- Susan Glaspell: Essays on Her Theater and Fiction
Feminist scholarship during the past decade has firmly established Susan Glaspell’s place in American drama, and an anthology of criticism devoted to her work has long been overdue.
This volume is intended both for those unacquainted with Glaspell’s work and for those who know it well. Ben-Zvi’s meticulous organization ensures that it fulfills this difficult brief. Moving from the one-act Trifles, Glaspell’s best known [End Page 389] play, to her full-length works, particularly The Verge and Alison’s House, the essays examine her drama and fiction from a range of critical perspectives that, as Ben-Zvi notes in her introduction, always take care to “reflect the social, cultural, and political forces that shaped them” (7). As a result, the essays enter into a dialogue with each other, offering complementary rather than competitive readings of the work.
Part 1 offers three essays on Trifles and its short-story version, “A Jury of Her Peers.” Ben-Zvi’s own “Murder, She Wrote” examines the murder case which Glaspell covered as a journalist and on which she based her play and story. By exploring the class and legal issues implicit in these works, her essay offers a subtle and accessible analysis of texts and contexts. In “Small Things Reconsidered,” Elaine Hedges reads the “hieroglyphics” created by Glaspell’s “trifles” (66–67). Explicating the historical details of female pioneer life in the prairie and plains states, she recounts the significance of quilting and of different quilting patterns and the monumental physical labor involved in women’s work, where, for instance, one laundry wash and rinse required four hundred pounds of water to be moved from the well or pump to the forty- or fifty-pound bucket placed on top of the stove (56). Karen Alkalay-Gut’s “Murder and Marriage,” engages in feminist debate about women’s “amorality”; especially illuminating is her discussion of the differences between sewing and knotting a quilt and of the way these techniques function symbolically as differentiations between legal and moral definitions of crime (79).
Part 2 features four essays focusing on Glaspell’s most challenging work, The Verge; it includes playwright Karen Malpede’s thoughtful reflections on the play from a 1990s perspective. Liza Maeve Nelligan’s stimulating essay, “The Haunting Beauty from the Life We’ve Left,” explores Glaspell’s feminism in this play and in Trifles, investigating the way changing feminist philosophies are reflected in them. Barbara Ozieblo’s “Suppression and Society in Susan Glaspell’s Theater” examines the influence of contemporary, sometimes mistaken, ideas about psychoanalysis on the plays, particularly in regard to Suppressed Desires. Ozieblo’s discussion of Claire’s tower in The Verge as “a symbol of her disturbed mind,” where “those entering this enclosed space can be construed not only as invaders of Claire’s mind but also as a schizophrenic splitting of her thought” (116), offers a psychoanalytic perspective to set beside Nelligan’s feminist one. Marcia Noe similarly offers a persuasive reading of The Verge as an anticipation of Cixous’s “L’Ecriture Feminine”; however, her own success in demonstratin how well Glaspell fulfills seemingly impossible criteria blunts the force of her otherwise justifiable warning of the “futility” of l’ecriture feminine’s attempt “to transcend form” (140–41).
Part 3 moves beyond The Verge to consider other full-length plays by Glaspell. Jackie Czerepinski’s “Absent Heroines” demonstrates the way superficially conventional form in Bernice and in Alison’s House nevertheless embodies deeply feminist concerns, while Sharon Friedman investigates the eponymous “Bernice’s Strange Deceit,” articulating the conflicting meanings of Romantic, feminist, and Modernist readings. J. Ellen Gainor’s “Chains of Dew and the Drama of Birth Control,” examining Glaspell’s 1922 play with three others on the subject skillfully outlines the social background of the plays and illuminates the birth control debate in the early part of the century. Katharine Rodier’s “Glaspell and Dickinson: Surveying the Premises of Alison’s House” sets...