Susan Glaspell: “Trifles”

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Born in 1876, Susan Glaspell was a prominent novelist, short story writer, journalist, biographer, actress, and, most notably, playwright, winning the 1931 Pulitzer Prize for Drama for her play Alison’s House. She and her husband, George Cram Cook, founded the ground-breaking Provincetown Players, widely known as the first modern American theater company. In fact, it was Glaspell who discovered dramatist Eugene O’Neill as she was searching for a new playwright to feature at the theater.

Though she was a widely acclaimed author during her lifetime, with pieces in Harper’s and Ladies’ Home Journal and with books on the New York Times bestsellers list, Glaspell is little known today. She comes down to us for two related works: her one-act play Trifles, written in 1916, and a short story based on the play, “A Jury of Her Peers,” written in 1917. The play and the story were based on Margaret Hossack’s murder trial, which Glaspell covered as a young reporter for the Des Moines Daily News in her home state of Iowa.

Trifles ­­– which she wrote in just ten days – is a masterful account of the way two housewives successfully unravel the mystery of another housewife’s murder of her husband. Mr. Wright has been found dead in his bedroom, strangled with a rope. His wife, Mrs. Wright, is in the kitchen, acting “queer,” according to Mr. Hale, the neighbor who initially discovers the murder.

The play takes place the day after the murdered man is discovered and after his wife has been taken to jail. Three prominent men of the community – Sheriff Peters, County Attorney Henderson, and Mr. Hale – go to investigate the murder scene. Sheriff Peters and Mr. Hale bring their wives along with them, just in case they can discover any clues to the murder.

It is widely assumed that Mrs. Wright killed her husband, but what is her motive? The three men are truly stumped. What would cause an ordinary housewife in a seemingly calm and tidy home to kill her husband?

As the detectives are investigating the murder scene in the bedroom upstairs, Mrs. Peters and Mrs. Hale look around the kitchen and the parlor. Little by little, they begin to spy clues to Mrs. Wright’s emotional state. Erratic stitches in a piece of quilting when all the other needlework was straight, beautiful, unblemished. An empty birdcage with a broken door. A dead canary – its neck twisted – hidden in Mrs. Wright’s sewing basket in a piece of silk. The women realize without even speaking to each other that Mr. Wright had killed the bird and driven his wife to murder. And with silent, knowing looks at each other, they decide not to tell the men what they’ve discovered.

For an outstanding reworking of Glaspell’s play, see Kaye Gibbons’s 1991 novel, A Cure for Dreams. Gibbons, a North Carolina writer, obviously had Trifles in mind as she depicts Sade, a character who “hides” her crime in her quilting. You can learn more about the connections between Trifles and A Cure for Dreams in my first book, A Southern Weave of Women: Fiction of the Contemporary South(Check out Chapter 6, “The Southern Wild Zone: Voices on the Margins.” My discussion of A Cure for Dreams begins on page 194, and I explore the links between Glaspell and Gibbons on pages 201-202.)

Trifles also make me think of Adrienne Rich’s early poem “Aunt Jennifer’s Tigers.” The elderly Aunt Jennifer has spent her adult life being “mastered” by her husband. His ring – that is, her wedding band – weighs heavy on her hand. But that weight doesn’t stop her from creating scenes of liberation, power, and strength in her needlepoint. In her tapestry, Aunt Jennifer depicts tigers – “prancing, proud and unafraid.” There’s a story there, Rich seems to say, a sign for those who are adept enough to read it.

Finally, Trifles reminds me of African American women quilters who sewed into their quilts messages about the underground railroad. The classic study of these quilts is Hidden in Plain View: A Secret Story of Quilts and the Underground Railroad. Something seemingly so simply and utilitarian as a quilt has the power to be subversive. As Alice Walker notes in her landmark essay “In Search of Our Mothers’ Gardens,” women’s creativity – and the clues it provides to women’s lives – can be found everywhere if one simply knows where to look. Quilts, gardens, kitchens – “just” women’s work – can illuminate the secrets of women’s lives.

One thing’s for sure: Glaspell’s work deserves more attention. Oxford University Press published Linda Ben-Zvi’s biography of Glaspell in 2005, and both Trifles and “A Jury of Her Peers” are widely anthologized and frequently taught in classrooms across the country. You can read both the play and the story online, and an inexpensive edition of the two works is available in hard copy.

If you want to join me in learning more about Glaspell, visit the website of the International Susan Glaspell Society. They even offer a timeline of Glaspell’s writing of Trifles. And to learn about Glaspell’s most enduring legacy, the Provincetown Players, visit the Provincetown Playhouse website, dedicated to preserving the history of this truly revolutionary theater.

Listen:Listen as I read Susan Glaspell’s short story “A Jury of Her Peers” in its entirety.

Image Credit: Susan Glaspell in 1894, public domain,