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Reviewed by:
  • Susan Glaspell: The Complete Plays
  • Cheryl Black (bio)
Linda Ben-Zvi and J. Ellen Gainor, eds. Susan Glaspell: The Complete Plays. Jefferson, N.C.: McFarland Press, 2010. Pp. viii + 417. $75.00 paperbound.

Although neglected for decades after her death in 1948, Susan Glaspell is now generally recognized as one of the most important playwrights of her era. Although Glaspell scholarship has been steadily increasing for the past several decades, and professional productions of her works in the US and around the globe are also on the increase, finding many of her works has been a challenge. The largest collection of plays by Glaspell heretofore in print dates from 1931 and includes eight works (seven one-acts and one full-length) and no accompanying material. C. W. E. Bigsby published a useful critical edition in 1987, but included only four works. The publication of her complete canon of fifteen plays, three of which have never been published previously, is, therefore, a cause for rejoicing.

The editors of the collection are two eminently qualified scholars, Linda Ben-Zvi (author of Susan Glaspell: Her Life and Times, Oxford, 2005 and editor of Susan Glaspell: Essays on Her Theater and Fiction, UMI, 1995) and J. Ellen Gainor (author of Susan Glaspell in Context: American Theater, Culture, and Politics, 1915-1948, UMI, 2001). In addition to the plays, the editors have included [End Page 99] a brief biography of Glaspell, brief critical introductions to the volume and each individual play, two appendices providing information on original and recent productions, a select bibliography of related readings, and an index. Each play is also judiciously annotated, rendering the collection a user-friendly volume designed for those new to Glaspell as well as Glaspell enthusiasts.

Glaspell is noted as a co-founder of the influential Provincetown Players (1915-1922) for whom she wrote eleven plays. The Players were dedicated to the development of American drama, specifically to a dramatic tradition devoted to artistic experimentation and social transformation, an aesthetic distinctly manifest in the Glaspell canon. Her Suppressed Desires, written in collaboration with her husband, George Cram ("Jig") Cook in the summer of 1915, satirized Greenwich Village's then current obsession with psychoanalysis and introduced a number of features that recur throughout Glaspell's works, including a critique of marriage, the juxtaposition of Midwestern and Eastern cultural values, a significant absent character, and reference to topical events. Trifles, written in 1916 and based on an actual murder trial Glaspell covered as a reporter in Iowa, features an absent, central character—a woman accused of murdering her abusive husband. The editors note Glaspell's early use, in Trifles, of an "expressionistic mise-en-scene" to externalize the absent protagonist's mental state and Glaspell's significant use of silence, decades before Beckett and Pinter, to convey meaning (25). Three one-acts completed in 1917 include Close the Book, which satirizes self-conscious non-conformity; the allegorical The People, in which a midwestern woman (symbolically named Woman From Idaho) renews a jaded editor's ideals; and the highly original and evocative The Outside, which the editors characterize as "pure poetry," denoting Glaspell's "lyrical dialogue, idiomatic rhythms, spareness, and subject matter" as reminiscent of Irish playwright John Millington Synge (58). Glaspell's ironic critique of sexual stereotyping, Woman's Honor (1918), borrows elements from genres as disparate as French farce (mistaken identities, rapid entrances and exits) and allegory (with character names including the Scorned One and the Shielded One). Glaspell's second collaboration with Cook, Tickless Time (1918), essentially a domestic comedy with farcical moments, contains underneath its whimsical surface a typically Glaspellian critique of gender relations and social conformity.

Glaspell's first full-length play, Bernice (1919), draws together a number of Glaspell's innovations: like Trifles, Bernice centers around the recent actions of an absent woman and features a mise-en-scène expressive of that woman's inner life; like Trifles and The Outside, Bernice uses language and silence to create and sustain a mood of mystery. Bernice also offers a significant critique of gender and marital relations and includes pointed references to topical issues (the war and the imprisonment of conscientious objectors). The critique...


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