Born 1 July 1876, Davenport, Iowa; died 27 July 1948, Province-town, Massachusetts
Daughter of Elmer S. and Alice Keating Glaspell; married George C. Cook, 1913; Norman Matson, 1925
Susan Glaspell began her career writing numerous short stories—for popular magazines—in line with the sentimental and escapist mode popular at the time, and two conventional romantic novels. When she met and married her first husband, George C. Cook, her lifestyle and the direction of her work changed radically. Her novel Fidelity (1915) is thematically connected to this love affair. With Eugene O'Neill, she and Cook became the founders of and prime contributors to the Provincetown Players, an experimental group begun on Cape Cod in 1915 to provide a place where native drama could develop freely outside the fetters of commercialism. The company, which moved to New York's Greenwich Village (as the Playwrights Theatre) in the fall of 1916, proved to be one of the most important and seminal forces in the history of American theater.
Glaspell's first one-act play, written with Cook, was part of the Provincetown Players' initial season. Her second one-act play, Trifles was produced in 1916 during the second summer season. (Glaspell's short story adaptation of it, "A Jury of Her Peers," appeared in Best American Short Stories of 1916). On a bleak Iowa farm, dour farmer John Wright has been found dead in his bed, his own rope around his neck. His wife, Minnie, who never appears onstage, is in custody pending investigation of the murder. The tacit agreement of two women onstage to conceal the telltale evidence of guilt implies that Wright was a man who deserved to die as he did, and their sympathy (with that of the audience) goes to the abused wife. After 50 years, this piece is still deservedly cited as an example of expert craftsmanship.
For the next two seasons Glaspell continued to write, act in, and direct plays. Her first full-length play, Bernice (1920), in which again the heroine never appears onstage, was produced in 1919. Glaspell returned in The Inheritors (1921) to a favorite theme: the desirability of preserving the best values of pioneer character. The only character who represents the true spirit of her forefathers (the founders of a liberal college) and of America itself is the granddaughter Madeline Morton, who goes to jail for the rights of Hindu students protesting British domination of India.
In The Verge (1921), Glaspell deals with a "new woman" again. However, Claire Archer is very different from Madeline. Claire is so intent on attaining her own freedom—an "otherness," she calls it—that she is driven over the edge of sanity when she rejects the past and present (ancestors, husband, and daughter) in hopes of a new future.
Glaspell dramatizes the subject of the artist's life and connection to society in her final two plays, The Comic Artist (1928) and Alison's House (1930). The latter, dealing with the posthumous disposition of the poetry of a woman much like Emily Dickinson, was produced at the Civic Repertory Theatre, with Eva LeGallienne playing the role of the niece who favors publication. It won the Pulitzer Prize.
Glaspell had only minor connections with the theater after 1931. She had returned to the novel in 1928 with Brook Evans. In Ambrose Holt and Family (1931), Glaspell clearly connects the "free woman" of the 20th century with the best qualities of the pioneer, as in her play The Inheritors. This novel and the following, The Morning Is Near Us (1939), have philosophical depth, but little relevance to the time of the Great Depression. It was not until Norma Ashe (1942) and then Judd Rankin's Daughter (1945) that Glaspell took cognizance of failures inherent in Midwestern isolationist attitudes, appropriate though they may have been for the original pioneers.
Because her work in the theater was of necessity much more experimental than her work in other genres, Glaspell's main significance stems from her Provincetown connection, not only as a playwright, but, more importantly, as an innovator instrumental in changing the course of American drama forever. The most striking hallmark of her best writing is her consistent emphasis on the need for human beings to fulfill their highest potential by utilizing what is desirable from the past and applying it with faith and courage to the future. Because she developed a broad humanistic viewpoint, she never became a typical Midwestern regionalist in the narrow sense; she eschewed always the 20th century provincialism, superpatriotism, and fatuousness that evolved as Main Street, USA.
Glory of the Conquered (1909). The Visioning (1911). The Road to the Temple (1927). Fugitive's Return (1929). Cherished and Shared of Old (1940).
Gelb, A., and B. Gelb, O'Neill (1960). Goldberg, I., Drama of Transition (1922). Gould, J., Modern American Playwrights (1966). Hapgood, H., A Victorian in a Modern World (1939). Lewisohn, L., Expression in America (1932). Quinn, A. H., History of American Drama from the Civil War to the Present Day (1927). Schlueter, J., ed., Modern American Drama: The Female Canon (1990). Vorse, M. H., Time and the Town (1942). Waterman, A. E., Susan Glaspell (1966). Reference works: Benet's Reader's Encyclopedia (1991). DAB. NAW (1971). NCAB. Oxford Companion to Women's Writing in the United States (1995). TCA, TCAS.
Arts and Decoration (June 1931). Bookman (Feb. 1918). Commonweal (20 May 1931). Drama (June 1931). Independent Woman (Jan. 1946). Nation (3 Nov. 1920, 6 April 1921, 4 April 1923). NR (17 Jan. 1923). NYT (12 April 1931, 10 May 1931). Palimpsest (Dec. 1930). Review of Reviews (June 1909). SR (30 July 1938). WLB (Dec. 1928). Women's Journal (Aug. 1928, June 1931).
—EDYTHE M. MCGOVERN