Susan Glaspell (1876-1948)
Contributing Editor: Arthur Waterman
Classroom Issues and Strategies
It's important to show how the details of the play "Trifles" transcend local color and address universal concerns. Students should come to see that the precise setting and time lead to a universal and timeless experience.
Ask students to envision what the play would be like if it were three acts and the background and main characters were fully presented. Point out how the very restrictions of the one-act play enhance the tensions and meaning. The play has been popular since it was first produced and has been seen recently (1987, 1988) on PBS television, which indicates that it appeals to diverse audiences.
Susan Glaspell is an interesting example of the late nineteenth-century woman writer, raised in the local color tradition, who radically altered her life and art after her marriage and moved east. She "came of age" about the same time American writing moved from regionalism to modernism and she helped found the modern movement in American drama. Once her experimental period was over, she returned to fiction and to her earlier themes--much more maturely presented. Whether her retreat back to regionalism was because her husband died or because she felt more secure in the older tradition, no one can say.
Major Themes, Historical Perspectives, and Personal Issues
1. Regional: The play conveys the brutal experience of being a farm wife in Iowa during the latter half of the nineteenth century.
2. Sexual: In this play women are pitted against men--Minnie against her husband, the two women against their husbands and the other men. The men are logical, arrogant, stupid; the women are sympathetic and drawn to empathize with Minnie and forgive her her crime.
3. Mythic: The setting--a lonely, bleak, cold landscape; the main characters are never seen on stage and assume a shadowy, almost archetypal presence; the struggle between them is echoed by the antagonisms between the two women and three men on stage; the result is that a brutal murder is forgiven because of the more terrible tragedy beneath it.
Significant Form, Style, or Artistic Conventions
This play presents most of the qualities of local color writing: exact detail, local speech and customs, a strong sense of place. It avoids some of the excesses of that genre: idealization of character, emphasis on the unique and colorful aspects of the locale, and sentimentality. The demands of the one-act drama, its compression, single set, limited characters, tight plot, single mood--all protect the play from the excesses of its convention and enhance its virtues.
We should also note that the play carefully distinguishes between the affairs of men and the concerns of women. The men intrude on the woman's world, dirtying her towels, scoffing at her knitting and preserves. As we move into the kitchen, the men are left out and the awful details of Minnie's life are revealed to Mrs. Peters and Mrs. Hale, so that when the men return, we see how blind they are and we, the audience, accept their decision not to reveal Minnie's motive.
We know the play was based on an actual trial Susan Glaspell covered as a reporter in Des Moines. In this sense, the play was written for a midwestern audience to dramatize the terrible life of a farm wife, isolated and dependent on her husband for her physical and emotional needs, with the occasional tragic consequences the play depicts. But the play was written after Susan Glaspell had left the Midwest, after she had lived abroad, married, and moved to Provincetown. She had time to ponder the implications of the event and see the tragedy in larger terms, so she was able to transform a journalistic story into a universal drama.
Comparisons, Contrasts, Connections
Zone Gale's "Miss Lulu Bett" (1920) is about a Wisconsin spinster who revolts against midwestern prudishness to seek her own fulfillment. The play has many local color attributes and treats ironically some of the themes in "Trifles."
A better comparison is to be found with John M. Synge's "Riders to the Sea," a one-act tragedy about the lives of fishermen in the Aran Islands. Both plays transcend local color detail to reach mythic concerns, both use a piece of irregular sewing to reveal information, and both present an essential conflict between the men who go out to battle nature, while the women remain to nurture beauty and sustain life.
Questions for Reading and Discussion/ Approaches to Writing
1. If students have been reading someone like Bret Harte, I'd suggest they think about the advantages and disadvantages of local-color writing. Also, I would suggest they examine the one-act play form to see what can and cannot be done with it.
2. I would center on short questions about technique: How does the physical location of the characters help develop the theme? Who are more fully developed, the two women or the three men? Indicate several ways Susan Glaspell conditions the audience to accept the final decision.
See the primary and secondary works listed with the headnote.