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Susan Glaspell and the Literary Canon Research Paper

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Updated: Sep 16th, 2021

Women have traditionally been regarded as the reading sex, and from the time women gained access to higher education, literature has drawn them in greater numbers than any other discipline. Susan Glaspell is one of the extraordinary women writers who promulgate ideas and feelings of modern women, unveils social problems and new social order. Thesis Susan Glaspell should be inducted into the literary canon because she made a great contribution to the development of drama and new literary techniques (predominantly Expressionistic techniques) challenging traditional literary standards and the canon of male writing.

Some literary genres have lent themselves particularly well to the exploration of women’s issues insofar as these were still perceived to be confined to the private sphere in the eighteenth, nineteenth, and the best part of the twentieth century. Women writers have been relatively over-represented in the epistolary novel, the diary, and the popular novel by comparison with the more highly valued literary forms of poetry, drama, and the epic (McGovern, p. 144). It was no accident then that in their assault upon standard literary values liberation writers sought to revive these ‘female’ forms (previously regarded as sub-literary) first of all. Similar to other writers, Glaspell consciously chose to challenge the literary standards and representational strategies which they had encountered as ‘the dominant’ in American culture. Not only did writing promise the freedom of self-definition in the search for a female authenticity, not only would feminist writing liberate its readers to recognize the real conditions of their existence, but it might also serve to liberate literature itself from restrictive and prescriptive male-determined standards of good and serious writing. While this ‘minor’ culture may sometimes be difficult to explicate as protest, it was always clearly formed in the spirit of subverting a majority culture that tried to choke it at the root (Kennedy and Gioia, p. 7). Precisely by its sex, drugs, dance, dress, music, and style, it kept the records of its discontents accurately and well (Lewis, p. 45).

The remarkable feature of Glaspell’s writing style is the use of Expressionistic techniques. Glaspell often used Expressionistic techniques and was one of the first playwrights in America to do so. She began before the general awareness of Expressionism was developed through the showing of the film The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari in 1921, the Theatre Guild presentation of Kaiser From Morn to Midnight in 1922, and the performance of O’Neill’s Expressionist plays, such as The Hairy Ape (1922). What these diverse textual strategies had in common, however, is that they all defined themselves against the canon of male writing (Papke, p. 23). Furthermore, Glaspell shows that American realist fictions contain mystic elements which posit the possibility of social change and that the frequent foregrounding of the writer as protagonist reveals a level of self-awareness about the social and textual construction of reality in fiction.

The settings provide immediate interest in the plays. Glaspell’s description is typical of her interest in the visual aspects of a play which contribute to its theatricality and symbolic qualities. Her detailed description takes up nearly a page of the script. For instance, in the play The Outside (1917) the setting is an old life-saving station, now bleak and cheerless, with a barn type door at the back which opens to reveal the sand dunes (Glaspell, 1931):

At another point a sand-hill is menacing the woods… through the open door the sea is also seen” and outside the door the stiff beach grasses “struggle; dogged growing against odds.

Glaspell created a mood of mystery and explored human relationships utilizing silence, pauses, mystery, and indirection. Glaspell’s use of setting, language, and characterization contribute to a moving and theatrically effective play which might be even more poignant on the stage now than when it was written (Gould, p. 34).

Following Lewis (1952), radicalism may be as easy to miss for the modern audience as the details of Minnie Foster’s story are for its male “audience” (27). But by leaving the primary female character off-stage and then reconstructing her through the eyes of the women on the stage, Glaspell effectively and theatrically exposes the construction of “woman” and the way women are perceived and provides a vivid opportunity to begin to see the way these women do. Trifles have received praise from critics throughout the years, especially for the structure. Writing in 1962, Donald Fitzjohn also praised the playwright’s technique:

Trifles is not simply a play of detection, in which the two women discover the missing motive for murder and decide to suppress the evidence. Fundamentally it is a play about compassion; although this is never mentioned specifically. In fact, one of the most interesting things about Trifles is the use made of implicit rather than explicit dialogue (46 cited Papke, p. 56).

Although The People is a minor work, it represents an effective theatrical challenge to realistic playwriting and is still moving when produced. In the early part of the play, there is an amusing use of satire. So little attention was paid to the non-realistic approach in this and other Glaspell plays (Papke, p. 47). Between 1915 and 1922 she wrote eleven plays, worked on the productions, and acted in most of them. In many stories, she gave herself entirely to the creation of American plays influenced by German methods of writing and staging (Papke, p. 28). When the Provincetown Players seemed to move in a more commercial direction and there was dissension among the members, Cook and Glaspell left for Greece and she turned away from the theatre.

Suppressed Desires, the first of the Provincetown plays can seem merely a frivolous satire on Freudianism in America, but is, in fact, a carefully crafted comedy that has held the stage for over seventy-five years. Trifles were first performed in Provincetown in 1916. Since that time it has become famous as is the short story based on it called A Jury of Her Peers. The situation in the play was suggested to Glaspell by a murder case she covered when writing for the newspaper in Des Moines. The basic situation is that a man has been found strangled in his bed and his wife, Mrs. Wright, claims not to know who killed him. Although the men mock them for their attention to small domestic details, the two wives piece together a picture of the painful, lonely life Mrs. Wright has led, and what probably caused her to murder her husband. Mr. Hale says “women are used to worrying over trifles”. A major fact is the discovery of a murdered songbird–the only element of pleasure in the household (Gould, p. 29). Glaspell should be inducted into the literary canon because Glaspell challenged literary standards and the canon of male writing. She created the image of a woman too intelligent and independent to act only as of the pillar of support for a weak husband. In the plays, Glaspell presented her concerns about the nature of American society, academic freedom, the effects of war on society, the treatment of Indians by the pioneers, and twentieth-century antipathy toward foreigners in America. The style of the play is realistic, but the three-act structure has an interesting element. The first act takes place on the Fourth of July in 1879 and concludes with the decision to found a college, and the second and third acts are set in the college in 1920. The effect of the structure is to emphasize that American society faces the same problems and concerns despite the passage of time all the children, not just his own, and to improve America. O. W. Firkins (1994) was one of the enthusiastic critics, and praised the themes and technique:

Dramatic movement may not assimilate the propaganda, but is continually active around and beneath it; the dialogue is hardly describable by any tamer adjective than brilliant, the play of intelligence is keen and varied, and the work while anything but impartial, is at least entitled to the solid praise of generous and thoughtful partiality (344-345 cited Lewis, p. 47).

Glaspell should be inducted into the literary canon because like the movement activists then, Glaspell wanted to wipe the slate clean upon which women had so long been inscribed by men, and begin again. Glaspell was concerned with truth: feminist truth, experience, and documentation of women’s suffering at the hands of patriarchy. Her plays are of note for their effective mood, realistic dialogue, and dramatic impact. Despite the absence of overt dramatic conflict, the works do not seem static and there is suspense in the action.

Works Cited

  1. Lewis, A.F. The Big Change: America Transforms Itself 1900-1950. New York: Harper, 1952.
  2. Glaspell, S. . Web.
  3. Glaspell, S. Plays. New York: Dodd, Mead, and Co., 1931.
  4. Gould Jean. Modern American Playwrights. New York: Dodd, Mead & Co., 1966.
  5. Kennedy, X.J., Gioia, D. Literature: An Introduction to Fiction, Poetry, and Drama. Longman, 2004.
  6. McGovern, Edythe M. “Susan Glaspell.” In American Woman Writers: A Critical Reference Guide from Colonial Times to the Present. Edited by Linda Mainiero; Langdon Lynne Faust. New York: Frederick Ungar Pub. Co., 1980, pp. 144-46.
  7. Papke Mary E. Susa Glaspell: A Research and Production Sourcebook. Westport: Greenwood Press, 1993.
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