Susan Glaspell: from silence to silence

by Annalisa Goldoni

For a long time Susan Glaspell has been known only for her one-act play Trifles (1916), and it is easy to understand why: the written text is very short, just the right size for inclusion in an anthology; it is well-made, realistic, and, as such, ready for reading, imagining and performing.  Few actors are required to stage it and the scene is fixed and simple: a gloomy kitchen, abandoned without having been put in order.  On curtain rising the drama’s already done: John and Minnie Wright, the owners of the farm which provides the setting, are not there; the husband has been killed, strangled in his bed; the wife is suspected but without proof.

Trifles is a detective play in the form of a dyptich, in which three men are moving around the house: the sheriff, a neighbor, the county attorney who, looking for evidence, search everywhere, go upstairs to the bedroom, outside to the barn, cross the kitchen several times just to notice the unsettled room and interpret it as a mark of bad housewifery. The other side of the dyptich is made up by the sheriff’s wife and the neighbor’s wife, who keep to the kitchen: they hesitate at first to break the intimacy of Minnie’s place, but then look around carefully, read through the objects and the unfinished work: the table half-cleaned, the bread uncovered, a bird-cage with a broken hinge, recent stitching on the patchwork quilt irregular and untidy.  The women recognize in those trifles (as the men call them) the signs of a deep trouble, anger perhaps.  While trying to repair the quilt, they find the dead bird in the sewing box: "Somebody wrung its neck."  That’s all they say; they do not dare to explicate the reconstruction they’ve made of the cause-effect chain which has resulted in the murder.  Tacitly, they decide to hide the clues.

Trifles is a drama of absence, of negation and suffocation to the last, since even Minnie’s final escape from eviction thanks to the women’s judgement. “A Jury of Her Peers” (the title of a short story Glaspell developed from the play in 1917) is realized and expressed through the women not saying and the men not seeing.

Glaspell had a very important role in the making of the new American theater, both as a playwright and as a co-founder of the Provincetown Players. Far from being a solitary flower, Trifles is one among many plays and novels the author wrote, helped to produce and at times performed.  A few years later, Glaspell wrote The Verge (1921), a controversial, complicated and difficult work, dishomogeneous and aesthetically imperfect, yet daring and memorable. The title itself tells of a push towards extreme boundary: verge, more than edge (a distinction which also occurs in the play through dialogue and proper names) is suggestive of a dangerous threshold between two different states positioned at separate spatial levels.  The protagonist, Claire Archer, is kin to many Faustian heroes of romanticism. Most of all she is close to Hawthorne’s Rapaccini, since both cultivate plants endowed with a supreme vital energy.  In Hawthorne’s tale, Dr. Rapaccini is a talented and damnable scientist who’s trying to defy God and to force nature into creating hybrid, artifical forms, the monstrous off-spring of man’s depraved fancy, glowing with only an evil mockery of beauty.  Rapaccini employs her daughter Beatrice (whose name is reminiscent of Beatrice Cenci rather than of Dante’s Beatrice) to allure men and poison them with the venom she has unknowingly absorbed from breath of life, the plant of plants her father has created. Breath of life runs from Rapaccini to Claire, from Hawthorne to Glaspell: in both cases the flower works as an emblem of feminine creativity and sexuality, which are perverted in Rapaccini’s intentions in order to produce death instead of life; while in Claire’s view the experiment is meant as the equivalent of a liberation from social imprints. The partial coincidence between the two texts is not an occasional borrowing, but a necessity internal to the theme: breath of life is an icon of creation, be it divine or aesthetic.

Many Fausts of the romantic tradition do challenge nature (just think of Melville’s Ahab), or even try to outdo it and to generate creatures out of art or science so as to appropriate for themselves the feminine role (Shelley’s Frankestein), but both Rapaccini and Claire create from within nature.  In the passage from one historical context to another, from one literary genre to another, and more relevant, from one gender to another, Glaspell has retained the essential Faustian feature, the determination to trespass human limits; however, as a modern Faust, Claire Archer has rejected all alliances with a diabolic nature; science is to her, rather, a sort of magic metaphor, enabling one to open the  doors of a new spirituality.

The Verge sounds at the start like a domestic comedy, presenting one out of many occasions in which a married couple comes to friction on small matters.  Here the object of contention is the plants,  though a more substantial problem seems to emerge from the presence of Claire’s lover, who is also by the way her husband’s friend.

Gardening has always been regarded as a very appropriate activity for women, because it provides beauty to the house and enhances gentle behavior.  Claire has reversed the usual hierarchy between plants and mankind: she takes warmth away from men in order to keep the greenhouse warm, and worse: she keeps men away from the place because they disturb the delicate atmospheric balance required by her plants.  She doesn’t cultivate flowers to adorn her husband’s table as in the genteel tradition, but is a scientist, experimenting on hybrids. Her project is of a symbolic nature, because she’s trying to find the way out from given structures/strictures: We need not to be held in forms moulded for us.  There is outness and otherness.  She’s experimenting on plants, because with them what she is looking at is already happening: Plants do it.  The big leap it’s called.  Explode their species because something in them knows they’ve gone as far as they can go.

If Claire is always center stage, there are a number of other characters whose degree of daring never reaches the point of getting out from their old, given forms.  The excess of relationships and the transgressive nature of some of them, from a social point-of-view, is nonetheless anchored to a common focus—love and eros—so that we have a husband, a lover, a beloved, plus an unloved daughter given over to a conformist aunt.  More than Claire’s erotic transgressions, her refusal to love her daughter, her outright repulsion, are the real taboos Glaspell breaks in this play.  You can pull down all sorts of beliefs, but not motherly love; that’s unconceivable even in fables, where cruel or oppressive mothers are turned into witches or step-mothers.  In The Verge, the words pronounced by Claire in front of Elizabeth are irretrievable and shocking, especially since they abjure the original physical unity between them: “To think that object ever moved my belly and sucked my breast!”

Among the men surrounding Claire, the only one who is close to her in his being a “quester,” is her beloved Tom Edgeworthy, who for a good portion of the drama functions as Claire’s second voice.  He too is in search of non-conformity and of a language of truth.  The author gives both, Tom and Claire, the same words: “Things are not what is said about things”;”The only thing worth saying is the thing we can’t say”.  But even Tom is disappointing and eventually goes back to his old, conventional way of being.  His surname, Edgeworthy, makes him a replica (and vice-versa) of “Edge Vine,” Claire’s first experiment in plants.  Human beings and plants are here of a same pattern: following “Edge Vine” back to the usual forms, we follow Tom, and even Claire’s daughter (“…it isn’t over the edge.  It’s running back to ‘all the girls’”).  Tom’s proposal is of romantic love; Claire’s rejection of it is, if possible, even more shocking than her rejection of motherhood: love, the first and last drive and duty of woman’s life is here utterly denied, itself a form of suffocation,—however attractive and seemingly fulfilling.

It is not surprising then, that all threads come together at the end of the play, while Claire is waiting for the supreme flower, “Breath of Life,” to blossom.  Tom’s offer is clearly posed as a going back to worn out topoi, as an embrace which will emprison all desire:

CLAIRE:  We’ll go on the sea in a little boat.

TOM: On the sea in a little boat.

CLAIRE: But – there are other boats on other seas.

TOM: I love you, and I will keep you  -- from fartherness – from harm.  You are mine, and you will stay with me! (roughly)  You hear me?  You will stay with me!

CLAIRE: (not lifting her head, but turning it so she sees Breath of Life)  Now I can trust – what is? (suddenly pushing him roughly away) No!  I will beat my life to pieces in the struggle to -

Claire’s last gesture is that of enclosing Tom into that embrace unto death; in so doing she also kills that residual part of herself which had kept her in touch with the world.  It’s here that while Claire’s mind is opening to madness, her language, yearning for further spiritual dimensions, opens to poetry, song, prayer, silence:

CLAIRE: Out (as if feeling her way)


(Her voice now feeling her way to it.)      

Nearer –          

(Voice almost upon it.)      

-- my God          

(Falling upon it with surprise.)      

to Thee,          

(Breathing it.)      

Nearer – to Thee,      

E’en though it be—

(A slight turn of the head toward the dead man she loves – a mechanical turn just as far the other way.)

       a cross      


(Her head going down.)      

raises me;          

(Her head slowly coming up – singing it.)      

Still all my song shall be,      

Nearer, my –       

(Slowly the curtain begins to shut her out.  The last word heard is the final Nearer—a faint breath from far.)

Claire appears as an extreme, paradoxical character.  For her author, Glaspell, she is an experiment, somehow the same way her plants are an experiment for her. Alhough Claire is not alone when compared with the heroines of Ibsen, Wedekind, Nietzsche, O’Neill, and with the as yet half sketched figures of tragic extravagance drawn by Djuna Barnes, it is evident how Glaspell doesn’t mean to create a prototype, but a unique speciman. The explosion/implosion of forms, the apocalyptic imagination, are common features of early 20th century avant-gardes.They announce with terror and hope the disintegration of Victorian certitudes and turn to the expressionistic disarticulated howl, to Gordon Craig’s 鈁ermarionette, to violence in colors and words.

In this instance, the author unfolds very carefully the passage from utopia to madness, from Claire’s dream of regeneration to her consciousness of the fatal cyclical reproduction of forms given.  The blossoming of Breath of Life is neither magic nor contagious enough to extend outness and otherness to her creator and to historical reality.  As a work of art, The Verge is partly a failure: too often melodrama is awkwardly lurking; the gap between drawing-room conversation and the meditation upon the absolute is too exhibited.  Yet, failure is an inherent part of Claire’s tragedy: thematic solidarity between different modes of communication is of unusual intensity—the verbal and the non verbal concur in telling a search for form which is strongly ideological. The expressionistic stage design presents a twisted staircase coming form under, a glass case separating the greenhouse from the main stage (and making visible the fourth wall), the broken circle designed by Claire as perimeter of her room—all are outcomes of Claire’s tortured psyche, in which her energy, too long repressed, explodes in disintegration.

BIO: Annalisa Goldoni is Professor of American Literature at the University of Pescara, Italy.  Her widely published scholarship covers romanticism (Melville) through contemporary North American poetry and theater, with special attention to physicality and non-verbal communication.  She has translated the writing of Robert Creeley, George Bowering and Robert Duncan.  Her most recent publication is Dante: 'For Use, Now' ,  co-edited together with Andrea Mariani, and including contributions by Robin Blaser, Kathleen Fraser, Allen Mandelbaum, Peter Quartermain and others.



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