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by Susan Glaspell


To fill the Third Bill the summer of 1916 with another new play, Cook took a bold step that perhaps only a husband dare attempt with his wife: he announced a play by Glaspell before she knew she’d be writing one.  After Cook disarmed her protests that she didn’t know how because she hadn’t “studied” it, he told her she had a stage, meaning the Wharf Theatre just steps from their home.  Perhaps insinuating that there was more consternation than the mythology has let on, Glaspell, in an unpublished short memoir, wrote that “I didn’t want my marriage to break up, so I wrote Trifles.”(1)  Glaspell sat in the empty theatre across from their home until she began to see the play take shape.  She began to dramatize a story that she’d reported sixteen years earlier while a journalist about a woman, Margaret Hossack (renamed Minnie Wright for the play) from Indianola, Iowa, who was on trial for the murder of her husband.  As research for her story in 1900, Glaspell had gone and examined the woman’s kitchen after she was already in jail.  Confessing she’d always thought she’d write a short story about the incident, which in fact she later did,(2) “the stage took it for its own,” and when she was having trouble, she would return to the empty theatre “until the play was ready to continue.”(3)  Ten days later (as she reports it), still hurriedly making corrections, there was a reading of the play at Vorse’s house where they voted to have it start rehearsals the next day.  Ben-Zvi points out that this would have left only one day for rehearsals for an August 8 opening, unlikely even by the Players’ standards.(4) 

Her burst of writing resulted in the play Trifles, which would become her most famous, considered today as still able to “speak as forcefully to audiences . . . a credit to its author’s skill and a mark of how little has changed in the intervening years.”(5)  Glaspell sets the play in the kitchen of this woman who had been accused of strangling her husband while he was asleep.  The play is unique in that the character central to the play’s situation never appears, and Yvonne Shafer writes that “By the end of the play Mrs. Wright’s character is as vivid and detailed as if she had been in the play.”(6)   Glaspell would employ this device again in her plays Bernice and her Pulitzer Prize-winning Alison’s House.  Marcia Noe marks all of Glaspell’s writing as being “primarily concerned with the psychological complexities of her characters,” and that these plays “evoke the spiritual presence of the unseen woman in the midst of mundane reality.”(7)  The plot is simple: the County Attorney and Sheriff have come to the house to look for evidence and are joined by the farmer who lives next door, Mr. Hale, who’d found the body.  The Sheriff’s wife, Mrs. Peters, has been brought along to retrieve some of the woman’s things, and the farmer’s wife, Mrs. Hale, joins her as they wait for the men who are searching upstairs.  As they sit observing the apartment, the women arrive at their own theories about what happened, and they discern the woman’s motive for murder as they see clues the men overlook: preserves exploded in the cold, the dark and gloomy kitchen that had not been cleaned, erratic embroidery stitching, and a canary whose neck had been wrung.  It becomes clear to them she had been physically and emotionally abused, and so, after coming to the conclusion that the murder was justified, they decide to hide incriminating evidence from the men.  Ben-Zvi posits that “the question of truth becomes moot” as the play presents different “subjective frames of reference,” and that the woman’s guilt is not the issue as much as “the ways in which the women are able to intuit her motives, drawing their interpretations from their own lives.”(8)  Suzy Clarkson Holstein sees the play as portraying “two competing ethical paradigms” and that their “ultimate moral choice . . . radically separates them from the men. That is, their way of knowing leads them not simply to knowledge; it also leads to the decision about how to act on that knowledge.”(9)

Trifles has been critically analyzed over the last eighty years from a number of different perspectives, and has particularly been championed by feminist critics as one of the first important feminist plays written in America.  J. Ellen Gainor points out that Glaspell asks the audience to “learn to see as women do, to become feminist spectators,” which in this case proves to be “superior” to the men’s perspective.(10)  One important analysis by Judith Barlow compares Trifles to Boyce’s Winter’s Night, which Glaspell had just witnessed days before beginning to write her play.  Barlow points to the similarities of the male characters in both plays as having “an inability to comprehend a female perspective that envisions the world beyond a domestic one,” and that both settings are filled with “symbolic overtones” set in a naturalistic play.(11)  Murphy concurs that the modern aesthetic is evident in Trifles as well as in Boyce’s Winter’s Night and O’Neill’s Bound East in “the use of their characters and sets to suggest a realm of meaning beyond the accurate representation of aspects of contemporary society,” and in doing so they were “pushing the boundaries of realism toward the symbolic, non-representational theatre of a Yeats or Maeterlinck” without creating a “symbolist aesthetic.”(12)  Ozieblo notes that this play has “become a classic of its genre,” because “not one word or emotion is wasted, creating an effect of aching misery.”(13)  Though only thirty minutes in length, it is often lauded as a “paradigm of play construction,” and Sally Burke claims it is “the most frequently anthologized one-act play by an American woman.”(14) 

The Provincetown audience of 1916 responded enthusiastically to Trifles.  Farmer and Mrs. Hale were played by Cook and Glaspell, Mrs. Foster by Alice Hall, County Attorney George Henderson by Robert Rogers, and Sheriff Henry Peters by Robert Conville.(15)  Ballantine directed the cast and Mrs. Hall remembers that he taught them “such elementary matters as not to look at the faces of the audience.”(16)  Alice Hall was in Provincetown that summer with her three daughters and her husband Henry Marion Hall, who had graduated from Harvard in 1899 and was an English professor at Columbia.  How they became involved with the Players is unknown, but, with the Harvard connection, it may have been through Harvard grad John Reed.(17)  Robert Emmons Rogers was also an English professor, but at M.I.T.; he had a Masters degree from Harvard, which is where he met John Reed, and it was through Reed that he became involved with the Players.  Robert Conville, mentioned earlier, was a professional actor who performed with the Players that summer but didn’t continue with them beyond that; he performed in at least eleven movies within the next seven years.

© Jeff Kennedy 2007.

(1) Cook Papers, qtd in Black, Women 141. 

(2) A short story by Glaspell of the same incident, “A Jury of Her Peers,” was published in Best Short Stories of 1917, edited by Edward O’Brien (New York: Small Maynard, 1918). 

(3) Glaspell, Road, 255-256.

(4) Ben-Zvi, Glaspell 173.

(5) Ben-Zvi, Glaspell 173. 

(6) Shafer, American Women 40.

(7) Noe, Susan Glaspell 10. 

(8) Ben-Zvi, Glaspell 174. 

(9) Holstein, “Silent Justice,” Midwest Quarterly, Vol. 44, 2003, 282.

(10) Gainor, Glaspell 49.

(11) Barlow, “Susan’s Sisters,” in Essays, ed. Ben-Zvi, 264.

(12) Murphy, Provincetown2/32.

(13) Ozieblo, Glaspell 84. 

(14) Burke, American Feminist Playwrights 57.

(15) Glaspell, Plays by 2.

(16) Sarlos interview with Mrs. Hall, qtd in Sarlos, Provincetown. 48.

(17) Egan (169) simply lists Hall as a “summer resident.”  He had been summering on Cape Cod at least as early as 1900 when he wrote about its Barnstable Marshes.  Sarlos (Jig 188) lists him as the president of the Rhode Island Audubon Society and that he wrote numerous books and articles on ornithology and wildlife.