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Susan Glaspell was a prominent fiction writer and playwright and one of the original contributors to the ”little theater movement” of the 1910s and 1920s. Thematically, much of her work explores the repercussions of women s physical and psychological oppression in the patriarchal culture of early twentieth century America. Glaspell is also known for confronting American idealism and offering a new perspective of what being ”American means.
Biographical and Historical Context
Youth and Journalism in the Midwest
Susan Glaspell was born on July 1, 1876, in Davenport, Iowa, the second of three children. Glaspell s pioneer heritage would inspire material for her later plays and fiction.
Glaspell was educated in public schools, then worked as a reporter for the Davenport Morning Republican. While attending Drake University from 1895 to 1899, she served as literary editor and writer for the college newspaper. During her college days, she also acted as society editor for another newspaper, the Davenport Weekly Outlook, in which she published her first short story, ”Tom and Towser” (1896). After graduation, she worked as a statehouse and legislative reporter for the DesMoinesDaily News. Though Glaspell was successful as a newspaper writer, she ventured into freelance fiction writing, publishing short pieces in popular magazines and journals.
George Cram Cook
Glaspell attended the University of Chicago in 1903, but she decided to return to her hometown, where she joined a socialist group and met the man who would greatly influence her life: George Cram Cook. Cook was engaged, but he and Glaspell became involved. After a few years, Cook and his wife divorced, and Glaspell lived with him in New York City. They married in April 1913.
Success in Early Writing
Glaspell was a prolific writer during her relationship with Cook. Her first novel, The Glory of the Conquered: The Story of a Great Love, was a best-seller in 1909. Her second, The Visioning (1911), was more realistic in style and did not make as much of a splash with the critics. Glaspell also experimented during this time with the short-story genre, combining sentimental realism and moral themes with political critique, as illustrated by a collection of her best short works published in 1912.
Drama and ”The Little Theater Movement”
Cook encouraged Glaspell to branch out from fiction to drama. Glaspell shared his interest in American theater, a passion cultivated by their involvement in various liberal and socialist groups in New York as well as in the emergent ”little theater movement,” a movement in which small theater companies staged experimental works dismissed by the commercial theater. Cook and Glaspell collaborated on the one-act Suppressed Desires (1915), a satire about the emerging popularity of Freudian psychoanalysis. The play was not staged at that time due to its topic, but it was performed by one of the ”little theater” companies after Glaspell became famous.
In Provincetown, Massachusetts, Glaspell, Cook, and a group of friends produced an ”informal” production of Suppressed Desires along with Neith Boyce’s Constancy (1915), a one-act play that focused on the way men and women defined fidelity. During this time, Glaspell published her third novel, Fidelity (1915), which was not well received because it portrayed an ”emancipated” woman involved in an adulterous relationship.
Trifles and ”A Jury of Her Peers”
Glaspell relied on her journalism experience to write Trifles (1916), often considered her best-known work. A one-act play, Trifles follows the investigation of the murder of a farmer, John Wright. His wife Minnie, who never appears onstage, has been charged with the crime. Two of Minnie’s female acquaintances track down the reasons Minnie behaved as she did. The play became a standard repertory piece for many little theater companies. In 1917, Glaspell adapted the play into a short story, ”A Jury of Her Peers,” which became a canonical text for many introductory English literature courses.
Provincetown Players, Eugene O’Neill, and Other Famous Playwrights
Cook decided to move the Provincetown theater company to New York City and formally incorporated the group as the Provincetown Players in September 1916. Years later, the Provincetown theaters would offer some of the most innovative drama to be staged in New York. Glaspell was active in the company, taking acting roles, directing, and helping to oversee the daily operations of the Players’ home, the Playwright’s Theatre. She also developed a close relationship with playwright Eugene O’Neill. Glaspell and O’Neill became critically acclaimed playwrights, along with other members of the group, which included famous women writers Edna St. Vincent Millay, Djuna Barnes, and Edna Ferber.
Over the next few years, Glaspell wrote several more one-act plays, including The People (1917), Close the Book (1917), The Outside (1917), and Woman’s Honor (1918). In 1919, Cook and Glaspell took a ”sabbatical” year and returned to Davenport where they devoted themselves to writing. When they came back to New York in 1920, Glaspell produced Inheritors (1921) and The Verge (1921). Inheritors repeats themes found in her previous plays: the right of free speech, the public university as defender of democratic ideals, and the sociopolitical evils of racial prejudice.
The Death of Cook, and Becoming ”Mrs. Norman Matson”
Cook died suddenly in 1924 from a rare disease. Glaspell devoted herself to finishing Cook’s remaining projects and looking after his two children. Glaspell also wrote a biography of Cook. She also soon became involved with novelist and playwright Norman Matson, and although they never formally married, biographical materials published after 1924 sometimes acknowledge her as Mrs. Norman Matson. Glaspell and Matson collaborated on The Comic Artist (1927), a drama that successfully played in London but was not a critical success on Broadway at its debut in 1933.
Alison’s House and Glaspell’s Later Projects
Alison’s House earned Glaspell the 1931 Pulitzer Prize. Inspired by Genevieve Taggard’s 1930 biography of Emily Dickinson, Glaspell had intended to write an adaptation of this biographical piece, but she built the story of Alison’s House around the fictional poet Alison Stanhope of Iowa after the Dickinson estate refused Glaspell the right to use Dickinson’s name or poems. From 1936 to 1938, Glaspell also served as the director of the Midwest Play Bureau of the Federal Theater Project and wrote one more play, Springs Eternal (1945). Her major works in the latter part of her life were novels: The Morning Is Near Us (1940), Norma Ashe (1942), and Judd Rankin’s Daughter (1945). Glaspell died, in Provincetown, of pulmonary embolism and viral pneumonia in July 1948.
Works in Literary Context
Glaspell’s work lays bare the desires of women, particularly for self-expression and fulfillment. She often used abstract dramatic experiments in both narrative and form to illustrate her themes, a creative strategy that frequently turned away critics. Though at times audiences did not understand her symbolism, Glaspell forced them to confront a new interpretation of gender, the American spirit, and the legacy of democratic idealism.
In 1912, thirteen of Glaspell’s short stories were published as the collection Lifted Masks, and although they provide good examples of “local-color” fiction, thematically they address a woman’s struggle for autonomy in a patriarchal culture. Glaspell’s plays also resonate with the same theme. For example, in The Verge, the female protagonist is actually driven insane in her quest for her own freedom. Glaspell also addresses similar themes in her novels, as exemplified by Fidelity (1915). In that work, a woman refuses to marry the man with whom she runs away and instead moves to New York to join the feminist movement.
The Symbolism of Expressionism
Expressionism, a literary movement that took hold in the early twentieth century, uses symbolism to convey inner human experience. Glaspell participated in this movement, as shown in her play, The Verge. In this drama, certain stage elements are exaggerated to represent the female protagonist’s personal development and experiences. When the woman feels trapped in her situation, Glaspell cues the audience with such unusual visual elements as framing the woman behind a ”bulging window” that demonstrates the character’s emotional isolation as well as her imprisonment. Glaspell provides another symbol in the strong shaft of light that beams from a trap door to illuminate a ”Breath of Life” plant. In the spotlight, the plant then represents a bright spot in this dark world.
Works in Critical Context
Scholars have long gravitated toward Glaspell’s feminist themes; however, despite winning a Pulitzer Prize, Glaspell was not included in the canon until the 1970s. Still, a thorough analysis of Glaspell’s main fiction and drama was virtually ignored until the 1980s. Now, Glaspell is studied as a key part of the development of American drama.
Because there have not been many performances of Trifles in mainstream theatrical venues, production reviews are few. Most critical commentary focuses on the short story version of the play, ”A Jury of Her Peers,” and its contributions to feminist ideals in literature. Contemporary playwright Megan Terry praises the play: ”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.” Other critics echo the positive sentiment. For example, Linda Ben-Zvi suggests: ”Glaspell does not actually present the victimization of women or the violent acts such treatment may engender. Instead, she stages the potential for female action and the usurpation of power.”
Recently, Glaspell’s The Verge has inspired a resurgence in scholarly study. Although The Verge received mixed reviews for its first production in 1921, the majority of the comments were negative and called the play too abstract and confusing. Some also could not identify with Claire and characterized her as unpleasant and annoying. The title of Percy Hammond’s review for the New York Herald at the time of the play’s publication sums up his opinion: ”What The Verge Is About, Who Can Tell.” Yet, as Barbara Ozieblo notes, some members of The Heterodoxy, a radical woman’s club in the early twentieth century, classified Glaspell as ”a playwright who dared to show how society takes its revenge on a woman rebel.” The members of the group championed Glaspell’s message and defended its difficult stylistic elements. Now, feminist theorists categorize the drama as an important, overlooked work. In 1991, the play was staged at a conference at Brigham Young University.
- “Alison’s House.” Drama for Students. Edited by Ira Milne and Jennifer Greve. Detroit: Gale, 2007. 1-21.
- Cambridge Guide to Women’s Writings in English. Edited by Lorna Sage, Germaine Greer, and Elaine Showalter. Cambridge, U. K.: Cambridge University Press, 1999. 275-76.
- Carpentier, Martha C. The Major Novels of Susan Glaspell. Gainesville: University Press of Florida, 2001.
- Cotsell, Michael. The Theater of Trauma: American Modernist Drama and the Psychological Struggle for the American Mind, 1900-1930. New York: Peter Lang, 2005.
- ”A Jury of Her Peers.” Short Stories for Students, Vol. 3. Edited by Kathleen Wilson. Detroit: Thomson Gale, 1998,154-76.
- Makowsy, Veronica. Susan Glaspell’s Century of American Women: A Critical Interpretation of Her Work. New York: Oxford University Press, 1993.
- Ozieblo, Barbara. Susan Glaspell: A Critical Biography. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2000.
- Papke, Mary E. Susan Glaspell: A Research and Production Sourcebook. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood, 1993.
- “Trifles.” Drama for Students. Edited by David Galens. Detroit: Thomson Gale, 2000, 216-233.
- Dymkowski, Christine. ”On the Edge: The Plays of Susan Glaspell.” Modern Drama 31 (1998): 91-105.
- Friedman, Sharon. ”Feminism as Theme in Twentieth-Century American Women’s Drama.” American Studies 24 (1994): 69-89.
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