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Theater 33.2 (2003) 106-107
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Context of the Context:
Writings About Susan Glaspell
William Davies King
Susan Glaspell: Essays on Her Theater and Fiction edited by Linda Ben-Zvi 2002 [reprint]: University of Michigan Press
Susan Glaspell in Context: American Theater, Culture, and Politics, 1915-1948 by J. Ellen Gainor 2001: University of Michigan Press
Susan Glaspell: A Critical Biography by Barbara Ozielbo 2000: University of North Carolina Press
Until recently, the narrators of theater history have recalled Susan Glaspell, if at all, as the second-most-important playwright to emerge from the Provincetown Players. Although Glaspell's work was later performed on Broadway, and she enjoyed considerable success as a fiction writer until her death in 1948, discussions of her work are usually confined to the handful of plays she wrote for the Provincetown Players, a group of proud, self-conscious amateurs—eager intellectual reformers and would-be revolutionaries—headed by Glaspell's husband, artistic director George Gram Cook ("Jig"). Like her earnest but not very talented husband, Glaspell has been treated as an amateur, a dabbler, a lightweight, no doubt mainly because of her sex and her greater interest in fiction writing (literary history and dramatic history are so often blind to each other), but also because she has been constantly overshadowed by the other important playwright to emerge from the Provincetown Players, the genuine artist of the theater who suddenly sprang up in their midst and changed the face of American drama—Eugene O'Neill.
In the most enduring grand narrative of American drama—the one in which Eugene O'Neill takes his place as its father—the hero (O'Neill) rejects the infantile theatrical expression of his own father (James O'Neill), with its corrupt commercialism and indulgence of formulaic melodrama, and replaces it with an expression that is, if not innocent, at least enlightened. In this myth, O'Neill awakens the American theater to the possibilities of serious dramatic expression through examples of European modernism, then goes on to become the first intrinsically American voice in drama. In the first chapter of the myth, Glaspell is a cohort of O'Neill and Cook is another sort of father figure, but in the second chapter O'Neill transcends the amateurish standards of their theater, too. Thus, Glaspell remains a background figure, and the whole Provincetown Players phase of O'Neill's career but a training ground for work that would move far beyond.
Such was the entrenched narrative: O'Neill as patriarch and hero, Glaspell as the wife of a patriarch and a second fiddle. The problem for the first generation of revisionist historians and critics who attempted to "recover" Glaspell from obscurity was finding a way to define her importance without continually resorting to the "as good as" or "nearly as good as" comparisons with O'Neill, efforts that inevitably had the effect of reaffirming the centrality of O'Neill. The 1995 publication of Susan Glaspell: Essays on Her Theater and Fiction, edited by Linda Ben-Zvi, recently reissued in paperback, represented an important point in that struggle. The sixteen authors who contributed to this volume all celebrated Glaspell as a protofeminist, and disproportionate attention was given to those few plays—in particular, Trifles—that most clearly support this alternative myth. Only two essays in the book look at Glaspell's prose fiction, despite the fact that she was far more prolific (and more successful) as a writer of fiction than as a dramatist—but her fiction doesn't place her at the site of historical change, that is, in the space of the [End Page 106] O'Neill myth. The volume pays almost no attention to The Road to the Temple, Glaspell's hagiographic biography of Jig. It is an awkward plot point when the challenger of the patriarchs devotes herself to writing about the misunderstood patriarch she loved. The strategies of recontextualizing in this volume all entail the proposal of a new myth that suits feminist expectations or wishes for Glaspell.
Still, those authors created a critical center of gravity for...