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Women Crush Wednesday: Susan Glaspell and the Birth of Modern American Drama

This is one in a series of posts discussing the role that Greenwich Village played in the development of Modern American Theatre.  Click here to read more.

Why is the name Susan Glaspell so rarely invoked when discussing the birth of modern American Drama? Or American letters? In fact, she was quite well known in her time as a highly respected international playwright and novelist, who amassed some of the most impressive credentials in American theater history, including the Pulitzer Prize in 1931. Michael Billington, a renowned British theater critic, called Glaspell “American drama’s best-kept secret.” Women Crush Wednesday offers us the opportunity to bring Ms. Glaspell’s life and writing back into the limelight — and hopefully reclaim for Glaspell her well-deserved place in the history of American drama — as we explore her life and work in Greenwich Village and beyond.

Susan Glaspell

Born in rural Iowa to a hay farmer and a public school teacher, Glaspell distinguished herself as an exceptional student. Like many of those who eventually found their way to Greenwich Village, Glaspell was a rebel who turned her back on society’s expectations, and rather than passively wait at home to be married to an appropriate spouse (as most of her peers did), she enrolled at Drake University in Des Moines. She graduated in June of 1899 and promptly went to work as a reporter for the Des Moines Daily News. She moved to Davenport, Iowa in 1901, and by the age of 20, she was earning a living as a writer, and had begun to publish a Society column lampooning Davenport’s “upper crust.”

Her status as a published and respected author opened the doors of Davenport social and intellectual life, which led to repeated meetings with George Cram Cook, an intellectual and married (but previously divorced) father of two who had given up a promising university career to try his hand at truck farming and socialism in Iowa. Glaspell and Cook met through the socialist Monist Society, of which they were both members. Cook very soon divorced for a second time and married Glaspell in 1913. The scandal and gossip that followed prompted the couple to move East. They settled in Greenwich Village where the rents were cheap, and where they found other free-thinking liberals and radicals in both politics and art. Cook encouraged Glaspell to begin writing plays, and Greenwich Village was the ideal breeding ground for their experiments in theater.

Susan Glaspell and George Cram Cook

While they lived full-time in Greenwich Village, they spent their summers in Provincetown, Massachusetts. In the mid-1910s, Glaspell and Cook co-wrote a play, Suppressed Desires, which they unsuccessfully proposed to the Washington Square Players, who were at that time an influential group of amateur theater practitioners who had formed an organization for the joy of creating and producing theater. Not to be dissuaded, after passionate conversations with friends about the state of American theater, Glaspell and Cook staged Suppressed Desires and two other plays in the summer of 1916 on a makeshift stage in the fish shack on Lewis Wharf in Provincetown, and the Provincetown Players were born.

Over the next few years, Glaspell directed and acted in Provincetown Players productions after the group began its New York productions. She began to gain critical acclaim for her one-act plays, which were distinguished for their formal experimentation and representations of women’s liberation from social and psychological oppression.

Today, Glaspell is best known for her one-act play Trifles, which is loosely based on true events. As a young reporter, Glaspell covered a murder case in a small town in Iowa. Years later she crafted Trifles, inspired by her experiences and observations. It was first produced in Provincetown in 1917 and revived for the 1920-1921 season of the Provincetown Players in Greenwich Village. Considered an early illustration of feminist drama, the themes of the play focus on men and women and their psychological states and social roles. The word trifles typically refer to objects of little to no value. Trifles remains Glaspell’s signature work, studied today in colleges and law schools as an example of gender bias.

A photo from the first production of Trifles

In the years between 1916 and 1922, the Provincetown Players produced eleven plays by Susan Glaspell, among many other playwrights, including more plays by women writers than any other theater of the time. Glaspell’s work ran the gamut from the realism of Trifles (1916) and Inheritors (1921), to satiric comedies such as Woman’s Honor (1918) and Suppressed Desires, to her expressionistic piece, The Verge (1921). Her work as a dramatist was widely respected, as summarized by critic Ludwig Lewisohn in 1922: “This power of creating human speech which shall be at once concrete and significant, convincing in detail and spiritually cumulative in progression is, of course, the essential gift of the authentic dramatist. That gift Miss Glaspell always possessed in measure; she has now brought it to a rich and effective maturity.”

Provincetown Playhouse at 133 McDougal Street

The Provincetown Players dismantled in 1922, and Glaspell and Cook moved to Greece. After Cook’s sudden death in 1924, Glaspell returned to the United States, where she continued to write, winning the 1931 Pulitzer Prize for her play about the life of Emily Dickinson, Alison’s House.

Glaspell wrote over fifty short stories, nine novels, fourteen plays, and one biography. Many of her novels reached the best-seller lists, and one, Brook Evans (1928), was made into a movie. Trifles was made into a short drama for the Alfred Hitchcock Presents TV series. Her novels were positively reviewed through the 1930s, and her 1939 novel, The Morning is Near Us, was the Literary Guild Book of the Month choice for April 1940, selling more than 100,000 copies.

Read more about the Provincetown Playhouse and the birth of Modern American Drama here and here.

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