- The Verge, and: The Verge
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Susan Glaspell’s pioneering contributions to the “new drama” on the early twentieth-century American stage have been overshadowed in the canon by her contemporary Eugene O’Neill. However, a reassessment and rediscovery of Glaspell’s work has recently been taking place thanks largely to the interest of feminist theatre scholars, as reflected in the recent publication of an anthology edited by Linda Ben-Zvi, Susan Glaspell: Essays on Her Theater and Fiction (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1995). The process of reassessment and overdue recognition for this “lost” dramatist continued in 1996, as, coincidentally, two British productions of Glaspell’s controversial 1921 play The Verge took place, along with a conference accompanying the Glasgow production (“Suppressed Desires: The Struggle for Expression in the Theatre of Susan Glaspell and her Contemporaries,” 3–5 May 1996).
At the Glaspell conference, at which Ben-Zvi gave the opening address, one of the key areas of debate raised was the issue of feminism and realism: whether it is possible, or even desirable, for women to reclaim realism as a dramatic form; to renegotiate the antirealist stance as proposed by Jill Dolan (via Belsey) et al. Glaspell’s theatre is pertinent to this debate because although she draws on realism in her dramatic writing, she also fragments and subverts it in the interest of exploring more woman-centered forms and performance registers. In The Verge, for example, the desire to create new forms is represented in the figure of Claire Archer, whose need to get beyond the deadening forces of (male) forms and structures takes her through a series of rejected relationships, concluding with the murder of her closest friend and potential lover, whom she chokes to death in order to pass on the “gift” of life. Both productions of The Verge found very different ways of tackling Glaspell’s formal and ideological concerns with breaking out of realism and “making queer new things.”
The Orange Tree’s professional production was the more conventional of the two stagings, drawing heavily on a realistic acting style. That said, the theatre took the unusual risk of offering The Verge as the first of three plays in a season of classic and contemporary plays by women, at a time when drama by women on the British stage is still (re)viewed critically as of minority interest. The programming was in keeping, however, with the theatre’s general artistic policy of staging the classics alongside new work, with particular interest in the recovery of “lost” theatre.
Juliet Nichols’s design for the London production exploited the theatre’s architectural design as a new theatre-in-the-round, a 160-seat venue opened in 1991 across the road from its original premises in a pub. Seated around the edge of the set—Claire’s greenhouse/laboratory (acts 1 and 3) and her distorted tower (act 2)—the audience claustrophobically bordered the inside, but were able to see outside, beyond the glass of the conservatory. Nichols’s design, which successfully incorporated the spectatorial experience of being dis/placed on the margins, further suggested the possibility of new forms in its “incompleteness”: cut-away glass panel doors opening onto the conservatory and to Claire’s most special plant, Breath of Life, along with a sloping desk and expressionistic doors leading to new possibilities in the twisted tower. More, perhaps, might have been made of the tower setting which in Throckmorton’s original designs for the Provincetown Playhouse employed the theatre’s plaster dome to facilitate the motif of architectural distortion through the play of light and shadow. Nichols’s design incorporated a dome-like structure, permanently suspended above the center of the playing space, from which hung...