Women's Literature from 1900 to 1960: Women and the Dramatic Tradition

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Sutherland, Cynthia. "American Women Playwrights as Mediators of the 'Woman Problem.'" Modern Drama 21 (September 1978): 319-36.

In the following essay, Sutherland examines a withdrawal from more strident portrayals of feminist concerns in plays of the 1920s, including Zona Gale's Miss Lulu Bett.

Ibsen's Nora shut the door of her "doll's house" in 1879. Among the generation of American women born in the 1870's and 1880's, Zona Gale, Zoe Akins, and Susan Glaspell all won Pulitzer Prizes. Rachel Crothers, the successful dramatist who wrote more than three dozen plays, characterized her own work as "a sort of Comédie Humaine de la Femme." In an interview in 1931 she said: "With few exceptions, every one of my plays has been a social attitude toward women at the moment I wrote it…I[do not] go out stalking the footsteps of women's progress. It is something that comes to me subconsciously. I may say that I sense the trend even before I have hearsay or direct knowledge of it." During a period in which most American play-wrights confined their work to representations of the middle class, these women were distinctive because they created principal roles for female characters whose rhetoric thinly veiled a sense of uneasiness with what Eva Figes and others more recently have called "patriarchal attitudes."

Such capitulation to public opinion evident in the modification of the ending by a writer who had supported the Woman's Peace Union, the Woman's Peace Party (Wisconsin), Jane Addams and the Hull-House workers and who later helped to write the Wisconsin Equal Rights Law, has considerable significance.

By the turn of the century, the mostly "abolitionist" women who had originated the battle for suffrage in the 1840s and 1850s were either dead or retired, and a new generation of leaders was attempting to expand popular support through the use of muted political rhetoric which intentionally avoided controversy. The majority of women resisted arguments advocating changes in sex roles on the grounds that their inherent femininity would be diminished and their homes threatened. In the Ladies' Home Journal, Jane Addams argued benignly that a woman who wanted to "keep on with her old business of caring for her house and rearing her children" ought to "have some conscience in regard to public affairs lying outside her immediate household." The conciliatory strategy of feminist leaders like Addams and Carrie Chapman Catt exalted the family, motherhood, and domestic values, minimized conflicts between self-realization and inhibiting social conditions, and often disregarded the arguments of radical feminists who insisted that only basic alterations in the organization of the family and sexual relationships could effect substantive changes in women's lives.

For many members of audiences, political issues continued to be dissociated from personal lives in which an equator divided the world of human activity marking "homemaking" and "breadwinning" as hemispheres. In 1924, a study of a fairly large group of young girls indicated that a substantial number planned to choose marriage over a "career" and that few had developed alternative goals. Asked to "name the four heroines in history or fiction whom [they] would most like to resemble," only two of 347 chose women identified chiefly or even at all with feminist causes. They elected, rather, to live vicariously through husbands and children, accepting the traditional sex-role differentiation in which "instrumental/task functions are assigned to males, and expressive/social functions to females."

Glaspell, Akins, Gale, and Crothers chronicled the increasingly noticeable effects of free love, trial marriage, the "double standard," career, divorce, and war on women's lives. Public rhetoric generally subsumed private sexual rhetoric in the theatre during this period, and dramatic discourse tended to mediate conflicting views of women's "legitimate" place in society more often than it intensified dispute. Although the sector of life subtended by domesticity was being steadily decreased by technological and economic developments in the early years of the century, feminist leaders, artists, and housewives shared the common inability to suggest an alternative social structure through which discontent might be alleviated. To the extent that female characters on the stage accepted the traditional sex role, a diminished state of consciousness manifested itself in language that avoided strong or forceful statements, evinced conformity, consisted of euphemism and question-begging, and celebrated the processes which safely domesticated erotic pleasure. As contemporary critics, we tend to be disappointed by portrayals of women who cannot express, much less resolve, their problems. Yet, here, precisely, I believe, is the reason for the popular success and the "critical" failure of many of these plays. The spectacle of dramatic characters conducing themselves in the ironic guise of people only half aware of conflicts between individuation and primary sex role has usually been interpreted as trivial, the result of mediocre artistry, rather than what it is—the theatrical encoding of a "genderlect," or to put it another way, a language that reflects the internalizing by members of society of a particular system of sex differentiation and values.

However, during the period before the thirty-sixth state ratified the Nineteenth Amendment in 1920, a significant number of plays did present exceptionally articulate female artists as figures incarnating the dilemma of people torn by the conflicting demands of sex role and career. In A Man's World (National Theatre, Washington, D.C., October 18, 1909), Rachel Crothers's protagonist Frank Ware is a novelist who oversees a club for girls who "need another chance." She has published anonymously a defense of women's rights which even her friends—themselves painters, writers, and musicians—agree is much too good to have been written by a woman. After accidentally discovering that her fiancé, Malcolm Gaskell, has fathered her adopted seven-year-old son (the deserted mother had been her friend and died in childbirth), she renounces him. Avoiding a facile reconciliation, Crothers chose rather to stress Frank's abhorrence of her lover's complacent refusal to acknowledge responsibility for the deplorable consequences of his own sexual license. In the final curtain scene, their relationship is abruptly severed:

FRANK. Oh, I want to forgive you … tell me you know it was wrong—that you'd give your life to make it right. Say that you know this thing is a crime.

GASKELL. No! Don't try to hold me to account by a standard that doesn't exist. Don't measure me by your theories. If you love me you'll stand on that and forget everything else.

FRANK. I can't. I can't.

In He and She (Poughkeepsie, 1911), Crothers again explored the dilemma of a woman who must decide between sex role and career, in this instance, motherhood or sculpting. Ann Herford surrenders the commission she has won in a national competition to her husband, Tom, who has been openly skeptical that his wife could do "anything for a scheme as big" as the project required for the contest. When he wins only the second prize, his ego is badly shaken, and he retrenches to the familiar rhetorical stance of chief breadwinner. Reconciliation comes only after Ann abandons her prize in response to the needs of her teenage daughter. Crothers, although she shows a woman conceding final "victory" to her primary sex role, allows her character to voice bitterness and disappointment:

TOM … you've not only beaten me—you've won over the biggest men in the field—with your own brain and your own hands; in a fair, fine Hard fight … there'll be times when you[ll] eat your heart out to be at work on it—when the artist in you will yell to be let out.

ANN. I know … And I'll hate you because you're doing it—and I'll hate myself because I gave it up—and I'll almost—hate—her … my heart has almost burst with pride—not so much that I had done it—but for all women … then the door opened—and Millicent [their daughter] came in. There isn't any choice Tom—she's part of my body—part of my soul.

Ann's uneasy capitulation to the obligations of motherhood is carefully orchestrated by the simplistic attitudes of two women who are in love with her husband's close friend, a partially caricatured "male chauvinist" hard-liner; one woman accepts a promotion in her job rather than tolerate what she views as his suffocating demands, the other chases him because she believes that "all the brains a woman's got [are]—to make a home—to bring up children—and to keep a man's love." That Tom and Ann might exchange roles, he taking over as parent temporarily while she carves her frieze, is outside the realm of dramatic choice, because, in Crothers's dialectical structure, the men and women are shown to be incapable of conceiving this as an alternative. General expectations that a shift towards a more egalitarian society would lead to personal and social enfranchisement in the progressive era as middle-class women moved in the direction of greater self-consciousness are clearly undercut in the endings of Crothers's plays.

A vastly more imaginative if less independent playwright, Susan Glaspell both directed and acted in her own plays. From 1913 until 1922, she worked with the Provincetown Players. A sounding board for new ideas, the Provincetown group produced plays that sometimes spoofed feminist excesses, yet usually respected the seriousness of the "movement's" political aims. In Suppressed Desires (Wharf Theatre, Provincetown, Summer, 1915), Glaspell ridiculed a woman who nearly wrecks her marriage by testing psychoanalytic theories on her sister and husband, and in Close the Book (Playwright's Theatre, 1917), she poked fun at a liberated girl who naively insists, "Hand on heart," that she is "not respectable." In Woman's Honor (Playwright's Theatre, 1918), she presents a satiric sketch of the effects of the "double standard." A young man accused of murder refuses to provide himself with an alibi by identifying his married mistress. He is beleaguered by a bevy of volunteers, each of whom wants to sacrifice her own "honor" to save him by claiming that she has been the anonymous lover. The women are comic types with predictable opinions about female honor: "The Shielded One," "The Motherly One," "The Silly One," "The Mercenary One," and "The Scornful One." The last of these expresses her resentment of society's definition of "woman's honor": "Did it ever strike you as funny that woman's honor is only about one thing, and that man's honor is about everything but that thing?" With amusing logic, she tells the prisoner that since "woman's honor means woman's virtue," the lady for whom he "propose[s] to die has no virtue." Caught in the midst of chatter, he resigns himself: "Oh, hell, I'll plead guilty," rather than be faced by another speechifying female.

But in her most famous play, Trifles (Wharf Theatre, Province-town, Summer, 1916), Glaspell began to explore seriously the more violent psychological aspects of women trapped in loveless marriages. Minnie Wright has strangled her husband. The wives of the sheriff and a neighbor have come to her home to collect a few things to make her more comfortable in jail. As their husbands search for evidence that would provide a motive, the women discover among Minnie's "trifles" a canary's carcass and decide to defy the law by concealing it, guessing that her husband "wrung—its neck … Wright wouldn't like the bird—a thing that sang—She used to sing. He killed that, too." The neighbor expresses her regret: "I might have known [Minnie] needed help! I know how things can be—for women … We live close together and we live far apart. We all go through the same things—it's all just a different kind of the same thing." As they leave, the women explain to the men who have ridiculed Minnie's "trifles" that she was going to "knot" her quilt, a subdued, ironic, and grisly reminder of the manner in which a stifled wife has enacted her desperate retaliation. In the theatre of the next decade, the motifs of the caged bird and the lost singing voice were to become the hallmarks of numerous "domesticated" women who abandoned careers.

In Trifles, Glaspell had negotiated that portrayal of a woman's violent repudiation of her husband's narrow notion of sex role by removing her from the sight of the audience (a technique she later was to repeat in Bernice and Allison's House). But the play in which she confronted most vehemently the sex-role imprisonment of women is The Verge, first performed by the Playwright's Theatre in its last season (November 14, 1921). Claire Archer rejects her daughter and murders her lover. Her insane passion to breed a fresh botanical species which she calls "Breath of Life," one which may be "less beautiful—less sound—than the plants from which [it] diverged," expresses her radical rejection of biological and cultural inheritance—she is identified as the "flower of New England … what came of men who made the laws that made … [the] culture." She has divorced a "stick-in-the-mud artist and married—[a] man of flight," who she has hoped will "smash something," but who also has turned out to be baldly conventional. The son who had shared her vision of transcendence is dead. Driven by frustration and disappointment, in a terrifying scene, she strikes her daughter across the face with the roots of an "Edge Vine," believing that both the girl and the plant are incurable conformists. Her words echo horribly those of familiar mythic murderesses: "To think that object ever moved in my belly and sucked my breast." When the lover who has rejected her frenetic sexual advances returns because he wants to keep her "safe" from harm, she strangles him as a "gift" to the plant, choosing to break "life to pieces in the struggle" to cast free from traditional sex role. A demented Demeter, Claire has been mesmerized by an apocalyptic vision: "Plants … explode their species—because something in them knows they've gone as far as they can go. Something in them knows they're shut in. So [they] go mad—that life may not be imprisoned. Break themselves up—into crazy things—into lesser things, and from the pieces—may come one sliver of life with vitality to find the future. How beautiful. How brave. Glaspell's representation of a failed Goddess-Mother was treated respectfully by reviewers in England, but in this country it was largely misunderstood or ignored.

Written a year earlier, another study of a woman's plight, Zona Gale's Miss Lulu Bett, opened at the Belmont Theatre on December 27, 1920 and subsequently won the Pulitzer Prize. Like Rachel Crothers and Susan Glaspell, Zona Gale had come to New York from the Midwest and was sympathetic to feminist causes despite her mother's caveat to shun radical politics and women's groups—"I would let that mess of women alone!" she had advised her daughter. The novel on which Gale had based her play had been immediately successful, and in eight days, she had hastily, though with considerable dramatic skill, adapted it for production. Even though Miss Lulu Bett did not present a threatening subject (for "old maids" were commonly seen not as electing spinsterhood but as having had it thrust upon them by faithless lovers or deprivation), strong critical pressure influenced Gale to alter the last act, in which, like Ibsen's Nora, Lulu walks out of the house in which she has been a virtual servant to become an independent woman. Gale rewrote the last act so that it conformed more closely to her popular novel, which concluded with Lulu comfortably established as a respectable wife. This story of a drab but resourceful and dry-witted woman—whom Fannie Hurst called a "shining star" reflected in "greasy reality"—ran for 186 performances. Such capitulation to public opinion evident in the modification of the ending by a writer who had supported the Woman's Peace Union, the Woman's Peace Party (Wisconsin), Jane Addams and the Hull-House workers and who later helped to write the Wisconsin Equal Rights Law, has considerable significance. It anticipated the new style of mediation used by playwrights who continued to dramatize aspects of the "woman problem" in the 1920's.

After World War I and the extension of the franchise, the momentum towards fully equal status for women slowed considerably. One of Rachel Crothers's characters sees herself as an exception to what was to become an increasingly regressive trend: "I haven't slipped back one inch since the war. Most women who sort of rose to something then have slumped into themselves again, but I've gone on. My life gets much fuller and wider all the time. There's no room for men. Why, why should I give up my own personal life—or let it be changed in the slightest degree for a man?" But the woman who speaks these somewhat fatuous lines will, during the course of the dramatic action, reveal her disingenuousness by seducing a member of the British upper class so that her "personal life" and career are, in fact, exchanged for marriage.

Statistics on employment indicate that the percentage of females in the total labor force had decreased from 20.9 in 1910 to 20.4 in 1920. Among women, the proportion of the total college enrollment dropped—three of every four new professionals chose traditionally female-dominated fields, and the number of doctors decreased by nearly one-third. Female architects and lawyers continued at less than three percent, and attendance at professional schools increased only slightly. When members of Pruette's test group were questioned, only thirty-two percent indicated that they would like to be successful themselves in "some chosen work"; the remainder opted for success "through" husband and family. The choice between marriage and career continued to be polarized; and the divorce rate rose steadily. By 1929, Suzanne la Follette was to comment that "the traditional relations of the sexes is far from being reversed in this country, [but] … has shifted away enough to cause alarm among those to whom it seems the right and inevitable relation because it is conventional." Many of the changes affecting women's lives were seen as detrimental to their femininity. George Jean Nathan opined that "… women more and more have ceased to be the figures of man's illusion and more and more have become superficially indistinguishable from man himself in his less illusory moments. In sport, in business, in drinking, in politics, in sexual freedom, in conversation, in sophistication and even in dress, women have come closer and closer to men's level and, with the coming, the purple allure of distance has vamoosed." The plays of this period characterize masculine responses that range from reactionary to adjustive but are rarely innovative. Crothers spoofs (or does she?) a gentleman's overreaction to a woman who aggressively courts him: "…it seems to be awfully important … nowadays to be a woman … I'm not criticizing. Men are totally unnecessary, I s'pose, except for breeding purposes. And we go on taking ourselves for granted in the same old relationships with women. Stupid of us, isn't it?"

Early in the 1920s, the struggle against social oppression had shifted towards a rebellion against convention in which the manipulation of style was both means and end. The flapper was sometimes a flamboyant flouter, as Zelda Fitzgerald's life apparently proved, but she generally strayed only temporarily from acceptable patterns of conduct, because her values were essentially the same as those of her parents. Cocktail in one hand and cigarette in the other, she made an avocational pretense of "rebellion" that was quite compatible with middle-class wisdom, as she mimicked the demands of earlier feminists for sexual equality.

The plays that Crothers wrote in the 1920's signal her own ambivalence toward the contrived stance of young women whose gold-plated philosophy was an amalgam of "free-thinking" writers like Ellen Key, Mona Cairn, Havelock and Edith Ellis. Like Congreve's Millamant, they were choosing to "dwindle into a wife" rather than persevere in a search for practical alternatives. Crothers's formulaic plot for flappers continued to have the staple elements described by Clara Claibourne Park in her study of the young women in Shakespeare's comedies: "Invent a girl of charm and intellect; allow her ego a brief premarital flourishing; make clear that it is soon to subside into voluntarily-assumed subordination; make sure that it is mediated by love." But Crothers's perspective is ironic, because she juxtaposes romantic courtship and the harsh antagonisms that often grow between marriage, partners. The plays she wrote during these years strongly emphasized deteriorating sexual relationships over a period of time, thus undermining the power of the traditional plot to sustain communal custom through ritual reenactment, In Mary the Third (Thirty-ninth Street Theatre, February 5, 1925), the playwright presented three generations of women in the throes of choosing mates. The grandmother, Mary the First, traps a mate with flirtation in 1870; the mother, Mary the Second, yields to the proposal of her most vigorous but most unsuitable lover in 1897. These two women are seen as mere anachronisms by Mary the Third, in 1923, who fecklessly flaunts convention by insisting that she will choose her mate only after going off to the country on an experimental trip with two men and another woman to "live naturally and freely for two weeks—doing a thing we know in the bottom of our souls is right, and knowing perfectly well the whole town is going to explode with horror." However, after only a few hours, Mary rationalizes her own lack of persistence, deciding to be "magnanimous" to the "deep prejudices" of her parents. She returns home. Fearful of being scolded, she and her brother hide and are horrified when they accidentally overhear their parents in a fight (reminiscent of Strindberg and foreshadowing Albee) that shaves off the thin skin concealing the bleeding tissue of their marriage. They hear their father tell their mother: "I'm flabbergasted at you. You seem to have lost what sense you did have.… I can't count on you. You aren't there. Sometimes I think you aren't the woman I married at all," and their mother's even more devastating reply: "And sometimes I think you're a man I couldn't have married. Sometimes I loathe everything you think and say and do. When you grind out that old stuff I could shriek. I can't breathe in the same room with you. The very sound of your voice drives me insane. When you tell me how right you are—I could strike you." The fate of the marriage of Mary the Third has left unresolved at the conclusion. Even though Mary the Second is seen her mother's agonized entrapment and recognized its partial basis in her inability to earn an independent income, the daughter herself yields to the pressures of convention and enters marriage knowing just as little about her future husband as her grandmother and mother had known of theirs. Self-deceived, she has only partly digested the teachings of those writers who had argued for new kinds of marriages: "… you ought to be able to [make your own living] … I shall have my own money. I'll make it. I shall live with a man because I love him and only as long as I love him. I shall be able to take care of myself and my children if necessary. Anything else gives the man a horrible advantage, of course. It makes the woman a kept woman." Significantly, Mary has rejected an intelligent suitor who has warned her that "unless we change the entire attitude of men and women towards each other—there won't be any marriage in the future" and disregarded the fact that she is as illtrained to support herself as her mother had been.

Crothers's plays signal changes in the treatment of the "woman problem" in the theatre during the twenties. The dialectic between the "new woman" and her "old-fashioned" relatives increasingly undercut conventional comic endings as reconciliation with older patterns became a hollow act. In a series of skillfully constructed one-act plays, Crothers continued her mordant comment by creating the character of a successful but shallow politician, Nancy Marshall, whose words expose a growing "tokenism" in the feminist views of many of her contemporaries:

We women must be considerate of each other. If I am nominated I'm going to be awfully strong for that … Men have made a mess of it—that's all. The idea that there aren't enough houses in New York to go 'round. What nonsense!…All those awful people with money who never had any before in their lives ought not to be allowed to crowd other people out. It's Bolshevism—just Bolshevism … And not enough school teachers to go 'round … People ought simply to be made to teach school, whether they want to or not … I can't teach school. God knows I'd be glad to—and just show them if my hands weren't so full now of—I'm going to have awful circles under my eyes from standing so long.

She contrasts her own knowledge of the nuances of political style with her female opponent's corpulent presence on the hustings: "She is so unpopular I should think she'd withdraw from sheer embarassment … she is so unattractive. That's why the men have put her up … they're not afraid of her because they know she'll never get anywhere." The sheer vacuousness of Nancy Marshall's political views elicits the response from her best friend that "Between you and her I'd vote for the best man going," and comes into sharp relief when compared to the comment of Mary Dewson, director of women's work for the Democratic party, after the election of 1932: "… we did not make the old-fashioned plea that our candidate was charming,…we appealed to the intelligence of the country's women."

In a one-act sequel, after the same friends calls her an "old maid," Nancy Marshall suddenly comprehends the real "importance of being a woman" and hastily puts on a proper gown for the purpose of attracting a proposal of marriage. The customary import of the courtship scene is compromised, because the gentleman of her choice has been rejected, in an earlier scene, by Patti Pitt, a young woman who sees herself as public property (she is an entertainer!), but who actually has meant it when she said "It's power,… I've got it and mustn't throw it away … Any woman can get married, but I have something more important to do" (The Importance of Being a Woman). The satiric treatment of both women by Crothers indicates that she was sensitive to the processes of rationalization used by women confronted by the choice between career and marriage, and had identified in those who opted for the latter an erosion of energy that was to continue to perpetuate, for a number of years in the theatre, the prominence of the "feminine mystique."

In the 1930's, Clare Boothe's satire, The Women (Ethel Barrymore Theatre, December 26, 1936), slashed at materialistic Park Avenue matrons, but also reflected an underside of the cultural milieu as female characters turned increasingly to divorces, affairs, and sometimes to temporary careers. In a late play by Crothers, When Ladies Meet (Royale Theatre, October 6, 1932), the scenario of the struggle of female characters for economic and moral independence receives less emphasis than the failing and futile relationships all the women have with the men. Mary, a writer, and Claire, a wife, are both in love with the latter's philandering husband. Mary has continued to reject the persistent courtship of good-natured Jimmie, a friend who puts women "in pigeon holes and tab[s] them—[according to] a man's idea of women." Jimmie shrewdly arranges a meeting of mistress and wife at a mutual friend's country house. The play's title is drawn from a remarkable scene that occurs "when ladies meet" to discuss the fictional case in Mary's novel in which a mistress tells her lover's wife that she wants to live for a year with him on a trial basis. Claire's comments on the verisimilitude of Mary's novel barely conceal her response to her own situation:

I suppose any married woman thinks the other woman ought to know enough not to believe a married man, if he's making love to her … I happen to be married to a man who can no more help attracting women than he can help breathing. And of course each one thinks she is the love of his life and that he is going to divorce me. But he doesn't seem to … I can always tell when an affair is waning. He turns back to the old comfortable institution of marriage as naturally as a baby turns to the warm bottle…I'd say[to the mistress] of course something new is interesting. Of course I look the same old way—and sound the same old way—and eat the same old way and walk the same old way—and so will you—after a while. I'd say of course I can understand his loving you—but are you prepared to stand up to the job of loving him? Most of the things you find so irresistible in him are terribly hard to live with. You must love him so abjectly that you're glad to play second fiddle just to keep the music going for him.

When her husband unexpectedly blunders into the room, fiction become's reality—true to Claire's prediction—he begs to return, but she rejects him with a newly discovered decisiveness: "You can't conceive that I could stop loving you. It happened in just one second—I think-when I saw what you'd done to [Mary] … I'm not going home—now—or ever." Mary will continue to write and to live alone. The theme of the emotional consequences of both disintegrating marriages and the pursuit of careers had been introduced earlier in the play by their hostess, who diagnoses women's restlessness as due to a far-reaching lack of fulfillment in either institution … "Men mean a great deal more to women than women do to men … I don't care what strong women—like Mary tell you about loving their work and their freedom—it's all slush. Women have got to be loved. That's why they're breaking out so … They daring to have lovers—good women—because they just can't stand being alone."

Crothers had managed to write, on the average, a play a year since 1904. The incipient thirty-year-long quietism in feminist activities produced by apathy, factionalism, and personal loneliness is evident in the uneasy resignation of her later female characters. The playwright's response to a reporter, in 1941, revealed her final alienation from feminist causes and repeated her earlier assertion that her plays had mirrored, mutatis mutandis,the social evolution of sex roles: "What a picayune, self-conscious side all this woman business has to it … I've been told that my plays are a long procession reflecting the changing attitudes of the world toward women. If they are, that was completely unconscious on my part. Any change like that, that gets on to the stage, has already happened in life. Even the most vulgar things, that people object to with so much excitement, wouldn't be in the theatre at all if they hadn't already become a part of life."

In 1931, the Pulitzer Prize was given to Susan Glaspell, the first woman to win it in a decade. In Alison's House (Civic Repertory Theatre, December 1, 1930), her last play, she again returned to the dramatic techniques she had used during her years with the Provincetown a decade earlier. Zoe Akins won the Prize, in 1935, for The Old Maid (Empire Theatre, January 7, 1935) but her skillful dramatic adaptation (like Edith Wharton's novelette published eleven years earlier) is set back in time. Both prize-winning plays safely distanced controversial feminist issues by presenting women tethered by Edwardian proprieties rather than more immediately recognizable topical restraints. It is possibly worth pointing out that the plays for which American women have won Pulitzer Prizes deal essentially with the "old maid" figure in whom the threat of sex-role conflict is "neutralized," as did the near-winner, Lillian Hellman's The Children's Hour (Maxine Elliott Theatre, November 20, 1934), which dealt with the cruel ostracism of suspected lesbians.

The efforts of women to understand and determine their own lives, their failure to develop effective strategies for the realization of personal gratification, their continuing attachment to the perimeters of capitalism were portrayed by Glaspell, Gale, Crothers, and Akins less as a passionate subjugation than as the restless sojourn of half-articulate captives in a land that seemed alien to them. Marriage continued to be the first choice and a career the second of most women, as their enrollment percentage in colleges continued to drop steadily from 40.3 in 1930 to 30.2 in 1950. In the theatre, divorcees and professional women continued to be perceived as "threats" to the institution of marriage, because they personified women's fulfillment through chosen alternative social roles. Not until the late 1950s would public attention again focus on the issues probed so searchingly by this generation of playwrights. Certainly, isolated expressions of "feminist" theatre, like Sophie Treadwell's Machinal (Plymouth Theatre, September 7, 1928), had continued, but they were generally short-lived, and for a quarter of a century, there was no reappearance of the serious concern with the "woman problem" that had characterized the work of America's women playwrights from the Midwest.

My comments have been limited to plays written by middle-class women who bring to issue kinship rules and incest taboos in which primary sex role determines generic restrictions for dramatic action. A thoroughgoing analysis would have included, among others, the ordinary females and heteroclites created by Clare Kummer, Rose Pastor Stokes, Alice Gerstenberg, Alice Brown, Sophie Treadwell, Rita Wellman, Neith Boyce, Lula Vollmer, Maurine Watkins, Charlotte Perkins Gill-man, and Julie Herne. Nor have I mentioned Edward Sheldon, George Middleton, Bayard Veiller, Sidney Howard, George Kelly, Eugene O'Neill, and S. N. Behrman, who were remarkably sensitive to the predicaments of female characters and deserve to be reevaluated in this light.

As theatre historians and critics, we must now attempt to refine our working lexicon. Beyond female roles dictated by kinship structures (e.g. wife, mother, daughter, sister, bride, mother-in-law, widow, grandmother), there exist other roles which are more or less independent (e.g., coquette, ingénue, soubrette, career woman, servant, shaman, witch, bawd, whore) as well as interdependent roles (e.g., the other woman, mulatto). Only by developing descriptive categories with some historical precision can we hope to account for both formulaic successes and changes in dramatic modes. A more accurate vocabulary for female "dramatis personae" could help us to understand the interrelationships between the theatre and evolving social milieus in this and other periods.


SOURCE: Burke, Sally. "The Woman Question On-stage." In American Feminist Playwrights: A Critical History, pp. 29-64. New York: Twayne, 1996.

In the following essay, Burke provides an overview of drama written by women during the suffrage era and the early years of feminism, focusing on the works of such authors as Charlotte Perkins Gilman, Rachel Crothers, and Susan Glaspell.

The Woman Question was an umbrella phrase coined during the nineteenth century to cover a multitude of questions. For some, it signaled a desire for honest debate; for others, it functioned as a code phrase whose purpose was to answer the "Question" by proving woman's inferiority. The Woman Question carried ramifications in politics, the arts, religion, philosophy, economics, science, and the broader area of social relationships. Many and varied questions were raised. For instance, is woman man's property? Is she entitled to property in her own right? To higher education? May she control her sexuality through contraception? What effect does her employment have on the capitalist system and on the family? And of increasing importance, should women vote? How great a fear of women actually exercising power through the ballot does resistance to women suffrage illustrate?

Formal statements of the Question took shape in the second quarter of the nineteenth century. Margaret Fuller's Woman in the Nineteenth Century (1845) envisions a future of limitless potential for women, looking forward to the emergence of a "female Newton," for example; Fuller decries the sexual double standard and calls for economic "self-dependence" for women. To those who doubt woman's ability to take part in the affairs of government, she offers the actress and the Quaker preacher as examples of females versed in public expression.

Taking a different position were the patriarchy and its supporters, who had a vested interest in terms of economics, authority, and even comfort in woman remaining subservient and who called on the construct of female inferiority to preserve the status quo, attempting to use the quality of her "womanliness" itself, however vaguely defined, to limit a woman's activity. Proponents of this philosophy ranked African Americans, women, and children as inferior to the white male; both skull and brain size were measured to "prove" quantitatively woman's lesser mental capability. Also argued was woman's functional inferiority, a tenet that led to the trumpeting of woman's presumed inability to deal with scientific and abstract data. Furthermore, even physicians raised alarms about the effects that the rigors of higher education would have on her reproductive system.

Questions of woman's role and nature continued to influence the view of women in an evolving American society; in the June 1914 issue of Forum, playwright and critic Florence Kiper stated: "Every play produced on the American stage, with perhaps a few negligible exceptions, has its say on the feminist question." Feminist playwrights confronted political, personal, and social issues both through and beyond the domestic sphere as they interrogated societal values and illuminated age-old conflicts in dramas dealing with suffrage, women's rights, and the New Woman.

From Seneca Falls to Suffrage

In the aftermath of the Revolution, as the public arena open to men expanded while woman's work became increasingly confining and as male enfranchisement broadened, women in ever greater numbers perceived their exclusion from suffrage as untenable. Later, as they organized, gathered signatures on antislavery petitions, and risked wrath and ridicule for speaking in public against slavery, these white, mostly middle-class women began to sense an analogy between parts of the slaves' plight and their own. They, too, were possessions. They were deprived of wage and property rights and even of the guardianship of their children; they were forbidden to vote. That even among male abolitionists they were not always welcome was strikingly apparent when the American women delegates to the 1840 World Anti-Slavery Convention in London were forced to sit in the balcony merely because of their gender. There delegate Lucretia Mott met Elizabeth Cady Stanton. As the women discussed the meaning of their exclusion, seeds were sown that grew into the Seneca Falls Women's Rights Convention of 1848.

The convention itself, now a landmark in the history of women's rights, was called by Stanton in her hometown and attended by 250 women and men. Here was adopted a document variously known as the Declaration of Principles, the Declaration of Rights, and the Declaration of Sentiments. This last title speaks volumes about the socialization of women. Written by Stanton, the declaration was modeled on the Declaration of Independence and held that "the history of mankind is a history of repeated injuries and usurpations on the part of man toward woman, having in direct object the establishment of an absolute tyranny over her." But the title Declaration of Sentiments reveals how completely women had accepted the male view of them as creatures of feeling. The instrument itself, however, insisted on woman's "immediate admission to all the rights and privileges which belong to them as citizens of the United States." The accompanying resolutions included one calling for woman suffrage; more than 70 years were to pass before women would be enfranchised. On 26 August 1920, the Nineteenth Amendment became law. Today the Women's Rights National Historical Park stands on the convention site. A memorial in the form of a water wall, 9 feet tall and 120 feet long, engraved with the text of the Declaration of Sentiments, was completed in 1993.

The Suffrage Dramas; or, Parlor Plays in Peoria

Mercy Warren used drama to urge a revolution against a foreign tyranny; her spiritual daughters employed it to expose domestic tyranny. Warren also cast a searching eye on the dominion men held over women; the suffragist playwrights focused on the injustice done a citizenry deprived of its natural rights because of gender.


COLETTE (1873-1954)

Sidonie-Gabrielle Colette, better known as Colette, was an important figure in early twentieth-century French literature. Her impressive series of novels, stories, plays, and newspaper articles include chronicles of backstage life in turn-of-the-century music halls, novels of love and betrayal from the early 1900s through World War II, and nostalgic reminiscences of her childhood. All of Colette's works are marked by sensitive descriptions of nature, sexual frankness, and a flair for the theatrical. She was widely acclaimed as a popular novelist and was considered one of the best women writers of her day. Elected to Belgium's Royal Academy of French Language and Literature in 1935, Colette was the first woman to serve as president of France's prestigious literary jury, the Goncourt Academy, and the first woman to attain the rank of Grand Officer of the Legion of Honor. While not overtly treating or advancing the feminist movements of the late nineteenth or twentieth centuries, Colette's varied works of fiction allow for both coquetry and independence, as well as fidelity and sexual adventure among women.

In 1893 Colette married Henry Gauthier-Villars, better known as Willy. Her life for the next thirteen years in Paris was was filled with disillusion, for Willy, a music critic and entrepreneur, was reportedly a ruthless, scheming, publicity seeker. Colette became unhappy during her early marriage to Willy, and for a long period she was seriously ill with an unexplained malady. It was soon after her recovery that Willy suggested to her that she write down some of the stories about her childhood, and add some salacious details—which she obediently did. At first Willy put them aside, but he later decided that he had made a mistake and printed them under his own name. Thus was the first of the Claudine series, Claudine à l'eacute;cole (1900; translated as Claudine at School, 1930), born; thus too did Sidonie Gabrielle Willy become Colette the writer. The book sold forty thousand copies in the first few months, and a long writing career followed, including such sequels as Claudine à Paris (Claudine in Paris, 1901), Claudine en ménage (Claudine Married, 1902).

Many of the earliest dramas dealing with suffrage, such as The Spirit of '76, were against it. Of those plays supporting the cause, quite a few originated as "parlor" dramas, brief, amateurish works utilizing small casts and the props readily found in the average middle-class household; others were closet dramas intended for a reading audience only. The popularity of the parlor play represents a compromise between America's Puritan conscience, still uneasy about theater, and its historical love of the dramatic. Like the young Anna Cora Mowatt, who entertained family and friends with private performances, large numbers of middle-class Americans staged parlor plays. Collections of such plays were published, and popular women's magazines sometimes included plays among their articles.1 Suffragists used circuses, pageants, picketing, and parades as street theater to win support for their cause. The suffrage parlor plays themselves, first performed in private homes or published in feminist journals, and later performed at suffragist meetings, became such popular vehicles for propaganda and fund-raising that in the later days of the struggle for the vote their venues became rented commercial theaters and fashionable hotels. Students at the women's colleges also presented the plays on their campuses. The male gaze is obvious in the work of a New York Times journalist reporting on the 16 December 1910 presentation of How They Won the Vote at Barnard. While his only remark on the play was that it had a cast of 10 characters, he did not neglect to notice that "There were no pretty girls selling tickets at the door, as there usually are at Barnard plays."

Suffragists writing for this noncommercial theater argued many different positions. In fact, there are suffragist plays situated in liberal, material, and radical/cultural positions, and several combinations thereof. The liberals argued from an Enlightenment natural rights philosophy; cultural suffragists, on the other hand, contended that the government needed women because of their very difference from men.

The ancestors of these playwrights had, of course, perceived some of the same problems. Warren and Rowson, though predating Mowatt, are the more feminist, Warren through her inference in The Group that society could benefit from the patriarchy listening to the women it preferred to silence, and Rowson through both the Utopian vision of Fetnah and the outspokenness of Rebecca. When suffragists began writing and producing plays, they, like Warren and Rowson, offered a feminist solution to inequity, proposing that the ballot would bring justice.

A cultural feminist position is evident in Something to Vote For (1911) by Charlotte Perkins Gilman, a social theorist, novelist, short-story writer, and journalist. Oriented toward a materialist position in such works as her famous Women and Economics (1898), The Home: Its Work and Influence (1903), Human Work (1904), and Man Made World: Our Androcentric Culture (1911), Gilman takes a different stance in her drama. Addressing women who feel they are well represented at the polls by their influence on the men in their lives, Gilman asks them to examine their womanly concerns and realize that they, more sensitive to human needs than are men, do indeed have reason to vote.

In Something to Vote For the antisuffrage members of the wealthy widow Carroll's women's club are set against the suffragist Dr. Strong, the symbolically named female physician who is to speak at the meeting. The closed minds of the club women are illustrated in their bylaws, which preclude discussion of woman suffrage. In this restriction, Gilman mirrors the constitutions of many actual clubs whose members felt that such discussion would be divisive. When Dr. Strong presents the Pure Milk Bill as an issue that appeals to the "motherheart and housekeeping sense of every woman" and that is "sure to make every woman want to vote," the women respond with cries of "No" and hisses.

Dr. Strong is to test milk from the plant of Mr. Billings, head of the Milk Trust and lobbyist against the bill. Before the meeting, she speaks with a milk inspector about the role bad milk plays in the high infant mortality rate. Saying, "I really believe that if mothers ran the milk business they would not be willing to poison other women's babies to make money for their own," she plots to switch the good milk Billings has brought to the meeting for the contaminated product he sells in poor neighborhoods. The doctor and the inspector expose the impure milk and Billing's greed. Shocked by the dirt in the milk, Mrs. Carroll proclaims: "Now we see what our 'influence' amounts to! Rich or poor, we are all helpless together unless we wake up to the danger and protect ourselves. That's what the ballot is for, ladies—to protect our homes! To protect our children! To protect the children of the poor! I'm willing to vote now! I'm glad to vote now! I've got something to vote for! Friends, sisters, all who are in favor of women suffrage and pure milk say Aye!" The play ends with a chorus of "Aye! Aye!"

While suffrage dramas may not have actually played in Peoria, Catherine Waugh McCulloch's Bridget's Sisters, or, The Legal Status of Illinois Women (1911) is set in Illinois. Setting her drama in 1868 to show the relevance of past and present abuse, lawyer McCulloch examines women's lack of legal status through Bridget O'Flannigan, a washer-woman who not only must hide her wages from her abusive, alcoholic husband but who has those wages attached to pay his bar bill. Bridget symbolizes all working married women subject to economic and personal exploitation. The courtroom scene highlights patriarchal arrogance. Not only does Patrick O'Flannigan assert that the bar owner "will find I am the only one who owns Bridget and her wages," but the owner admits he ignored Bridget's pleas not to sell liquor to her husband because Pat "is the head of the family and is the best judge whether he wants to drink." With the women who employ Bridget gathered in the courtroom, the play becomes something of a lecture. The laws of coverture, separate estate, and curtsey are discussed as a prelude to the judge's decision that "a wife's wages absolutely belong to her husband." Asking rhetorically why women have not risen to right such "wrongs," he suggests as reasons for female docility the facts that each woman thinks she's alone, that male domination has broken the spirit of most women, and that many women do not care about "sister women's sufferings." A debate among the women follows; woman's lack of human, moral, and civil rights is explained, culminating in a citation of the dismissal of rape charges because the rapist's orphaned 10-year-old victim was, incredible as this may seem to modern sensibilities, past the age of consent under then-current Illinois law. Brought to unity, the women decide to form an Equal Suffrage Association.

As dramas, these and others of the subgenre tend to be simplistic and didactic. Many roles are caricatures. Several make deprecating use of Irish and black servants, reminding us of the many suffragists who were greatly incensed that immigrant and black men were granted the franchise before native-born white women. Several, in their attempts to overcome the cliché of the feminist as a mannishly clad, cigar-smoking harridan, offer the old chestnuts of love and marriage as rewards to the right-thinking suffragist. As propaganda, however, the plays were successful as these feminist suffragist playwrights, working in the tradition of Warren and Rowson and imagining solutions to the Woman Question, seized the power of the pen and the stage and the passion of the current moment to dramatize their political points.

Drama and Society at the Turn of the Century and Beyond

With no little irony, the authors of the 1848 Declaration of Sentiments had resolved "[that] the objection of indelicacy which is so often brought against woman when she addresses a public audience, comes with a very ill-grace from those who encourage, by their attendance, her appearance on the stage, in the concert, or in feats of the circus." By the last decade of the nineteenth century, the coalition of feminists and suffragist playwrights, of dowagers, matrons, and debutantes appearing onstage, had done much to augment the aura of respectability brought to the theater by actors and playwrights such as Rowson and Mowatt.

In 1917, the inclusion of drama as a Pulitzer Prize category marked another milestone in its approach to respectability; the award went to Jesse Lynch Williams's Why Marry? Four years later, in 1921, the prize was awarded to a woman for the first time, going to Zona Gale for the dramatization of her novel Miss Lulu Bett. Women also were prime movers in the little theater movement, a burgeoning of smaller theaters that grew out of the exploitation of actors and playwrights by the Broadway syndicates. Called variously amateur, nonprofit, and civic, little theaters arose in many major cities in the United States. Philanthropists Alice and Irene Lewisohn presided over the metamorphosis of the Henry Street Settlement House theater into the Neighborhood Playhouse in 1915. That same year, Susan Glaspell helped found the Provincetown Players.

The rise of realism also influenced the stage; dramatists such as William Dean Howells and James A. Herne brought realism in staging, character, plot, and theme to the theater. In 1913 Alice Gerstenberg dramatized the conflict of the id and ego in Overtones by splitting her two female characters into projections of each psychological state. Each character was portrayed by two actors, one presenting the social self, the other her alter ego, who voiced the thoughts the social self dared not. Gerstenberg became the first American to present the dramatization of the subconscious mind onstage; by introducing expressionistic devices to the American stage she added the exploration of psychological realism to the dramatist's arsenal. Furthermore, male and female playwrights both began to focus on social issues.

Despite strides made by women in life and in the theater, negative images of them in both areas appeared regularly onstage. Eugene Walter's TheEasiest Way (1908) combined both, presenting the theater as the site of vice and the central character, a female actor, as corrupt. Fear of the New Woman appears in several works. William Vaughn Moody's The Faith Healer (1910) and Clyde Fitch's The City (1909) present images of women ostensibly harmed by the new freedoms gained through the women's movement.

The oddest of all the images of women on-stage was strange primarily because of its medium, not its message. Geraldine Maschio notes that female impersonators first appeared in American minstrel shows in the 1840s and reached the height of their popularity at the turn of the century. "Created and enacted by men, female impersonation attempted to prescribe and control the behavior of women by offering a three-dimensional image of the feminine ideal. That this image was created by a man meant that, as with other prescriptions, it carried the weight of authority."2 What better image of the male gaze come to life than a male-created, male-enacted portrayal of the ideal female, the true object of desire? The impersonators were praised for being "more womanly in … by-play and mannerisms than the most charming female imaginable, [and] creat[ing] … an ideal to which all obedient women aspired"; the belief in supremacy of the white male as creator is reflected in a reviewer's comment that "just as a white man makes the best stage Negro, so a man gives a more photographic interpretation of femininity than the average woman" (Maschio, 45, 46).

The New Woman

Contrary to these images was the New Woman herself. Like the varied questions that led society to try to apprehend her, she was not one but several. She was the social reformer in the settlement house, the factory worker, the telephone operator, the flapper, the stenographer. She was all those women learning to openly question authority that neither included nor heeded her. She was the woman ridiculed for trying to achieve anything on her own in an era that called on middle-class white women merely to exist, to be rather than to do. Knowing also the unequal treatment she was liable to under the law, she joined the National Woman's Party to urge enactment in 1923 of an equal rights amendment, which stated that "men and women shall have equal rights throughout the United States and every place subject to its jurisdiction." She enjoyed the freedom of new courtship patterns made possible by the automobile and the telephone; she feared being left an old maid. She was, in short, all the women celebrated and feared, castigated and feted under the title New Woman—and she was the woman whose unfair treatment, predicated on her sex, lay at the heart of many of the plays in which American feminist playwrights confronted the Woman Question.

From Broadway to Provincetown: Rachel Crothers and Susan Glaspell

Rachel Crothers and Susan Glaspell brought the New Woman to the American stage. Crothers was one of the most successful Broadway dramatists of the first quarter of the twentieth century. Glaspell cofounded the Provincetown Players, a company devoted to innovation in American drama, and wrote many of the company's most successful plays. From the Great White Way of Broadway to the fishing shacks and dunes of Cape Cod, these two playwrights played major roles in the advancement of American dramatic art.


Rachel Crothers (18703-1958) was a force to be reckoned with in theater for more than three decades. Herself the daughter of a New Woman—her mother began her medical studies after the age of 40—Crothers brought to the stage more New Women than any dramatist of her era. Among these women are muckraking activist/author Frank Ware of A Man's World (1909); journalist Ruth Creel and sculptor Ann Herford of He and She (1911); and novelist Mary Howard of When Ladies Meet (1932).

In 1891 she studied at the New England School of Dramatic Instruction. On graduating in 1892 she returned to Illinois, but her desire to be part of the theater was unquenched. In 1896 she enrolled at the Stanhope-Wheatcroft School of Acting in New York, where she spent one term as a student and four years as an instructor. The opportunities to write plays for her students, to direct these plays, and to design the costumes, sets, and props were, as she noted "of inestimable value because the doors of the theater are very tightly closed to women in the work of directing and staging plays" (Gottlieb, 18).

Although he begins by stating that "there are not many finer records in the American theatre than that achieved by Rachel Crothers," Burns Mantle calls her "America's first lady [emphasis added] dramatist" in his 1938 Contemporary American Playwrights, illustrating that the same double standards Crothers resisted in her dramas were alive in theater. This pigeonholing by sex was undoubtedly influenced by the virulent prejudice against women other than as actors at the turn of century. As Doris Abramson remarks: "[I]nterviews with and articles about 'lady playwrights' were often placed on the society page."4 Critic George Jean Nathan frequently referred to women playwrights as "girls." Walter Pritchard Eaton, while somewhat less sexist, still made man the measure. In his 1910 review of A Man's World, he finds the play "just misses the masculinity of structure and the inevitableness of episode necessary to make it dramatic literature" (Abramson, 57).

Crothers represents and celebrates the New Woman. Beginning with her earliest plays, she exposes the fictions about women created by the patriarchy to reinforce its paradigms of womanhood,5 as she illustrates the arbitrariness of socialization by gender and the concomitant cost for women and society in the unfulfilled human potential for work, love, or both. Aware of the difficulty of resisting such socialization, Crothers portrays many women who are unable or unwilling to pay that price, choosing instead to submit themselves to the "rules" of a patriarchal society. Some critics feel that in the middle years of her career Crothers herself may have bowed to her audience's inability to overcome its patriarchal prejudices and that her dramas from this period somehow impugn her feminist credentials. Yet Crothers was as "woman conscious" in her drama as she was in her life. She told Djuna Barnes during an interview for the May 1931 issue of Theater Guild magazine that "For a woman, it is best to look to women for help; women are more daring, they are glad to take the most extraordinary chances." She added: "I think I should have been longer about my destiny if I had to battle with men alone."

In 1931 Crothers told Henry Albert Phillips: "With few exceptions every one of my plays has been a social attitude toward women at the moment I wrote it … I [do not] go out stalking the footsteps of women's progress. It is something that comes to me subconsciously. I may say that I sense the trend even before I have hearsay or direct knowledge of it."6 Whether her perceptions were subconscious or not, Crothers dramatized such human—not exclusively women's—issues as the need for meaningful work and the ensuing conflicts for some women between marriage (and sometimes motherhood) and career; the problems inherent in assuming that double standards were "natural"; the resistance and resentment encountered by assertive, successful women; and the loneliness that might impel a single woman into an unsatisfying marriage. In a 13 February 1912 interview with the Boston Evening Transcript, Crothers said that she chose women as her central characters because "women are in themselves more dramatic than men, more changing and a more significant note of the hour in which they live. If you want to see the signs of the times, watch women. Their evolution is the most important thing in modern life."

The tension between woman's increasing awareness of herself as a human being and man's desire to maintain the status quo is illustrated in her plays. In several the male lead refers to his counterpart as "little girl," evincing a desire to keep her dependent on him. From The Three of Us (1906) through When Ladies Meet (1932), the males in more than a dozen of Crothers's major dramas, including A Man's World and He and She, express the desire to "take care of" the females, even as Crothers makes it apparent through the accomplishments of these women that they need no caretakers. Many are over 30—Crothers prided herself on creating plays wherein the protagonist was not a 17-year-old ingenue. The male desire to protect actually masks the patriarchal privilege within middle-class marriage whereby a woman traded her youth, beauty, and sexuality for economic dependence on a man. Many of Crothers's plays question the assumptions about male and female grounded in generalizations about gender that inevitably work to secure the comfort and reinforce the power of the patriarchy. Crothers's feminism is visible in her plays, and, despite claims to the contrary by some late-twentieth-century critics, with no subversion of the texts, for most of those texts themselves subvert the patriarchal social order.7

Crothers's earliest works were brief one-act dramas written for her students. In two, Criss-Cross (1899) and The Rector (1902), New Women protagonists confront society's unfairness to women. Crothers's protagonist may have either career or marriage; she evidences artistic or personal competence only at the price of losing the man she loves.

With The Three of Us (1906), her first Broadway drama, Crothers began to probe the societal conventions that impede women's self-determination. Concepts such as the basis of woman's honor and the double standard are closely questioned, yet Crothers's critics fault her for her protagonist's choosing to "adopt" the patriarchal code rather than abandon her brother. As Judith L. Stephens explains, Progressive Era politics, the dramatic conventions of the time, and "the prevailing belief in women's moral superiority exert[ed] a strong influence in determining the bounds within which the meaning of gender was constructed and negotiated in Progressive era drama."8 Thus, "Progressive era plays reinforced such gender ideology by their moralistic nature and conventional structure even as they incorporated ideas intended to effect 'progress for women'" (Stephens, 292). While Crothers did not always openly transgress these principles of drama and sexual politics, she managed to subvert several tenets of male-female relationships deemed "natural" in her era.

Rhy MacChesney, the nonconformist protagonist of The Three of Us, "is forceful and fearless as a young Amazon, with the courage of belief in herself—the audacity and innocence of youth which has never known anything but freedom—the lovableness of a big nature and sunniness of an undying sense of humor. What she wears is very far from the fashion, but has charm and individuality and leaves her as free and unconscious of her strength and beauty as an animal." Just as her unconventional dress announces freedom from slavery to fashion, her search through an old trunk for "a dress of mother's" to wear to a party and her catching the keys to that trunk "like a boy" signal Crothers's refusal to valorize traditional signs of gender.

Believing herself free to do as she wishes, Rhy resists the idea that she has seriously compromised herself by coming to a man's home alone at night and that she has no alternative but to become his mistress. Shocked at the extent to which she is a prisoner of gender, she angrily responds: "It's true, then—all women must be afraid. I haven't believed it. I've thought we could do anything that was right in itself. I still think it! A good woman hasn't anything to be afraid of. Nothing can make a thing wrong that really is right. I'm not afraid of the world—it's you—you who can't understand. That this could have happened to me—to me!" Her belief that only Berresford, a villain, would presume to judge on appearances is dispelled when Townley, her sweetheart, enters, assumes she has dishonored herself, and tells her: "You shan't leave here till you say you'll marry this man. Don't you care anything for your honor and your good name?" As the men joust over who'll defend her tarnished honor, Rhy breaks in: "Don't you dare speak to me of my honor and my good name! Don't you dare to say you'll 'take care of it.' My honor! Do you think it's in your hands? It's my own and I'll take care of it and of everyone who belongs to me. I don't need you—either of you. 'Love—protection—trust!' Why I have to fight you both. Don't talk to me about whom I'm going to marry. That's a very little thing. Something else comes first!"

Rhy realized that her brother Clem had sold information that Berresford used to discredit Townley; Clem is the "something else [that] comes first." Despite her telling him that he sold his self respect quite cheaply for Berresford's $500, Clem remains defiant until she tells him she went alone to Berresford's and was discovered there by Townley. For her brother's benefit, she "sobs unrestrainedly," telling Clem: "I've got you to take care of me." After Rhy reclaims Clem, she and Townley are reconciled when she asks him to believe in the power of her love. The curtain falls as Rhy says, "We must make a good man of [Clem]. I have you to help me."

Although the play falls within the scope of the Progressive Era dramas described by Stephens, with Rhy making the self-sacrificing, moral decision and the men recouping positions of power, not everyone was oblivious to the challenges posed to conventional notions of woman and goodness. Mary Carolyn Davis wrote in the 1 June 1918 issue of the Nation—some 12 years after the play's premiere—that it "gave the deathblow to the cherished theatrical convention that a woman's honor must be fatally injured because she happens to be alone in a room with a man after sundown."9 Surely some in the audience also recognized in the final line a comment on the social construction of manhood. Many reviewers, however, did respond within the range described by Stephens. In the 3 June 1907 edition of the Chicago News, the writer praises Rhy because she is "not the emancipating trumpeter of noisy deeds for femininity, but the holy woman of the great resplendent life of throbbing motherhood"! It would appear that for this writer the madonna/feminist dichotomy is more threatening than that of the madonna/whore, a division used by the patriarchy from time immemorial to classify women.

Continuing her scrutiny of the unfairness of a male-dominated world, Crothers anatomized the power of the patriarchy through its manifestations in the double standard in A Man's World (1909), a social problem drama that concerns the relationship between Frank Ware, feminist and novelist, and Malcolm Gaskell, a reporter, as it is affected by their attitudes toward the double standard. Frank, raised by her writer father "to see—to know—to touch all kinds of life" discerned very early the limitations put on women: "[t]he more I knew—the more I thought women had the worst of it." While living in Paris, Frank and her father take in a young, unmarried, pregnant woman whom Frank sees "suffer the tortures of hell through her disgrace." When the woman dies giving birth, Frank adopts the baby boy, whom she names Kiddie. Years later, after falling in love with Gaskell, she discovers he is Kiddie's father. When Gaskell, who had abandoned Kiddie's mother without knowing of her pregnancy, learns of his paternity, he claims male prerogative and refuses to acknowledge he's done anything wrong; Frank, therefore, rejects him. Crothers, like most feminists of the era, argues not for more sexual freedom for women but for a single standard of abstinence and fidelity for both sexes.

Branching from this issue are such related topics as the power of love, woman's need for economic independence, the value of work, and the pain of loneliness. Frank, an active and engaging character who is described in her initial appearance as "strong, free, unafraid, with the glowing charm of a woman at the height of her development," is also the primary focus of the debates about these concerns. One of Crothers's superior women, Frank is, through her name, announced as forthright. She is a successful novelist who centers her work around social problems concerning women. Frank's economic independence is an expression of Crothers's materialist feminism; Frank is "free" because her privileged background, education, and talent have enabled her to earn her way, and she recognizes that social conditions that are condoned, even sanctioned, by the patriarchy are responsible for the plights of the women of the Lower East Side about whom she writes.

In her novels, Frank exposes the conditions underlying the poverty, prostitution, and social decay of the slums. Because of her subject matter, the strength of her style, and her "male" name, early reviewers assumed Frank was a man: "The Beaten Path is the strongest thing that Frank Ware has ever done. Her first work attracted wide attention when we thought Frank Ware was a man, but now that we know she is a woman we are more than ever impressed by the strength and scope of her work.…Her great cry is for women—to make them better by making them freer." Such a "cry" flies in the face of the patriarchal system that seeks to make women virtuous by making them prisoners of the code that so dismayed Rhy. Frank's "friends," no less skeptical of woman's talent, wonder where and how she gets her material and think that a man must be helping her. During one conversation, her male friends also speculate about whether Kiddie is Frank's biological child and wonder why, if he is not, she refuses to divulge his parentage.

Zeroing in on the sexual double standard, Crothers effects a stunning reversal of the situation presented in The Three of Us. Rather than dramatizing the plight of a woman who is convicted of immorality on the basis of mere appearances, she presents a man who absolves himself from responsibility for his actions because of his gender. Gaskell, whom Frank agrees to marry while blinded by love for her idealized vision of him, is actually an arrogant, unpleasant character. Crothers makes the true Gaskell very unattractive as she illustrates both his callousness and his conviction of male superiority. Of Frank's book, he says: "You haven't got at the social evil in the real sense. You couldn't tackle that. It's too big for you.…You don't get at the thing. You keep banging away about woman—woman and what she could do for herself if she would. Why—this is a man's world. Women'll never change anything." Turning then to her activities with the girls' club she sponsors, he declares that she is wasting her time with these lower-class girls whom he sees as promiscuous. In this, Gaskell represents the patriarchal view that once a girl is "ruined" there's no redeeming her. (The "ruiner" is, of course, free from any censure.) This attitude also underlies his urgent desire to know about Kiddie's background; he arrogantly informs Frank: "I'm a man. You're a woman. I love you. I have the right to know your life."

Gaskell's assumption of privilege—like that of all the men, fictional or real, who have subscribed to this view of woman—has a long history. The sexual double standard has been in force for thousands of years. Men often assigned a lower level of sexual desire to women, and then went to great lengths legally and socially to ensure that their myth, necessary to what they saw as the orderly functioning of society, was maintained. Crothers has Gaskell, albeit unknowingly, admit as much when in a marvel of circular logic he proclaims: "Man sets the standard for woman. He knows that she's better than he is and he demands that she be—and if she isn't she got to suffer for it. That's the whole business in a nutshell—and you know it." Not only does he claim to speak for all men, Gaskell is also quite open about his view of woman's role in life. He avers: "Women are only meant to be loved—and men have got to take care of them. That's the whole business."

When revealed as Kiddie's father, he is unrepentant. He insists that nothing has changed and that the separation Frank now perceives between them is based only on her ideas, which are, of course, inconsequential: "[S]ince the beginning of time one thing has been accepted for a man and another for a woman. Why on earth do you beat your head against a stone wall? Why do you try to put up your ideals against the facts?" When Frank will not accept the "facts," he enlists the patriarchy's version of the natural order: "You're a woman. I'm a man. We don't live under the same laws. It was never meant to be. Nature, nature made men different."

Despite Frank's rejection of his argument about the essence of male and female and his recourse to nature, Gaskell insists she not "hold [him] to account by a standard that does not exist." Frank learns that he is not the man she imagined him to be, not the "fine and honest man" her culture encouraged her to lean on. He is not even a man who, to save their relationship, would do the minimum she asks and admit he'd been wrong. Thus, in the only ending possible, Frank remains true to her feminist values and the lovers part.

The play's characters are varied and vivid, the dialogue crisp and convincing, and the tension satisfying. This is not a preachy polemic but a logical working out of the incompatibility of Frank's liberal feminism and Gaskell's inflexible belief in women's inferiority as encoded in the double standard. In the June 1914 issue of Forum, Florence Kiper called the play "honest [and] well built drama, interesting to feminists not only because of its exposition of a modern sex-problem, but also because it is written by a woman—one who does not attempt to imitate the masculine viewpoint, but who sees the feminine experience through the feminine temperament." Eaton, in the review previously cited, could not resist sneering as he reported that Frank "has a little theory—women do get such theories tenaciously into their heads nowadays—that she does not care to have to forgive the man she loves for any unsavory episodes connected with 'the living of a man's life!'" Not only is the sneer inappropriate; Eaton is clearly wrong. Frank was ready to forgive Gaskell's past if he would only admit he had been wrong.

A Man's World provoked such a stir that Augustus Thomas responded to it with his dramatic defense of the double standard, As a Man Thinks (1911). Here Dr. Seelig, countering the argument in which his wife makes a direct reference to Crothers—"And that woman dramatist with her play was right. It is a man's world"—proclaims, "There is a double standard of morality because upon the golden basis of women's virtue rests the welfare of the world." The sophistry behind Thomas's argument is worthy of a Malcolm Gaskell.

The secondary theme of A Man's World, woman's talent and her right to employ it, becomes the focus in He and She. Taken on tour in hopes of securing a Broadway run, the play premiered in Poughkeepsie, New York; rechristened The Herfords, it opened in Boston in 1912, but did not make it to Broadway until 1920, at which time the original title was restored and Crothers played the lead. In 1980, playwright Emily Mann directed a revival.

The play concerns the apparently egalitarian marriage of Ann and Tom Herford, two successful sculptors. Tom is completing his entry in a design competition for a building frieze. Ann, having second thoughts about Tom's design, develops one that she wishes him to submit instead. When he refuses, she enters the competition. Ann wins the commission, and the egalitarian spirit of the marriage begins—on Tom's part—to erode. As various family members and friends debate woman's role as mother, worker, and artist, the situation seems to defy resolution until the Herfords' daughter Millicent presents herself as needing her mother's attention. Ann decides that Millicent needs her more than she herself needs her art and asks Tom to execute her design.

The issue of women and work is raised almost with the curtain. Keith, Tom's assistant, asks him: "Have you ever been sorry that Mrs. Herford is a sculptor—instead of just your wife?" Keith's word choice is interesting; the "just" implies that Ann would be something less than she is were she "just" Tom's wife, while the "sorry" infers that there is something less than desirable about a wife who is "more" than just a wife. Keith is engaged to journalist Ruth Creel, who will marry him if he lets her keep working. He wonders how she can keep doing all that has made her so successful and tend a house too. He protests that Ruth, unlike Ann, who works in her studio at home, is "tied down to office hours and it's slavery." He never questions the fact that his ideal of having "a girl by my own fireside to live for me alone" would make her both a slave and a house prisoner. Keith claims to be quite liberal: "I'm strong for women doing anything they want to do—in general—But when it's the girl you love and want to marry it's different."

Tom, mildly amused, tells him that his attitude about working women in the abstract should not differ from his attitude about a particular working woman, but Keith cannot see beyond the fact that "[t]he world [read men] has got to have homes to live in and who's going to make 'em if the women don't do it?" When Tom mentions the excellence of Ruth's mind, Keith responds: "Oh, mind be damned. I want a wife." Later he asks Tom's sister Daisy, who is secretly in love with him, whether she sees anything wrong in "wanting a girl to give up hard, slavish work and let him take care of her." The difficulty of many household tasks is elided in Keith's question; for him it is simply invisible. The audience may realize who is really being taken care of; Keith never will. The basis of Keith's argument is his detestation of the fact that women who work do not need men to survive. As he sees it: "The minute a woman makes enough to buy the clothes on her back, she thinks she and God Almighty are running the earth and men are just little insects crawling around." Keith protests the fact that woman's economic independence saps his power to decree what she will do; Crothers introduces these issues as part of the subplot because this seeming caricature is voicing emotions that Tom will experience.

When Ann wins the competition, Tom shows himself caught in the patriarchal mind-set; although act 1 ends with an egalitarian handshake as Tom welcomes Ann to the competition, in act 2 Crothers shows him to be brother to Keith. They first learn that Tom has come in second; Ann consoles him. Shortly, they learn that Ann has won. Tom seems to handle the news well. Yet minutes later he is asking her what she will do with their 16-year-old daughter that summer and telling her that he will not touch any of her commission money. He accuses her of letting her ambition run amok, then, sounding like Malcolm Gaskell, tells her: "You're a woman and I'm a man. You're not free in the same way. If you won't stop because I ask it—I say you must … I demand it. I say you've got to."

Tom is no different from Keith. He feels his manhood threatened by Ann's ability to earn the $100,000 commission and fears her economic success will lessen her interest in her roles as wife, mother, and mistress of the house. At bottom, he too wants "a girl by [his] own fireside to live for [him] alone." Ann and Ruth, on the other hand, speak of the need for economic independence, and Ann tells her father that a woman's ability to make a living can mitigate any blow.

Keith and Tom are figurative sons of Ann's father, the quintessential patriarch Dr. Remington. He is, in Ann's word, "mid-Victorian" in his attitude at best and medieval at worst. A doctor, as representative of the patriarchy, is a frequent character in the drama of this era. In James Herne's Margaret Fleming (1890), Dr. Larkin validates Margaret's decision to raise her husband's illegitimate child and to allow Philip back into their home by saying, "[T]his world needs just such women as you"; in As a Man Thinks, Dr. Seelig valorizes both the double standard and woman's supposedly superior moral nature. Dr. Remington literally is the patriarch; he issues commands to both the women and the younger men. One of his comments—"And here's that pretty little Ruth thing—knowing so much it makes my head ache"—dehumanizes Ruth and demeans her intelligence, and his words to Tom—"[I]f you don't look out you'll be so mixed up you'll be upstairs keeping house and Ann will be downstairs keeping shop"—clearly indicate his position on woman's place. He assumes that human rights are man's to dispense and explains that women must not exercise their rights: "the more women make good—the more they come into the vital machinery of running the world, the more they complicate their own lives and the more tragedies they lay up for themselves." Claiming recourse to "natural" law, he adds, "The development of women hasn't changed the laws of creation … [for] no matter how far she goes she doesn't change the fundamental laws of her own—… mechanism." She must choose between the "two sides of her own nature." His biological determinism is debunked by Ruth's and Ann's love for their work, by their success, and by the fact that the men are those who decree that women must choose.

Selecting motherhood as possibly the strongest weapon in his arsenal, he claims that sitting "by her own fireside with children on her knee … [is] the only thing in the game that's worth a cent—anyway." Besides ignoring the millions of women who are not of his sociocultural milieu, his argument fails to account for Ruth, who is uninterested in rearing children. The argument falls short in his daughter's case also. Her only child, a selfish daughter who literally pulls Ann away from her work, is at 16 well beyond sitting on her mother's knee.

That Remington, despite his pose of egalitarian benevolence, finds women inferior becomes obvious when he chastises Ann for humiliating Tom. He tells her that Tom has suffered "a blow tonight that no man on earth could stand," that is, being beaten by a woman. Later, perhaps advising him to trade a physical blow for a metaphoric one, when Tom says he doesn't give orders to Ann, Remington responds: "The devil you don't. She'd like it. A woman—a dog and a walnut tree—the more you beat 'em the better they be."

Crothers exposes the fear, jealousy, and selfishness underlying the patriarchal order as Ann challenges her father with these words: "You've never thought I had any right to work—never believed in my ability, now that I've proved I have some—Why can't you acknowledge it?" In fact, both Ann's husband and her father acknowledge her ability, but not to her. Before he knows the outcome of the contest, Tom tells Keith: "The men judging this know. I'd trust them with anything. The fellows who lose will have no kick coming on that score." Remington reminds Tom about Ann's having offered her design to him: "[S]he laid her genius at your feet once and she'd do it again." Even recognizing her genius, he is willing to see it subjugated to her gender; her success bothers him so much that he says he'd rather see her happy as a woman than as an artist, once again refusing to see that, for Ann, the two are inextricably bound, and once again concealing the fact that the choice he would have her make is dictated by his preference, not by woman's "dual" nature.

Because the patriarchy as embodied by the three men will brook no alternative to its ownership of women and children—even though all the men try to veil this ownership by romanticizing, rationalizing, and spiritualizing it—the three adult women must respond to its dictates. Daisy subscribes to the philosophy that a couple cannot be happy unless the man dominates. Although she labels Daisy's emotional restatement of the law of coverture something from the dark ages, Ruth literally disappears from the drama after Remington declares the primacy of motherhood. Ann is left, many critics claim, to effect a compromise with Tom. But Crothers did not write of a compromise; she detailed a sacrifice. Learning that Millicent has become engaged to the chauffeur at her boarding school,10 Ann succumbs to the pressure to take care of her child and asks Tom to execute her design. Giving up her art, Ann reverts to the gender role prescribed by her father, her era, and her class. What has Tom given? He says he will not let her sacrifice herself for their daughter and warns her that surrendering the commission will cause anguish to the artist in her, but he speaks only after Ann has made her decision. She has sacrificed her art, the work that brought her personal fulfillment and a way of illustrating the talents and capabilities of women. Her last line: "Put out the light," signifies the extinguishing of her inner light of inspiration for the sake of a selfish child who will soon leave home.

Because its conclusion highlights this sacrifice, He and She is decidedly more feminist than is usually recognized. Ann bows to the patriarchal vision of what makes woman valuable and lovable: her ability to serve, to submit, to sacrifice. The ending illuminates the wastefulness of her action, for by concluding her drama in darkness Crothers shows that the opposite of Ann's healthy self-interest (branded selfishness by the men) is a bleak self-less-ness.

That Ann's sacrifice was most likely undertaken in vain was not lost on the contemporary audience. Alexander Woollcott saw clearly that Crothers was roiling the waters, not calming them. In the New York Times of 13 February 1920, he deemed the play a tragedy: "for something fine and strong dies in the last act. It is the hope, the ambition and all the future work of a genius—deliberately slain in order that the 'she' of He And She may be able to play more attentively and more whole-heartedly what she is driven [emphasis added] to regard as her more important role—that of wife and mother." In the 25 May 1980 New York Times, Jean Ashton remarked: "He And She, like Miss Crothers's other plays, is a descriptive, not a prescriptive work. Far from accepting this or any of her comedies as anti-feminist, Miss Crothers noted simply that the freedom women had achieved in the early years of the 20th century was tenuous and deceptive. Men still made the rules; women who broke them did so at tremendous cost."

While the 1920 version of He and She is decidedly feminist, the decade of the 1920s saw the paradox of women who had secured the right of suffrage and gained access to higher education retreating from social activism and returning to the home. This resurgence of domesticity—an effect of backlash against woman's progress that has recurred with disheartening regularity throughout the history of the woman's movement—finds its way into Crothers's drama, but even when she began to create social comedies rather than deal with social problems, gender issues were never absent from her work.

Although Susan and God (1937), the last of Crothers's produced plays, was named the most outstanding play of the season by the Theater Club, it is little more than a satire of the Oxford movement, and its protagonist, Susan Trexler, genuinely unlikable. When Ladies Meet, coming five years earlier, is the capstone of Crothers's career in dealing with the evolution of the modern woman. Its protagonist, 32-year-old Mary Howard, is a successful novelist who cares what women of her "own kind" think of her work; Mary, despite her success, feels incomplete without a man in her life. Her emotions lead her to contemplate an affair with her married publisher, Rogers Woodruff. Her inclination is prefigured in her latest novel, which centers around such an affair. Woodruff, described as having "an irresistible charm for women," is a romanticized idol for Mary; she cannot see, behind his charismatic mask, the clichéd character who tries to persuade her to become his lover with the oldest of lines: "If you [loved me] you wouldn't hesitate one second.… If you loved me—like that—you'd take me." Mary agrees to go with him to Bridget Drake's country place, but Jimmie, who himself loves Mary, shows up with Woodruff's wife, Claire, in tow, having first made sure Woodruff is called away on business.

Neither woman knows of the other's relationship to Woodruff. They like each other almost immediately, and they discuss Mary's books. Claire declares Mary's earlier novel Alice "astonishingly true, from a girl's standpoint"; Mary thinks that she's preparing "something new and honest—from a woman's standpoint." When she asks Claire her opinion of the situation in the novel, her prospective lover's wife reminds her that the other woman "ought to know enough not to believe a married man—if he's making love to her"—and that the wife might not be as much of a "dub" as the novel's protagonist believes her to be. Once the three members of this triangle come together, Woodruff tries to keep up the pretense that he and Mary are at Bridget's merely to work.

Seeing Mary's pain at his rejection enables Claire to see her own. Realizing she, too, has been creating a fiction based on the false premises that her husband can't help attracting women and that his infidelities mean little when he returns home to her, she no longer wants him. Admiring each other, the women can no longer pretend that the wife is a dub and the potential mistress a slut; recognizing each other, they see through him. Rejecting a man-centered existence that merely staves off loneliness, these superior women mature, and this is Crothers's point: when ladies meet in an atmosphere of confidence and trust, they become women, women deserving a better partner than Rogers Woodruff.

In this late play as in Crothers's first works, women decide to forgo love with a particular man, but there is a notable difference. In the earlier plays, the superior woman yields her interest in the male to another, perhaps weaker, woman in an action indicative of the "noble" self-sacrifice held up to women as ideal in this particular mythic mode of womanhood. Now, instead of silent suffering and surrender, the women undergo a course of self-discovery that allows them to realize the unworthiness of the man who lies to them both.

Crothers brought the New Woman—strong, talented, and intelligent—onstage; many of her woman-centered dramas focus on the social problems that arise when woman's human rights conflict with the patriarchal order. Considering that she wrote at a time when for the majority of her audience the overriding question of a woman's life drama concerned who, and sometimes whether, she would marry, Crothers's creation of at least one strongly feminist play in each of the last four decades of her career—The Three of Us (1906) and A Man's World (1909); the reworking of The Herfords (1912) as He and She (1920), and When Ladies Meet (1932)—is remarkable. Even her social comedies respond to issues raised by the Woman Question. She pursued these issues in a manner calculated to challenge the limitations placed on women by the patriarchal system, chronicling, for example, the folly of man's obsessive concern with woman's body as the repository of his honor. Crothers allows audiences to see the arguments about woman's place in society from a woman's perspective, both her own and those of her characters, some of whom mature from their romantic dependence on man as the imagined vehicle of fulfillment to achieve both a sense of self and freedom from the male ego's limited perception of her.

Dramatically, her work is important in the history of the development of serious social comedy in America. Crothers's early plays show her rapidly increasing command of structural and stylistic techniques. Her bright, witty, yet realistic dialogue ranks with the best of its era. Her central focus, which is the Woman Question, gives the Crothers canon a unified purpose. Often criticized as a "formula" playwright or a sentimentalist, Crothers instead presented dramas that dealt with real-life questions. The tragedy she illuminated, as Woollcott noted, was that of women "driven" into choices that sap the power and creativity of one-half of humankind.


Susan Glaspell (1876-1948), who helped transform American drama through her connection with the Provincetown Players and who created new ways of representing women onstage, began writing early, publishing short stories in such magazines as Youth's Companion. Upon graduation from Drake University in Davenport, Iowa, she became a reporter for the Des Moines Daily News. In 1901 she returned to Davenport to devote full time to her fiction, publishing two or three stories each year; in 1920 she published Plays, a collection of her dramas.

In 1913 Glaspell married George Cram Cook. Whatever else marriage brought Glaspell, its most significant aspect for American drama was her becoming, with Cook, a founder of the Provincetown Players. Founded in a fishing shack on a pier in Provincetown, Massachusetts, and devoted to producing only original plays by American playwrights, the theater counted among its contributors Edna St. Vincent Millay, Theodore Dreiser, and Djuna Barnes, but none so important to transforming American theater as Eugene O'Neill and Glaspell herself. When her first play, Suppressed Desires, cowritten with Cook, was rejected by the Washington Square Players, she and Cook presented it in their apartment; in the summer of 1915 they again performed it. Although the players were not formally organized until 1916, the season that introduced Glaspell's Trifles, the preceding summer may truly be counted as the birth date of this remarkable theater.


SUSAN GLASPELL (1876-1948)

Susan Glaspell is best known for her role as co-founder of the influential theatre group the Provincetown Players; she also earned acclaim for her dramatic works and fiction published during the first half of the twentieth century. Glaspell was born in 1876 in Davenport, Iowa. She earned a doctorate at Drake University in nearby Des Moines in 1899, and became a reporter for both the Des Moines Daily News and the Des Moines Capital. By 1901, Glaspell was also publishing regularly in various magazines aimed at female readers. In 1910 began a romantic relationship with George Cram Cook; Cook and his wife divorced within a few years and Glaspell moved with him to New York City. The couple married in 1913, and in 1915 they co-founded the Provincetown Players, which was designed to produce the works of promising new American playwrights. Most prominent among the writers drawn to the Provincetown Players was Eugene O'Neill; however, Glaspell also proved an accomplished playwright; in 1916 Provincetown Players staged her first one-act drama, Trifles, which is generally considered Glaspell's masterpiece, and which she later adapted into the short story "A Jury of Her Peers," the title story of a 1927 collection. Glaspell and Cook moved to Greece, where Cook died in 1922. Glaspell married Norman Matson, a writer, in 1925; the couple divorced in 1931. In 1930 Glaspell enjoyed her greatest literary success with the play Alison's House, in which a dead poet's relatives confront their feelings about love. Glaspell was awarded a Pulitzer Prize for this work, which was the last play she ever wrote. She published several novels, including Ambrose Holt and Family (1931), The Morning is Near Us (1939), and Judd Rankin's Daughter (1945), before her death in Provincetown in 1948.

Encouraged by the attendance and by favorable reviews given their summer seasons, the group moved to New York in the winter of 1916. They named themselves the Provincetown Players and, as O'Neill suggested, called their playhouse The Playwrights' Theatre, a move that underscored the primacy of the playwright in their enterprise. They also decided "that active members must either write, act, produce, or donate labor."11 This dictum provided a showcase for the other talents of Glaspell. In addition to providing more plays for the theater than any playwright except O'Neill, she directed some of her own plays and acted in Suppressed Desires, Trifles, The People (1917), Close the Book (1917), Woman's Honor (1918), The Outside (1918), Bernice (1919), and The Inheritors (1921), for all of which, with the exception of Suppressed Desires, she was the sole author. She not only spoofed Freudian analysis in Suppressed Desires and satirized the male vision of woman in Woman's Honor, she also illustrated the difficulty of truly representing woman onstage in Trifles, Bernice, and Alison's House (1930). In both The Outside and The Verge (1922), she dealt with woman's struggle with a malecentered language while at the same time she demonstrated her facility as an expressionist. Almost all of the plays deal with the problems women encounter in attempting, against the strong current of patriarchal authority, to forge identities of their own.

In Trifles, Bernice, and Alison's House, Glaspell constructs dramas around women who never appear onstage; paradoxically, the presence of these characters is strongly felt. In this device lies a striking achievement: she brings the absent women onstage diegetically, while at the same time their absence serves as a commentary on the manner in which the patriarchy has deprived women of their substance. That these women appear only through the words of others speaks to the constructed nature of womanhood itself.

Trifles, Glaspell's first play as sole author, was loosely based on a murder trial she covered for the Des Moines Daily News.12 In her reverential biography of Cook, Glaspell explains that he had announced a play of hers for production and refused to accept that she had none:

So I went out on the wharf … and looked a long time at that bare little stage. After a time the stage became a kitchen—a kitchen there all by itself. I saw just where the stove was, the table, and the steps going upstairs. Then the door at the back opened, and people all bundled up came in—two or three men, I wasn't sure which, but sure enough about the two women, who hung back, reluctant to enter that kitchen.…Whenever I got stuck, I would run across the street to the old wharf, sit in that leaning little theater under which the sea sounded, until the play was ready to continue.13

The social conditions pertaining to the plot of Trifles were set forth by Charlotte Perkins Gilman in The Man-Made World, or Our Androcentric Culture: Women have no standing; in the "proprietary family" of the patriarchy, their purpose is "first and foremost [as] a means of pleasure to [man]." Furthermore, family relationships are arranged "from the masculine viewpoint.… From this same viewpoint … comes the requirement that the woman shall serve the man." Accordingly, "[t]he dominant male, holding his woman as property … has hedged them in with restrictions of a thousand sorts," which ensure that "she cannot develop humanly, as he has, through social contact, social service, true social life."14 These attitudes and restrictions cripple the lives of all three women presented in the play.

Ostensibly a murder mystery, the play deals on its surface with the attempt of Sheriff Peters, County Attorney Henderson, and Mr. Hale, a neighbor, to discover evidence relating to the murder of John Wright, whose wife, Minnie, has been jailed for the crime. Mrs. Peters has come to gather some personal belongings for Minnie, and Mrs. Hale to keep Mrs. Peters company. While the men inspect the bedroom in which Mr. Wright was strangled and search the barn for clues, the women uncover—and cover up—both the motive for the crime and the physical evidence thereof.

The play opens on an empty stage; the kitchen, gloomy and cluttered, offers the audience its first glimpse into the Wrights' lives. The set is a mute message, later elaborated in the women's dialogue. Shortly, the door opens; as the characters enter Glaspell offers another wordless message, this one concerning hierarchy. First to enter is the middle-aged sheriff, next the young county attorney, then Hale, followed by the women. The sheriff and the county attorney function as the ultimate emblem of the patriarchy: the law. Hale, not privileged by a connection to the law, as a man takes precedence over the women. The men immediately stride to the stove for warmth while the women, fearful and nervous, "stand close together near the door." Their action presages the warmth of sisterly community, which they will shortly discover.

The men's priorities are obvious; Glaspell indicates that the sheriff steps "away from the stove … as if to mark the beginning of official business." They allow nothing they deem extraneous to enter even the periphery of their consciousness. The lack of sensitivity among the men becomes apparent early. When they discover that, as Minnie had feared, the cold in the house had broken her jars of preserves, the sheriff is incredulous: "Well, can you beat the women! Held for murder and worrying about her preserves." Stating a central theme, Hale adds: "Well, women are used to worrying about trifles." Their smug scoffing heightens Glaspell's bipolar irony: "trifles" such as food and housekeeping are basic to the preservation of life itself, and it is the males' ignorance of such details that causes them to overlook the key to the crime itself.

Declaring there to be "[n]othing here but kitchen things," the sheriff leads the men upstairs to examine the murder scene, leaving the women—who had "move[d] a little closer together"—free to move about the kitchen. Years of habit lead them to begin cleaning the unkempt room. As they work, they speak of John Wright. Adding to the faded wallpaper, the uncurtained windows, and Hale's comment about his unwillingness to share the cost of a party-line telephone as evidence of Wright's niggardliness, Mrs. Hale declares: "Wright was close. I think maybe that's why she kept so much to herself. She didn't even belong to the Ladies' Aid. I suppose she felt she couldn't do her part, and then you don't enjoy things when you feel shabby." Her husband's miserliness had cut Minnie off from community, both in person and by telephone. Even in her own home she had no voice, for Hale had noted that he "didn't know as what his wife wanted made much difference to John."

The women who eventually become silent champions of Minnie do not identify themselves as her friends. Mrs. Peters had not met her before she was jailed; Mrs. Hale has known her 20 years, but had not visited in more than a year. They do not, therefore, take her part because of personal bias; rather, they come to see themselves and Minnie as Everywoman, imprisoned by patriarchal convention. The literally imprisoned Minnie, absent from the stage and thereby silent, reminds us of Warren's Sylvia, present in The Group only through the dialogue of the men who have arrogated to themselves her voice, a character who, "silent, mourns her fate." Minnie's absence also echoes the social position of a woman after marriage: as the law of coverture made clear, and as Crothers's Daisy approvingly reiterates in He and She, marriage erases a woman's identity. Significantly, Mrs. Hale refuses to accept this negation and persists in referring to her as Minnie Foster, not as Minnie Wright.

Glaspell's implicit criticism of the philosophy of separate spheres becomes obvious as the men, counting the women unable to recognize clues, leave them behind in the woman's world of the kitchen. Assuming that nothing merits their attention in this "preserve" of trifles, the men move upstairs. As the audience hears their footsteps on the floor above, Glaspell indulges in an aural pun: physically, the men are literally over the heads of the women—a reminder also of man's position as head of the household—while figuratively, the facts of the case go over the men's heads.

The women find the quilt Minnie had been working, one square of which is marked by erratic stitching quite different from the rest. Without stopping to wonder why, Mrs. Hale resews the square. This direct, but as yet unknowing, action echoes her earlier remarks uttered in Minnie's defense; when the county attorney said Minnie wasn't "much of a housekeeper," Mrs. Hale said in a "stiff" reply: "There's a great deal of work to be done on a farm." And when she says that "[m]en's hands aren't always as clean as they might be" and that she "didn't think a place'd be any cheerfuller for John Wright's being in it," she points out men's failings. Now she and Mrs. Peters speculate about the tension underlying the irregular stitching. As she had earlier moved closer to Mrs. Peters, Mrs. Hale now moves closer to Minnie. She wishes she had visited more often, for she knows how difficult it must have been to live isolated and childless with John Wright, "a hard man.… Like a raw wind that gets to the bone."

Discovering the bird cage with its door hanging from one hinge, then the bird with its neck wrung, she decides that Wright killed both Minnie's singing spirit and the bird, so moves to conceal this evidence. Mrs. Hale criticizes the investigators for "sneaking" around Minnie's house: "Locking her up in town and trying to get her own house to turn against her!" Mrs. Peters, as the wife of the sheriff, counsels, "[T]he law is the law." Yet remembrance moves her. Seeing the dead bird, she recalls her own enraged response in childhood to the boy who "took a hatchet … before my eyes" to her pet kitten, and remembers the eerie stillness that enveloped her homestead when her two-year-old son, then her only child, had died. Still, even then she persists: "The law has got to punish a crime, Mrs. Hale"; Mrs. Hale declares that her own failure to visit "was a crime! Who's going to punish that?" From this perspective it is but a small step to the third crime—John Wright's spiritual and emotional, if not physical, abuse of his wife—and to the guilt the patriarchy must bear for its dirty hands, for its enforcement of the traditions and codes that led to Minnie's despair. Here one finds the three Everywomen, the wife, the wife of the law, and the murderer, all imprisoned in the patriarchal order; here one begins to appreciate Glaspell's further ironies. The symbolically named Minnie, small and insignificant, has risen against this system, but so far has succeeded only in exchanging one prison for another. But Glaspell is not done; the surname Wright also brims with irony: that John could be Mr. Right and that Minnie's rights were violated so severely that she thereby had a right to kill her husband.

The women, resisting for once the gender discrimination that imprisons them, tacitly agree to conceal the evidence; they rebel against abstract justice and act through sympathy and empathy. Glaspell suggests, in the manner of the cultural feminists, that a woman's law, which takes into account not just the deed but also the circumstances and context in which the deed is performed, is superior to the law of the patriarchy. The final line of the play reverberates with this principle as Mrs. Hale, who had initially been abashed by the men's laughter at her question about whether Minnie had intended to quilt or knot the squares of her quilt, later lets Mrs. Peters say: "We think she was going to—knot it," then ends the play by standing center stage, her hand over the pocket that conceals the dead bird, and announcing for Mrs. Peters, for Minnie, for herself, for every woman: "We call it—knot it, Mr. Henderson." This splendid line laces together the image of John Wright with the noose knotted elaborately around his neck and the women's refusal, albeit one they cannot voice without endangering themselves, to be coopted yet again by the male system.

Trifles is the most frequently anthologized one-act play by an American woman; it is often praised as a paradigm of play construction. Overtly and inherently dramatic while at the same time subtle, economical, and understated, the play's form replicates its action in both its departure from the male dramatic traditions of through line—with its rising action, climax, and falling action—and linear exposition and in its lack of resolution. Glaspell must have realized it would be dishonest to resolve a conflict that remains, sadly, unresolved.

Alison's House won Glaspell the 1931 Pulitzer Prize, an award that brought the Pulitzer jury the disapproval of most critics and reviewers; the play was equally unpopular with audiences, running only 41 performances. Conventional in style and structure, the play even conforms to the neoclassic unities, taking place in fewer than 24 hours and utilizing two rooms of the same home as its set. It is notable, however, for being the third in Glaspell's trilogy of dramas focusing on a woman who never appears and for challenging a patriarchal system that cares more about preserving appearances and the status quo than about humanity.

Centered on Emily Dickinson surrogate Alison Stanhope, the play concerns the discovery, 18 years after her death, of poems that chronicle Alison's affair with a married man. As her surviving family prepares to move Agatha, who served as her sister's caretaker, from the old homestead, which is to be sold, they argue over whether the poems should be destroyed or published.

Glaspell resolves the conflict in favor of the new century. The poems will be published, a "letter to the world," which will allow it to perceive the human Alison, not some spirit treading the ether in virginal white. All will know "the story she never told. She has written it, as it never was written before. The love that never died—loneliness that never died—anguish and beauty of her love!" In He and She, Ann Herford regrets not executing her frieze because it would have been a gift for women, who could have looked at its strength and beauty and said: "A woman did that." In Alison's House, that gift is given; women will have the strength and beauty of Alison's work: "Because Alison said it—for women."

Saying it for women is Glaspell's concern in two of her more experimental dramas, The Outside and The Verge. In these works, women's attempts to speak for themselves illustrate the pitfalls inherent in allowing oneself to be defined by a male-devised, gender-centered grammar. The fixity of form basic in such a language contrasts with the flux of nature as, in both these plays, the forces of life contend with those of death.

The Outside begins with a scene that functions as envoi and emblem. Into a lifesaving station now converted into a private home, two men carry a drowning victim. Mrs. Patrick enters and demands that they leave: "You have no right here. This isn't the lifesaving station any more. Just because it used to be—I don't see why you should think—This is my house! And—I want my house to myself!" As she speaks, one of the men "put[s] his head through the door. One arm of the [victim] is raised and the hand reaches through the doorway." Thus the prologue shows death invading Mrs. Patrick's house, just as, on the dunes around the house, the sands encroach on and smother the scrub growth vying for survival on a set that marks Glaspell's move from realism to symbolism and expressionism. Mrs. Patrick bought the house with her husband as a summer place. Subsequently, he left her, and she retreated to this buried house. She appears to enjoy watching the sand engulf the scant life forms on the dunes and fears "Spring—coming through the storm to take me—take me to hurt me." She fears being bruised into life again, and this fear underlies her repeated comment: "I must have my house to myself!"

Seeking someone who "doesn't say an unnecessary word," she hired as her housekeeper Allie Mayo, "a bleak woman" with "that peculiar intensity of twisted things which grow in unfavoring places." Once a young woman teased by her husband for her loquaciousness, Allie, struck by the inanity of the remarks her friends offer when her husband disappears while on a whaling trip, retreats into silence. Through Allie, Glaspell introduces the thematic and structural problem of the play: what to do with and about words when, as inadequate as we know them to be, they are yet all that we have. She handles the issue imitatively, by allowing the halting dialogue of the play to illustrate its own meaning.

As Mrs. Patrick leaves the house, angry at the men for having left the corpse behind, Allie calls out: "Wait." Mrs. Patrick is "held," "arrested," by the unaccustomed sound of Allie's voice. Allie goes on "in a slow, labored way—slow monotonous, as if snowed in by silent years." Her voice falls to a whisper; she labors, rocking back and forth, to give birth to words "not spoken but breathed from pain." Because she assumes Mrs. Patrick's husband has died, Allie tells her own story to illustrate that withdrawal is "not the way." Shocked by Mrs. Patrick's revelation and hurt by her reminder that she'd been told Allie did not "say an unnecessary word," Allie insists that her words are vital. In a mutually stumbling syntax, the women debate their positions. As Glaspell makes obvious, their mistakes lie in investing too much of themselves in their marriages; the symbolic burial they have been undergoing in the dunes repeats their earlier act of burying their own identities in those of their husbands. They must strive now to find words to express themselves, for those selves have only an embryonic existence. Clearly, a command of the idiom of self demands the possession of a sense of self; until woman forges that identity she will struggle in a language that identifies her as the other.

Claire Archer, protagonist of The Verge, attempts to save her own life by subjugating herself in marriages to two unimaginative men, but each disappoints her. Now three men—her husband, her friend the philosopher, and her lover the artist, the triumvirate of Harry, Tom, and Dick, who among them cannot come close to understanding her—cause her much impatience as she anxiously awaits the flowering of Breath of Life, a new form of plant life she has created.

This most expressionist of Glaspell's dramas opens in Claire's greenhouse, which is more laboratory than nursery. A shaft of light emitted through an open trapdoor in the floor illuminates a strange plant with a "twisted stem"; frosty "patterns" are visible on the greenhouse glass, a violent "wind … makes patterns of sound," and "At the back grows a strange vine. It is arresting rather than beautiful. The leaves of this vine are not the form that leaves have been. They are at once repellent and significant." The ominous mood, sight, and sound dissipate as the dialogue begins. Because Claire has diverted the heat from the house into her greenhouse/laboratory, Harry has come to eat his breakfast in comfort; soon Dick follows. The talk is that of a comedy of manners; as Harry mildly berates Claire for being a poor hostess, Claire tries to persuade Harry to try his egg without salt, and Tom, finding himself locked out, fires a revolver to gain the attention of those inside the glass house. Yet beneath the surface move the roots of another drama, which twists around the conventional comedy. To Dick, Harry says that creating something unsettles a woman. Disturbed because Claire has dared to reach beyond the usual, Harry questions her state of mind, but his real unease arises because she is breaking the bonds of womanhood and presuming to arrogate to herself the male roles of creator and scientist. When he tells Dick, "I'd like to have Charlie Emmons see her—he's fixed up a lot of people shot to pieces in the war," Glaspell's allusion to the war between the sexes is obvious. This reference is especially relevant in light of the research of Judith Lewis Herman, who in Trauma and Recovery asserts, "There is a war between the sexes.…Hysteria is the combat neurosis of the sex war."15 Here, too, arises the question of whether Claire is "on edge," that is, in a liminal stage, willing to risk going mad so life itself need not be imprisoned. Or is she on the edge of sanity, driven there by pressures to conform to her "womanly" role?

In the name Claire Archer, Glaspell suggests both clarity of vision and the ability to bridge, to create by spanning and mixing various forms. But behind this "flower of New England" lies the history of her ancestors, "the men who made the laws that made New England." Yearning to break out of this mold, just as her plants sometimes go beyond their species and "go mad—that sanity mayn't lock them in," Claire seeks escape from the prison of the patriarchy, seldom better envisaged than it is here, as the set form, the hardened heritage of the "saints" of Puritanism who inflicted such dehumanizing laws and customs on women.

Claire is distracted; as she holds vigil for Breath of Life, her daughter, Elizabeth, who has spent most of her life in boarding schools and school vacations with Claire's sister Adelaide, arrives. As one who wishes to slip the bounds of forms, Claire is a most unlikely mother for Elizabeth, who at 17 is a mature conformist. While Claire wards off the embrace of this stranger, Elizabeth confides her wish to help her "produce a new and better kind of plant." Claire, haltingly reaching for the right words, tells her: "These plants—(beginning flounderingly) Perhaps they are less beautiful—less sound—than the plants from which they diverged. But they have found—otherness." She indicates the strange vine at the back of the greenhouse as one that had "crept a little way into—what wasn't." But the Edge Vine has now reverted to its original form, so Claire asks Dick to destroy it. Elizabeth declares it is wrong of Claire to play God just to change, not to improve, plants. Suddenly, Claire perceives in Elizabeth her Puritan ancestors; she uproots the Edge Vine and but for Harry's wresting it from her would strike Elizabeth with this traitor plant. Claire's estrangement resounds through her words: "To think that object ever moved my belly and sucked my breasts." Terrible as these words are, nothing less would so blatantly demonstrate Claire's commitment to what she calls "outness" and "otherness" and her refusal to be seduced by what she sees as her creations.

Act 2 opens in the late afternoon of the following day. That Claire has not been liberated by rejecting her creations is obvious; she appears alone in "a tower which is thought to be round but that does not complete the circle. The back is curved, then jagged lines break from that, and the front is a queer bulging window-.…The whole structure is as if given a twist by some terrific force—like something wrong." This obvious phallic symbol being both erose and under pressure suggests the "terrific force" may be Claire's own struggle to break out of the patriarchal prison, but the stage directions also emphasize her continuing confinement; she is "seen through the huge ominous window as if shut into the tower." The glass of the greenhouse repeats itself in the window, and both, by promoting a sense of distance, comment on the difficulty of representing women within traditional dramatic forms—as does the play's structure, which twice veers from comedy of manners to drame. The coercion to conform continues. Personifying conformity and femininity as defined by the male, Adelaide berates Claire, calling her experiments nonsensical. She prescribes a "cure": Claire must be a mother to her daughter and so cease to be unnatural, and she must become a consumer, not a creator: "Go to Paris and get yourself some awfully good-looking clothes."

But Claire is not Ann Herford, who can sublimate her own needs for those of a grown child. She calls out for Tom, her philosopher, and sends the others away. Earlier Claire had difficulty articulating what her work meant; now she searches for the words with which to ask Tom to pursue their relationship beyond the platonic, to express something that's "not shut up in saying." Although Claire suggests they might find "radiance," Tom refuses; she persists and once again the play breaks form as her words become poetry:

I want to be;
Do not want to make a rose or make a poem—
Want to lie upon the earth and know.
But scratch a little dirt and make a flower;
Scratch a bit of brain—something like a poem.

The conflicting sentiments here mirror Claire's conflicted state. The patriarchy tells her that as a woman she should "be," not do, yet her own consciousness pushes her "to make a flower / … [or] something like a poem." Rejected by Tom, Claire turns to her present lover, Dick. By now overwhelmed, she desires to disappear: "Anything—everything—that will let me be nothing!"

In act 3 the scene is again the greenhouse, where Harry pursues Dick with a revolver as the play careens toward farce. When Harry claims he wishes to show Claire "I've enough of the man in me to—" Claire tells him he is being ridiculous. In a stage direction charged with double meaning, Claire appropriates the phallic weapon—"taking the revolver from the hand she has shocked to limpness"—puts it out of sight, and becomes again the detached seeker of "outness" and "otherness" as she points to the men and says: "One—two—three. You-love-me. But why do you bring [your quarrel] out here?" Her attention belongs now to Breath of Life, which, unlike the Edge Vine, has gone on: "it is—out." Moving again into poetry, she speaks, even in her victory, with disillusionment:

You have been brought in.
A thousand years from now, when you are but a form too
long repeated
Perhaps the madness that gave you birth will burst again,
And from the prison that is you will leap pent queerness
To make a form that hasn't been—
To make a person new.
And this we call creation.
Go away!

Dick and Harry leave, but Tom, perceiving this Nietzschean overreacher to be on the verge of insanity, offers to keep her "from fartherness—from harm—safe." Claire, aghast that the person who might "be a gate" instead "fill[s] the place," places her hands around his throat, choking off his breath. As the others, alerted by the crash of breaking glass, rush in, Glaspell notes that "she has taken a step forward, past them all." The drama ends as Claire the creator sings "Nearer My God to Thee," not in subservience to the supreme patriarch but in acknowledgment of her own godlike potential.

Glaspell is not, of course, sanctioning murder; the act must be read symbolically. Only by daring to break the confines of the patriarchy, confines that may come disguised as the love that wishes to keep one "safe," can women imagine and create new ways of being. The daring with which the playwright approaches her topic matches the boldness with which she employs expressionist techniques to achieve a spectacularly effective enwrapment of style, subject, structure, symbol, image, and theme.

Unfortunately, the success of the Provincetown Theatre, of which Glaspell's plays were so large a part, was, to Cook, the sign of a spiritual failure; in 1922 he deemed the theater a mediocrity. He and Glaspell left for Greece. By the time Glaspell returned to America following Cook's death, the Provincetown had undergone changes in management and philosophy. The conventional comedy The Comic Artist (1928), on which she collaborated with her second husband, Norman Matson, was produced in London, the almost equally conventional Alison's House at the Civic Repertory Theatre. After these, Glaspell wrote no more plays. Perhaps she was wounded by the critics' outcry against Alison's House receiving the Pulitzer, but it is more likely she realized that while she was away she had quite literally lost her stage.

American theater owes a great debt to Susan Glaspell, whose dramatic talents as playwright, actor, and director exploded on the stage of the Provincetown Players along with Minnie Wright's preserves. The aftershocks continue today, for she dared envision and bring to life onstage her own New Women. These women experience their own anagnorsis, challenging and rejecting male-defined norms, including such concepts as woman's honor, abstract justice, and the male's right to dominate and control, while they move toward the formation of female community.

Dramatically, her innovations were challenging. The economy of stagecraft manifested in most of her settings, perhaps initially dictated by the scant resources of the group, became in time a symbolism that resounded throughout each drama. Her use of the absent woman demonstrated how an offstage story can be used onstage.

Finally, she used language itself in a new way—a way that continues to be misunderstood. C. W. E. Bigsby speaks about her "natural reticence,"16 an evaluation not far removed from Isaac Goldberg's comments, in 1922, about her being "reticent, laconic." Goldberg notes that Glaspell is "largely the playwright of woman's self-hood," and he realizes that "this acute consciousness of self … begins with a mere sense of sexual differentiation."17 Acute as his perception is, he is unable, as apparently is Bigsby, to realize that Glaspell is not imbuing her characters with any "natural reticence" of her own; rather, she works toward verisimilitude. Woman, even the rebellious woman, having been so long denied a voice in determining her own destiny, would initially be able to exercise a newfound voice only haltingly; her stammer arises from sexist oppression, from silencing. While Glaspell did not create a woman's discourse, she demonstrated the inadequacy of man's for her New Woman.

Twentieth-Century Feminist Foremothers

Rachel Crothers and Susan Glaspell were major forces in early-twentieth-century American drama. As a voice for the New Woman, Crothers explored feminist issues in a manner that marks her a worthy successor to Warren and Rowson; in her comedies she is a more than worthy successor to Mowatt. Glaspell, long held in O'Neill's shadow, is beginning, finally, to be recognized as a major force in reshaping the drama that brought American theater into the twentieth century. She, as much as O'Neill, pioneered a symbolic and expressionist drama on the stage. She deserves to be more widely known and to be known as much more than the author of Trifles, excellent as that play is.


  1. A selection of suffrage plays has been complied by Bettina Friedl in On to Victory: Propaganda Plays of the Woman Suffrage Movement (Boston: Northeastern University Press, 1987).
  2. Geraldine Maschio, "A Prescription for Femininity: Male Interpretation of the Feminine Ideal at the Turn of the Century," Women and Performance: A Journal of Feminist Theory 4, no. 1 (1988-89): 43; hereafter cited in the text as Maschio.
  3. In Notable Women in American Theatre: A Biographical Dictionary, ed. Alice Robinson et al. (New York: Greenwood Press, 1989), 185, Liz Fugate gives 1870 as the birth date for Crothers appearing in the 1880 U.S. Census, but she notes that dates of 1871 and 1878 are also cited frequently; this volume is hereafter cited in the text as Notable Women. Lois Gottlieb gives the 1878 date in Rachel Crothers (Boston: Twayne Publishers, 1979), 1; hereafter cited in the text as Gottlieb. The 1870 date solves the apparent problem presented by the 14-year-old high school graduate going on her own to drama school in Boston.
  4. Doris Abramson, "Rachel Crothers: Broadway Feminist," Modern American Drama: The Female Canon, ed. June Schlueter (Rutherford, N.J.: Fairleigh Dickinson University Press, 1990), 59; hereafter cited in the text as Abramson.
  5. Mourning the debunking of these patriarchal constructions, George Jean Nathan in "Clinical Notes," American Mercury 19 (1930): 242, observed that "women have more and more ceased to be figures of man's illusion and more and more have become superficially indistinguishable from man himself in his less illusory moments. In sports, in business, in drinking, in politics, in sexual freedom, in conversation, in sophistication and even in dress, women have come closer and closer to men's level and, with the coming, the purple allure of distance has vamoosed."
  6. Quoted by Cynthia Sutherland, "American Women Playwrights as Mediators of the 'Woman Problem,'" Modern Drama 21 (September 1978): 319; hereafter cited in the text as Sutherland.
  7. It is true, however, that in several of her later plays Crothers opts for the traditional "happy" ending of marriage—or remarriage—for her protagonist.
  8. Judith L. Stephens, "Gender Ideology and Dramatic Convention in Progressive Era Plays," Performing Feminisms: Feminist Critical Theory and Theatre, ed. SueEllen Case (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1990), 286; hereafter cited in the text as Stephens.
  9. Unfortunately, such was not the case. Crothers uses this very situation of a type of "sunshine morality" as the pivot of the plot of Nice People (1921), and the same kind of thinking that condemns Rhy in The Three of Us still leads critics of rape victims to ask: "What was she doing out at that hour?"
  10. Ann may be responding more to a class issue than to her child's (assumed) needs. She asks Millicent: "Do you want to disgrace us? How any child of mine could even speak—even speak to such a—. Oh, the disappointment. Where's your pride?"
  11. Helen Deutsch and Stella Hanau. The Provincetown: A Story of the Theatre (New York: Farrar and Rinehart, 1931), 16.
  12. "'Murder, She Wrote': The Genesis of Susan Glaspell's Trifles," Linda Ben-Zvi's insightful study of the relationship between Glaspell's news reporting and the creation of Trifles, appears in Theatre Journal 44 (May 1992): 141-62.
  13. Susan Glaspell, The Road to the Temple (New York: Frederick Stokes, 1927), 255-56; hereafter cited in the text as Road.
  14. Charlotte Perkins Gilman, Man Made World: Our Androcentric Culture (1911; reprint, New York: Johnson Reprint, 1971), 32, 35, 38, and 39.
  15. Judith Lewis Herman, Trauma and Recovery (New York: Basic Books, 1992), 32.
  16. C. W. E. Bigsby, A Critical Introduction to Twentieth-Century American Drama, 1900-1940 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1982), 27.
  17. Isaac Goldberg, The Drama of Transition: Native and Exotic Playcraft (Cincinnati: Stewart Kidd Company, 1922), 472-74.


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Women's Literature from 1900 to 1960: Women and the Dramatic Tradition

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Women's Literature from 1900 to 1960: Women and the Dramatic Tradition