Glaspell, Susan (1876–1948)

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Glaspell, Susan (1876–1948)

American short-story writer, novelist, and playwright, awarded the Pulitzer Prize for drama in 1931, who was a founding member and major contributor to the acclaimed Provincetown Players. Pronunciation: Glas-pell. Born Susan Keating Glaspell on July 1, 1876, in Davenport, Iowa; died in Province-town, Massachusetts, of viral pneumonia and a pulmonary embolism, on July 27, 1948; second of three children and the only daughter of Elmer S. and Alice (Keating) Glaspell; attended Davenport public schools; Iowa's Drake University, Ph.B., 1899; graduate study at the University of Chicago, 1903; married George Cram Cook, on April 14, 1913 (died 1924); lived with Norman Matson (a writer), 1925–1931; no children.

Saw publication of first short story (1902); published first novel, The Glory and the Conquered (1909); published best-known short story, "A Jury of Her Peers," which became the basis of her first play, Trifles, produced in the inaugural season of the Provincetown Players (1916); wrote The Verge, one of the first expressionistic plays staged in the U.S. (1922); moved with Cook to Greece, where they lived until his death (1922-24); published biography of her husband, The Road to the Temple (1926); awarded Pulitzer Prize for drama for Alison's House (1931); served as director of Midwest Play Bureau of the Federal Theater Project (1936–38); entered a new period of novel writing, lasting almost to the time of her death (1940–48).

Selected plays:

(with George Cram Cook) Suppressed Desires (1915); Trifles (1916); The People (1916); Close the Book (1916); The Outside (1916); A Woman's Honor (1918); Tickless Time (1918); Bernice (1920); The Inheritors (1921); The Verge (1921); Chains of Dew (1922); (with Norman Matson) The Comic Artist (1927); Alison's House (1930).


The Glory and the Conquered (1909); The Visioning (1911); Lifted Masks: Stories (1912); Fidelity (1915); "A Jury of Her Peers," (1916); Brook Evans (1928); Fugitive's Return (1929); Ambrose Holt and Family (1931); The Morning is Near Us (1939); Cherished and Shared of Old (1940); Norma Ashe (1942); Judd Rankin's Daughter (1945). Biography: The Road to the Temple (1926).

Susan Glaspell is most often associated with the Provincetown Players, the innovative and experimental theater group that fostered the development of new plays in America and launched the career of one of the country's most acclaimed playwrights, Eugene O'Neill. Until recently, however, Glaspell's own accomplishments as both writer and playwright have been given short shrift. Lost in the shadow of both O'Neill and her husband, George Cram Cook, who was the driving force behind the Provincetown Players, she has been largely overlooked, despite being the author of 11 plays produced by the Players and despite breaking stylistic barriers and using symbolic and expressionistic devices before O'Neill. In 1931, Glaspell was only the second woman in the country to be awarded the Pulitzer Prize for drama. Fortunately, renewed interest has finally placed her in the canon of 20th-century American playwrights.

The Glaspell family was one of the earliest to settle in Davenport, Iowa, in the late 1830s. As farmers, Elmer S. Glaspell and Alice Keating

Glaspell were not well-off, but they provided a solid, middle-class foundation for their daughter. Born on July 1, 1876, Susan Keating Glaspell was raised in the Midwestern tradition, with a pioneer spirit and a love of the land that was to figure strongly in much of her writing. After attending public school in Davenport, she entered Drake University in Des Moines, where her interest in writing blossomed. She studied literature and the classics and had several short stories and essays published in the university's paper, The Delphic. Following graduation in 1899, she went to work as a house and legislative reporter for the Des Moines Daily News and wrote a popular column called "News Girl." In his biography of Glaspell, Arthur Waterman points out, "Although none of this writing gave any opportunity to develop her ability as a creative writer, she did gain a detailed knowledge of Midwestern political life which she used as background in several of her early short stories."

In 1901, encouraged by her success as a columnist, Glaspell quit her reporting job and returned to Davenport to devote herself to writing fiction full-time. According to Waterman, these were mostly "good wholesome endeavors, pleasant tales with chaste heroines who trap their men within the bounds of propriety." In 1903, Glaspell entered the graduate program in English at the University of Chicago but was soon dissatisfied by the academic approach. Returning again to Davenport, she concentrated on writing short stories. Her first to appear in print was in Authors Magazine in 1902; others were accepted in such magazines as Harper's and American. In 1909, Glaspell saw the publication of her novel, The Glory and the Conquered, a sentimental love story between a painter and a scientist.

After less than two years of newspaper reporting, I boldly gave up my job and went home to Davenport to give all my time to my own writing. I say boldly, because I had to earn my living.

—Susan Glaspell

Back in Davenport in 1910, after a year in Paris with a friend, Glaspell had a clearer view of the disparity between the traditional values of her Midwestern heritage and the new thinking that had begun to affect the country. She found support for the new ideas largely through meetings of the Monist Society, a group founded by George Cram Cook, a member of a prominent Davenport family, and his close friend, Floyd Dell. In Road to the Temple, Glaspell gives a humorous view of those meetings:

The Society had a stirring Statement of Belief and attracted to itself all of us who were out of sorts with what we were supposed to believe. Declining to go to church with my parents in the morning, I would ostentatiously set out for the Monist Society in the afternoon. … Here were people who had never been together before. A few of the more fearless club women, wanting to know all that should be known about education, even though it involved "certain matters of sex"; a number of free thinking Germans … the town atheist … disappointed politicians.

Glaspell found herself deeply attracted to the Monist leader, Cook, who was then about to be married for the second time. In 1911, her second novel, The Visioning, showed the impact of women's suffrage; it also reflected Cook's influence in its sympathetic portrayal of a socialist. Glaspell's two-year writing sojourn in New York did not end the attraction. Following the failure of his second marriage, Cook and Glaspell moved to Chicago, accompanied by Cook's two children, Nilla and Harl. There, Cook reviewed books for the Chicago Evening Post, working with his good friend Dell, and grew intrigued with new trends in theater, stimulated in particular by the 1911–12 tour of the Abbey Players, Ireland's National Theatre.

Theater, like other art forms in the United States, was sadly lagging behind Europe in those years. The ideas of realism and naturalism, fostered by writers like Zola, Ibsen, and Strindberg in the 1880s and 1890s, had already given way in Europe to expressionism, while performances in the U.S. were still tied to the melodramatic standards epitomized by James O'Neill, the father of Eugene O'Neill, who made a lifelong career of repeating the role of Edmond Dantes in a touring version of The Count of Monte Cristo.

On April 14, 1913, at age 37, Glaspell married Cook in Weehawken, New Jersey. The following year, she suffered a miscarriage that left her unable to have children. Living in New York by then, the couple divided their time between the bohemian Greenwich Village and the more tranquil Provincetown, Massachusetts. Among their neighbors and friends were such radical "new thinkers" of the day as Jack Reed, Max Eastman, Neith Boyce and her husband Hutchins Hapgood, Louise Bryant, Mary Heaton Vorse, and their old friend, Floyd Dell. As an avid follower of the current theater scene, Glaspell assessed the works produced on Broadway as commercially successful but intellectually vapid, as she wryly describes in The Road to the Temple:

We went to the theater and for the most part came away wishing we had gone somewhere else. Those were the days when Broadway flourished almost unchallenged. … They didn't ask much of you, those plays. Having paid for your seat, the thing was all done for you, and your mind came out where it went in, only tireder.

At the Liberal Club in the Village, Glaspell and Cook flourished amid stimulating conversations about politics, literature, art, women's rights, and free love. They participated in the formation of the Washington Square Players, New York City's first independent theater, which challenged Broadway for theatrical viability. Glaspell continued to write and sell short stories, and in 1915 she published her third novel, Fidelity.

By 1915, according Glaspell, Freudian psychology was so much in the air, "you could not go out to buy a bun without hearing of someone's complex." That year, Glaspell and Cook wrote a short one-act play, Suppressed Desires, spoofing the latest psychoanalytical trends in a process described by Glaspell: "Before the grate in Mulligan Place we tossed the lines back and forth at one another, and wondered if any one else would ever have as much fun with it as we were having." After the work was rejected by the Washington Square Players as "too special," the couple decided to stage it themselves that summer in Provincetown.

Their Provincetown neighbor Neith Boyce had also written a play, called Constancy. The Hapgoods offered their home for the production, and the two works were staged with the help of Robert Edmond Jones, who was to become a major innovator in scenic design. By merely turning the chairs around, two separate settings were created in the Hapgood living room, and the venture proved such a success that the group came up with a second bill, including Cook's Change Your Style and Wilbur Steele's Contemporaries. This time the theater was an old converted fish house down on the wharf. At the end of that summer, the couple returned to New York, fired by their success. Cook was now eager to found a theater to foster American playwrights, modeled after the work being done by the Irish at the Abbey Theatre, and the following summer the Provincetown Players became a reality.

The opening season offered four different billings of three one-act plays. Since the group did not as yet have this many scripts, Glaspell asked a Provincetown neighbor, Terry Carlin, if he had any new plays available. He said he didn't, but his friend Eugene O'Neill had a trunk full of scripts. Invited over that night, O'Neill gave a reading of Bound East for Cardiff, a short piece about a dying sailor who longs for the firmness of the land under his feet. By the end of the reading, Glaspell recalled, "We knew what we were [there] for."

But to her dismay, Cook had also announced an upcoming play by Susan Glaspell. When she protested that she had no play, he responded, "Then you will have to sit down tomorrow and begin one." The result was Trifles, a one-act piece based on one of her short stories, about a murder trial she had covered as a reporter in Iowa. The play centers on Minnie Wright, an Iowa farm wife under investigation for the murder of her husband John. In the course of the play, two women friends of the accused woman, who are apparently concealing evidence of her guilt, win audience sympathy for her by implying that John was a wife-abuser. In addition to using realistic sets and dialogue to help reveal the psychological motivation of the characters, Glaspell employed the device of keeping her main character (Minnie) off stage. Trifles, which was to become Glaspell's best-known play, staged nationally and internationally, foreshadowed some of her later works, in which she repeated the device of a protagonist who never appears.

In 1917, Glaspell contributed three more plays to the Provincetown Players repertoire, The People, Close the Book, and The Outside. The 1918 season saw two new Glaspell comedies, Woman's Honor and Tickless Time. The following March, she staged her first full-length play, Bernice. In the play, Bernice has just died, an event that has brought together her father, her best friend, her sister, and her philandering husband. By then, Glaspell was one of the Players' finest actresses and, along with O'Neill, its leading playwright. (Edna St. Vincent Millay, Ida Rauh , and Michael Gold, were also part of this early group. Cook, in addition to his role as producer, also acted and directed.)

Boyce, Neith (1872–1951)

American writer. Name variations: Neith Boyce Hapgood; Mrs. Hutchins Hapgood. Pronunciation: Bois. Born Neith Boyce in Mt. Vernon, New York, in 1872; died in 1951; married Hutchins Hapgood (1869–1944, a writer), in June 1899; children: Boyce Hapgood; Charles Hutchins Hapgood; Miriam Hapgood DeWitt (1908–1990); Beatrix Hapgood .

Born in Mt. Vernon, New York, in 1872, Neith Boyce had a tragic childhood. Her four brothers and sisters died during a typhoid epidemic, and, following the deaths of other close relatives, Boyce spent her lonely early years on a ranch in California. At one time the only woman reporter for the New York Globe, Boyce was a founding member of the Provincetown Players, along with her husband Hutchins Hapgood and others. Her works, which explore marriage and the conflicts between men and women, include The Forerunner (1903), Eternal Spring (1906), (with her husband) Enemies (1916), Two Sons (1917), Proud Lady (1923), and Winter's Night (1927). Her autobiographical novel, The Bond, was published in 1908.

suggested reading:

DeWitt, Miriam Hapgood. Taos: A Memory. Albuquerque, NM: University of New Mexico Press, 1992.

Trimberger, Ellen Kay. Intimate Warriors: Portraits of a Modern Marriage, 1899–1941: Selected Works by Neith Boyce and Hutchins Hapgood. NY: Feminist Press at the City University of New York, 1991.

Glaspell not only employed innovative theatrical techniques but was one of America's earliest playwrights to present modern female characters, women in search of autonomy and personal fulfillment. In her most controversial play, The Verge (1921), the protagonist, Claire Archer, is actually driven over the edge of sanity in her quest for her own freedom, or "otherness," as she calls it. To reveal Archer's state of mind, Glaspell experimented with symbolism and expressionistic stage settings. The main female character in The Inheritors (1921) also sacrifices ease and comfort for her ideals, going to prison for the rights of a Hindu student protesting British domination of India.

While Glaspell's works clearly helped to build the Provincetown Players, they were over-shadowed by the group's New York production of O'Neill's The Emperor Jones, which became a theatrical milestone. Uptown critics could no longer ignore the work being done at this small Village theater, but success, ironically, began to lure the innovators to Broadway and big salaries. Cook, who may have harbored some jealousy of O'Neill, found the commercial success of the Provincetown Players unnerving, and in 1922 the couple sailed for Greece, where they settled at Delphi on Mount Parnassus. Cook worked to renew interest in drama among the Greek people until his untimely death in 1924.

While still abroad, Glaspell met the writer Norman Matson. After Cook's death, she returned with him to Provincetown, and they lived together for many years. Numerous biographical surveys identify Matson as Glaspell's second husband, but in reality, they never married. In 1926, Glaspell published her biographical tribute to George Cram Cook, The Road to the Temple. In 1928, she collaborated with Matson on The Comic Artist, which premiered in London, and that same year saw her return to the novel with the publication of Brook Evans, followed the next year by The Fugitive's Return. Not until 1930 did she return to plays, with her prize-winning drama, Alison's House, produced by the Civic Repertory Theater, with Eva Le Gallienne .

In Alison's House, loosely based on the life of Emily Dickinson , Glaspell returns to the technique of having the protagonist never appear: in this case, Alison has been dead for 18 years. The play takes place on New Year's Eve, 1899, in Iowa. Alison's father, Mr. Stanhope, has decided to sell the family home, and members of the family are in the process of packing up Alison's possessions, each one affected by the unseen protagonist as we learn of her power and beauty through what they say about her. The characters believe that all of Alison's poetry has been previously published, until it is revealed that Aunt Agatha has been hiding a package of poems which show the poet's inner turmoil at a time when she abandoned love for duty, having cut off an affair of the heart. The conflict is between Agatha's belief that the poems should be destroyed, and Alison's niece, who convinces the family to publish the poems, believing that Alison's anguish shared by many women will be a gift to the new century about to arrive. In what was apparently a controversial decision, Glaspell was awarded the Pulitzer Prize for 1931, although Alison's House failed to become a commercial success.

Following Glaspell's winning of the Pulitzer, Matson left her for a much younger woman. Though she published no more plays, Glaspell remained involved in the theater through an appointment as director of the Midwest Play Bureau of the Federal Theater Project, but the work did not afford her much opportunity to write. Eventually she returned to novels, with the publication in 1940 of Cherished and Shared of Old and The Morning Is Near Us, followed in 1942 by Norma Ashe and in 1945 by Judd Rankin's Daughter. Glaspell's last years were filled with illness and alcoholism, and she died on July 27, 1948, of a pulmonary embolism and viral pneumonia, at her home in Provincetown. She was cremated in Boston.

Examined today, Glaspell's work reveals a writer who places women at the center of the action, is unafraid of dealing with controversial social and political issues, and is successfully able to experiment with new styles in theatrical presentation.


Ben-Zvi, Linda, "Susan Glaspell's Contribution to Contemporary Women Playwrights," in Feminine Focus: The New Women Playwrights. NY: Oxford University Press, 1989, pp. 147–166.

Bigsby, C.W.E., ed. Plays by Susan Glaspell. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1987.

Glaspell, Susan. Alison's House. NY: Samuel French, 1930.

——. Bernice. Theater Arts Magazine. Vol. 3, 1919, pp. 264–300.

——. Plays. Boston: Small, Maynard, 1920.

——. The Road to the Temple. NY: Frederick A. Stokes, 1927.

James, Edward T., ed. Notable American Women 1607–1950. Cambridge, MA: The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 1971.

Mainiero, Lina, ed. American Women Writers: From Colonial Times to the Present. NY: Frederick Ungar, 1980.

Makowsky, Veronica. Susan Glaspell's Century of American Women. NY: Oxford University Press, 1993.

Waterman, Arthur. Susan Glaspell. NY: Twayne, 1966.

suggested reading:

Heller, Adele, and Lois Rudnick, eds. 1915, The Cultural Moment. New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press, 1991.

related media:

Trifles (16mm, VHS; 21 min.), based on the short story "A Jury of Her Peers" and the play Trifles, Phoenix/BFA Films and Video, 1979.


Susan Glaspell Papers are located in the Clifton Waller Barrett Library, University of Virginia, Charlottesville.

Unpublished short stories, essays, drafts, reviews and scrapbooks located in The Henry W. Berg and Albert A. Berg Collection of English and American Literature: Susan Glaspell Papers and George Cram Cook Papers, New York Public Library.

Anita DuPratt , Professor of Theater, California State University, Bakersfield, California