Playwright Spotlight: Susan Glaspell

This blog reminds me (more often than I’d like to admit) how few plays I’ve actually read in my 28-almost-29 years. Especially — and disturbingly — how few plays I’ve read that were written by women. A number of female playwrights I want to “spotlight” on this blog — Caryl Churchill, Judith Thompson, Yasmina Reza — I hesitate to because I don’t feel as though I’m familiar enough with their work to do them credit. This is evidence of my own failure in making reading plays by women a priority.

Playwright Susan Glaspell

So today I’m going to spotlight a pioneer among women playwrights — women theatre artists, actually — and you’ll have to forgive me when I tell you that I’ve only read one of her plays. But Susan Glaspell is exactly the type of playwright who reminds me what women playwrights are fighting for — the right to be recognized as talented, contributing artists in a theatre world that is still, somehow, run by men.

Glaspell is probably most well-known for the play that I am familiar with: Trifles. The story centers around a murder for which local law enforcement can find no motive, based on a real murder Glaspell was familiar with from her time as a journalist. In the play, two women are able to solve the case by observing what seem to be unimportant discrepancies in “womanly trifles” at the scene of the crime. (You may also be familiar with Glaspell’s short story, “A Jury of Her Peers,” which was based on Trifles.)

North Central College production of TRIFLES by Susan Glaspell

The play was first introduced to me in my early years of college and has stayed with me ever since.  It has a Sherlock Holmes quality to it — the devil is in the details — but it’s also rather satirical in nature. It’s quite humorous, and at the same time appalling, that these women are scurrying about a crime scene, not being taken seriously, and yet piecing together the evidence that solves the motive behind the murder. I hesitate to give anything away (if you haven’t read the play, you really should), but what speaks even more strongly — sparking much controversy when it was written — is what the two women choose to do (or not do) with the information they uncover. Glaspell was a feminist in the best sense of the word; she wanted women to be seen as equal and significant contributing members of society. We may be different than men, Glaspell indicates in Trifles, but it’s our differences that make us so necessary.

Ida Rauh and Susan Glaspell at the Provincetown Playhouse in Glaspell’s full-length play BERNICE

Glaspell was not just a feminist in her writings; she actively pursued the role of contributing member of society, writing more than ten plays, and leaving her job as a journalist (which, let’s face it, must have been a hard job to acquire in the first place as a female in the early 1900s!) to co-found Provincetown Players in Cape Cod, Mass., with stage director (and future husband) George Cook. In addition to Glaspell, Provincetown Players housed theatrical talent like Eugene O’Neill and Edna St. Vincent Millay. And the icing on the cake?  Glaspell won the 1931 Pulitzer Prize for her play Alison’s House, which I’ve been told is based loosely on the life of Emily Dickinson…and am ashamed to say, I’ve never heard of before today.

So I need to make a list.  A list of female playwrights whose work expands beyond the ONE play that I read and that, therefore, should be explored. It wouldn’t hurt for me to make a list, too, of women playwrights whose work I haven’t read yet AT ALL (not sure I can admit who those women are without feeling like illiterate scum). And finally, I need to take my “other” list — the one filled with plays by women playwrights with whom I am already pretty familiar *coughSarahRuhlcoughcough*  — and possibly put that on the back burner to make some room. It’s ok to have a favorite playwright or two whose work we keep coming back to, but I don’t want to do myself the disservice of missing out on amazing work by amazing women because I didn’t take the time give their plays a second look. Or a first look. Or even a glance.

So here’s to Susan Glaspell; she reminded me of how necessary it is to celebrate the work of women playwrights, to expose their work to the world, and more importantly, to be constantly reading more of their work myself. Because if I don’t read it, how am I going to tell others about it?  If people don’t know about it, how is it ever going to be produced?  How can we, as dramachicks, want women playwrights to get more attention, but overlook the importance of reading their works? So let me say thank you to a 20th century playwright who reminded me why I write this 21st century blog; and let me thank her again for reminding me that struggles of female playwrights is no trifling matter.

About dramachicky

I am a dramachick: a playwright, actress, director, wife, singer, reader, aunt, daughter, student, teacher, and dreamer. My husband has taken to calling me dramachicky. :-) I have my M.A. and M.F.A. in creative writing/playwriting from Wilkes University. My husband and I started a small theatre group in northeast Pennsylvania called Ghostlight Productions. I love all things theatre and I am thrilled to launch this blog as a celebration of women playwrights.
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2 Responses to Playwright Spotlight: Susan Glaspell

  1. Hi Rachel,

    Thanks for reminding me about the brilliance of TRIFLES. Jean Klein introduced me to the playwright and that play during the Foundations course. And you are not alone. I too have not read enough or know enough about female playwrights who have paved the way for us. But I’m glad to say I have December reservations for SEMINAR in NYC to become familair with Theresa Rebeck’s work. Happy Thanksgiving!


  2. Pingback: World’s most prestigious prize given to the best English-language play written by a woman goes to… « in the theater of One World

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