restricted access 4. The Idealist Rebels: Fighting in the Name of the Community
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97 in his review of the first production of Inheritors, Ludwig Lewisohn, the influential literary critic of the prestigious American periodical the Nation, applauds Glaspell’s rendering of contemporary American life: It is the first American play in which a strong intellect and a ripe artistic nature grasped and set forth in human terms the central tradition and most burning problem of our national life quite justly and scrupulously, equally without acrimony and compromise. No competent critic, whatever his attitude to the play’s tendency, will be able to deny the power and brilliancy of Miss Glaspell’s characterization . . . She has recorded the tragic disintegration of American idealism. (Qtd. in Waterman 79) Although Lewisohn singles out Inheritors as “the first American play” to grasp the “most burning problem of [the] national life,” his comment should not eclipse the dramatist’s previous and subsequent works, which also center on this threat against American idealism. The critic’s reference to Glaspell’s recording of the “disintegration of American idealism” echoes Christopher Bigsby’s theory of American modern theatre as the expression of the decline of American idealism: In so far as American idealism had been consciously rooted in the fact of American space, romantic notions of the moralizing impact of nature, political convictions about the democratizing effect of the frontier and the availability of land, in the simple absence of economic and social determinants, the loss of those convictions threatened the very basis of that idealism. And twentieth-century American drama has engaged that conviction directly, f o u r • The Idealist Rebels Fighting in the Name of the Community d r a m a o f r e s i s ta n c e 98 presenting dramatic correlatives of that process, on the whole taking the expansive and confident stage of the nineteenth century and compressing it until the sensibility of the individual is made to bear the weight of this social process. (1:vii–viii) Instead of passively “bearing the weight of this social process,” however, Glaspell’s rebellious characters defy the national loss of convictions by reaffirming their faith in the ideal of democracy against all odds. Hence, Lewisohn’s praise of the playwright’s “tragic rendering of the disintegration of American idealism” should not lead the reader to conclude that Glaspell’s work conveys a fatalistic vision of the United States as a country deserted by its ideals. If the dramatist does indeed display the downgrading of the democratic ideal into nationalistic rhetoric, she counterbalances this pessimistic note by staging idealist characters who resist national hypocrisy. The definition of Glaspell’s idealist rebels is akin to that of Josiah Royce, a professor of philosophy at Harvard University from 1882 until his death in 1916. It can be assumed that Glaspell was introduced to Royce’s idealist philosophy by Cook who “enter[ed] Harvard as Senior” in 1892 to complete a bachelor of arts degree (Glaspell, The Road to the Temple 34). In 1908, Royce published Race Questions, Provincialism and Other American Problems, which included an address he had delivered in 1899 at Vassar College to defend the idea that the United States was “a Nation of idealists.” Royce defines American idealists as men and women who are “consciously and predominantly guided in the purposes and in the great choices of life, by large ideals, such as admit of no merely material embodiment, and such as contemplate no merely private and personal satisfaction as their goal” (112). As this chapter demonstrates by focusing on the specificities of each work, Glaspell’s The People, Inheritors, and Springs Eternal are peopled by such idealists guided by the great democratic principle. The People (1917): The Social Revolution The People: A Play in One Act, was first produced by the Provincetown Players in 1917. The play is set in the same year as the year of production. The play is remarkable by its topicality: it was inspired by what was going The Idealist Rebels 99 on at that time among the members of The Masses, the radical journal then central to Bohemian culture, which was retitled The People in the work. J. Ellen Gainor believes that Glaspell modeled her characters on major Greenwich figures: Wills was inspired by Max Eastman, the editor of The Masses, and Oscar Tripp by Floyd Dell, Eastman’s assistant editor. The viewers would also have recognized John Sloan and John Reed as The Artist and The Poet (Ozieblo, Susan Glaspell 111). By using this strategy of the...