goings of many different characters. The Verge uses farcical elements in some scenes to heighten the absurdity of the situation. For example, one of the most farcical moments in the play occurs in the first scene when characters are ‘‘blowing’’ in and out of the greenhouse door. Another farcical moment occurs when Tom gets locked outside in the cold, and the characters must try to communicate with him through pantomime. Glaspell uses farce in The Verge to emphasize the craziness of the world and also to inject some humorous elements into the play.

Compare and Contrast

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1920s: Women have just won the right to vote in the United States with the passing of the Nineteenth Amendment on August 26, 1920. They see it as an important victory and vow to use their votes wisely to effect important change.

Today: Most voters are apathetic about their right to vote. Many do not even bother going to the polls, and election turnout is often very small.

1920s: The first scheduled radio broadcast emanates from KDKA, Pittsburgh.

Today: Thousands of radio stations broadcast constantly throughout the United States and the world. Consumers can now subscribe to satellite radio with hundreds of commercial-free stations.

1920s: The fear of communism grips the United States as it is considered a threat to the democratic way of life. This fear comes to be known as the ‘‘red scare.’’

Today: With the break-up of the Soviet Union, communism is no longer considered a major threat. Terrorism is now the main threat to U.S. security.

1920s: The internal horn Victrola makes owning a phonograph practical for many Americans. Millions of people purchase a Victrola for their home. The piece of furniture containing the device is rather large and is usually placed in the parlor.

Today: Personal, electronic, hand-held devices are available that can store thousands of songs within minimal circuitry.

1920s: Prohibition is in full force. Alcohol is illegal throughout the United States. Gangsters take advantage of the opportunity and begin to bootleg alcohol for large profits.

Today: Alcohol is legal in the United States, and its sale and distribution is controlled through governmental and state legislation.

1920s: Early in the decade, it is considered scandalous if a woman’s hemline is nine inches above the ground.

Today: Women’s fashions include apparel that reveal legs, arms, and midriffs.

Bibliography and Further Reading

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Bach, Gerhard, ‘‘Susan Glaspell: Mapping the Domains of Critical Revision,’’ in Susan Glaspell: Essays on Her Theater and Fiction, edited by Linda Ben-Zvi, University of Michigan Press, 1995, p. 257.

Ben-Zvi, Linda, Susan Glaspell: Essays on Her Theater and Fiction, edited by Linda Ben-Zvi, University of Michigan Press, 1995, pp. 6, 97.

Gainor, J. Ellen, Susan Glaspell in Context: American Theater, Culture, and Politics, 1915–1948, University of Michigan Press, 2001, pp. 144–69.

Nelligan, Liza Maeve, ‘‘‘The Haunting Beauty from the Life We’ve Left’: A Contextual Reading of Trifles and The Verge,’’ in Susan Glaspell: Essays on Her Theater and Fiction, edited by Linda Ben-Zvi, University of Michigan Press, 1995, p. 86.

Noe, Marcia, ‘‘The Verge: L’ecriture feminine at the Provincetown,’’ in Susan Glaspell: Essays on Her Theater and Fiction, edited by Linda Ben-Zvi, University of Michigan Press, 1995, p. 140.

Ozieblo, Barbara, ‘‘Suppression and Society in Susan Glaspell’s Theater,’’ in Susan Glaspell: Essays on Her Theater and Fiction, edited by Linda Ben-Zvi, University of Michigan Press, 1995, p. 115.

———, Susan Glaspell: A Critical Biography, University of North Carolina Press, 2000, p. 186.

Further Reading
Bigsby, C. W. E., A Critical Introduction to Twentieth- Century American Drama, Vol. 1, 1900–1940, Cambridge University Press, 1982. Bigsby traces and analyzes the innovations that took place in drama during the first part of the twentieth century. He provides extended critical accounts of some of the most influential playwrights and theatrical groups of the time.

Black, Cheryl, The Women of Provincetown Players, 1915–1922, University of Alabama Press, 2001. Black provides an in-depth look at the Provincetown Players and the women who were most important in creating and sustaining the experimental theater group.

Hillenbrand, Mark, Produce Your Play without a Producer: A Survival Guide for Actors and Playwrights Who Need a Production, Smith & Kraus, 2001. Hillenbrand provides step-by-step instructions for all aspects of putting on a play, from the initial readings through the final performance. The book also contains a lengthy bibliography and lists of national and regional theater organizations, drama bookstores, rights and royalties agencies, and state arts agencies.

Styan, J. L., Modern Drama in Theory and Practice: Expressionism and Epic Theatre, Vol. 3, Cambridge University Press, 1983. Styan traces expressionism on stage from its forerunners at the turn of the century in Germany through its later manifestation in other countries, including the United States. He also provides an extensive history of epic theater around the globe.


Critical Essays


Teaching Guide