Glaspell Shorts – April 2008

All three plays by Susan Glaspell

Venue: Orange Tree Theatre

Date: Thursday 17th April 2008


Trifles    7/10

Directed by Helen Leblique

The first play in this set of three was Trifles, which I would give a 7/10 rating. The set was a poor family’s kitchen – stove, dresser, table, sink with bucket, wooden chairs. Wind whistling. Three men and two women arrive at the house. Two of the men, the authority figures, hog the stove. They ask the other man to tell them what happened the previous day, and we hear how he found the wife acting strangely and the husband dead. Off they go to check for evidence, leaving the women to get some things for the wife, who’s now in jail. As they talk about the wife and sort through her things, with a great deal more kindness than the men, they discover an empty bird cage, then a dead bird, and realise what’s happened. They tacitly agree to hide the evidence, but there’s a tense moment when the county attorney is checking the stuff they intend to take to the wife. As he looks through the pile of quilting material, will he discover the box with the dead bird inside? It’s a play that rejoices in noticing, and showing, small details, and it was done very well.

The Outside     6/10

Directed by Svetlana Dimcovic

The second play was The Outside, a 6/10, though only just. Several shaped boards with straw grasses set the seaside theme. There were also a couple of ropes hanging down; one to the floor, the other halfway. A chair completed the set. There were the sounds of waves, seabirds calling, and then two seamen attempt to bring a dead body on stage. Their captain tries to revive him, but no luck. The first two men chat, and we find out this is an old life-saving station that’s been closed down and is now lived in by a strange woman who spends most of her time staring at the dunes. Her servant is an older woman who hardly says a word. As in the first play, the men set the scene, and then we see the two women talking. This bit is more Ibsen-like in the language and use of symbolism. Both women are dealing with loss, and somehow seeing the dead body has loosened the older woman’s tongue. She tries to persuade the younger woman to see the positive side of the tussle between the dunes and the woods, and possibly succeeds. It’s a strange debate, and I don’t claim to understand what the author is trying to do here. It certainly didn’t feel as complete as Trifles, although a theme of men not understanding what women experience is coming through loud and clear.

[Thinking about it afterwards, the older woman, Allie, is trying to get the younger one, Mrs Patrick, to accept her loss. Mrs Patrick’s husband is missing, having gone on a long sea voyage, so it’s not absolutely definite he’s dead but it is likely, while Allie’s husband has been drowned at sea. Allie doesn’t want Mrs Patrick to waste so much of her life as she did herself, but the debate drifts into symbolic territory which becomes a bit confusing.]

Suppressed Desires      8/10

Directed by Phoebe Barran

The third play, originally scheduled to be the second one performed, is Suppressed Desires, and a definite 8/10 hoot if ever there was one. The set consists of a sitting room with desk, phonograph, a table with breakfast things, and a settle. This was a comic look at the misguided passion some folk had for the new-fangled invention of psychoanalysis. Henrietta is addicted to it. Her husband Stephen is not so much against psychoanalysis as completely against his wife inflicting it on him. His temper is close to breaking point, and when his sister-in-law, Mabel, who’s visiting for a while, tells Henrietta the dream she had the night before, which Henrietta tries to twist into an expression of suppressed desire, he loses it completely. He heads out, but he’s actually going to see Dr X, whom Henrietta worships, to get himself analyzed. Mabel goes to the doctor, too, and the final scene, when both Stephen and Mabel confront Henrietta with the suppressed desires that the doctor has uncovered, is absolutely hilarious. It would be extremely apt to say that Henrietta’s chickens have come home to roost, and with a vengeance. Her only option is to renounce the religion of psychoanalysis, and live happily with her husband. Wonderful stuff.

The performances were all excellent, as is usual at this theatre. The three plays were an interesting introduction to Susan Glaspell’s writing, covering quite a range of styles. The first play was a clever piece of writing, getting across some subtle points very well. The characters were recognizable very quickly, and the situation was presented clearly at the start, giving plenty of time in an admittedly short play for the dialogue between the two women to gradually reveal what we needed to know – why the wife had killed her husband. Given the amount of time devoted to crime drama these days on TV, the description of the wife’s behaviour and the motivation for the murder all seemed spot on. For a character who doesn’t appear, she’s a strong presence in the play, as is her husband, though to a lesser extent. The growing understanding between the two women is also nicely developed, as the sheriff’s wife moves from supporting the strict legal code to actively suppressing relevant evidence.

The second play started off in similar vein, with the three men setting the scene. This time, though, the women were arguing about how to handle their grief. At least, that’s what it was about on the surface. They were talking a lot about “the outside”, and I didn’t quite get what that was meant to represent. Otherwise, the debate was between life-affirming and life-denying, the dunes swallowing the trees and the trees regrowing over the sand. At one point, the servant had her hands together, demonstrating this constantly evolving pattern, and as she countered the other woman’s argument by saying that the trees would grow through again, her lower fingers crept through like new shoots – a lovely detail, and one of the reasons I like such intimate spaces – I’m close enough to spot such things.

The problem I found with this play was that it was too short to really get its point across. In particular, I found the servant’s abrupt rediscovery of her desire to speak, when we’d barely grasped her silence, was difficult to absorb. It seemed a convenient device from someone who evidently understood human nature very well, and who could have given us much more of that character’s silent eloquence before making better use of her transformation. Several people at the post-show discussion voiced similarly views, and a number clearly enjoyed the piece.

The third play was much livelier. From the off, there was plenty of humour, and it was clear that Susan Glaspell knew these type of people very well, enough to poke loving fun at them. The husband’s exasperation was brilliantly done, along with his remarkable calmness and sadness as he tells his wife that he has a suppressed desire to leave her. Personally I thought his desire was more overt than that, but this fitted perfectly with his wife’s obsession. I did wonder, along with at least one other audience member, whether he was simply setting his wife up to show her the consequences of her beliefs, but it became clear that he wasn’t. The complicated unravelling of Mabel’s dream was a comic masterpiece, and I do hope we’ll get to see more of Glaspell’s work again.

Post-show discussion: Sam Walters was here as usual, together with Kate Saxon, who directs Chains of Dew, and two of the three directors of these pieces – I didn’t get the names, though judging by the accents I’d say one of them was Svetlana Dimcovic. There were various questions about Glaspell’s work, and how these pieces fitted into the overall trend. I think Suppressed Desires was an early piece, while The Outside was a later work. Trifles is apparently her best known piece, as it’s included in a number of anthologies of American plays, but still very few students, even American ones, recognise her name. Sam Walters chose these plays to show the range of her work, and to compliment Chains of Dew, although he could have chosen a number of other pieces.

There was some information about her “set”, the group of American artists, writers, etc, who wanted to create home-grown American theatre. Most of the stuff being put on at the end of the 19th century was taken from the European tradition, and they felt it was time for the authentic American voice to be heard. This group supported Eugene O’Neill, and they were certainly influenced by, amongst others, Ibsen. They would head for the coast during the summer, and put on plays; there was some uncertainty about whether these were performed by themselves, as enthusiastic amateurs, or by professional actors as a bit of fun during the summer. Either way, they produced some good stuff, and Susan Glaspell was not the least amongst them, judging by this set of plays.

On the way out, Steve heard an American lady compliment one of the actors on the accents they used. Apparently she found them all totally authentic, and appropriate to each setting.

© 2008 Sheila Evans at

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