An Analysis of the Play Trifles by Susan Glaspell
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Susan Glaspell lived in a time where the most evident social issue was the inequality between men and women, and that women greatly relied on men in order to live. Glaspell, as a budding writer and feminist, tried to prove them wrong by writing plays regarding the freedom of women against the gender roles that the society dictates. With the help of her husband and friends, she started the Provincetown Players, where they are able to experiment on new plays which explores sensitive social issues like gender inequality. Glaspell’s Trifles is a good example of these plays.
Susan Glaspell was born on the late 19th century, where women are not yet recognized as equals of men. Her writing style is influenced by her Midwestern background. The first career she took after graduation was a reporting job for a daily newspaper. The play Trifles was based on an actual murder case that she has worked on during her days as a reporter. After she quit her work as a reporter, she began writing fiction novels. Susan Glaspell became open to radical ideas when she met George Cook, a married man from Davenport. She was able to work on the traditional gender roles, just like what is being tackled on Trifles.
Glaspell and Cook developed an affair, and were married afterwards. With Cook being a nonconformist, Glaspell was able to freely do what society restricts her to do because of her gender and class. It was also through Cook and some of her friends that she was able to exercise her literary freedom and come up with plays that talk about societal issues of her time. They were able to establish a group called the Provincetown Players that would put on plays for their own amusements. According to Ben-Zvi, Susan Glaspell was “living in a community passionately concerned with socialism and feminism (Ben-Zvi)”. This group greatly contributed to the fame of her play, Trifles.
Susan Glaspell’s Trifles is a play that depicts the role of women in the society during the time it was made. During that time, men are still considered to be superior to women. It is also the time when men usually undermines the capabilities of women, as well as question their decision-making ways. The play showed how women were usually ruled by their emotions and intuitions, which they used to successfully unmask the case.
The story revolves around the case of the murdered John Wright, who was strangled with a rope while he sleeps in his farmhouse. The main suspect was his was wife, Minnie Wright, who was already arrested and is not portrayed in the play anymore. The problem of the characters would be to prove whether Minnie Wright was really guilty of murdering her husband. They have to find further evidence that would connect or establish a motive for Mrs. Wright to murder her husband.
As the male characters continue to search for evidences that would put the case to an end, the females talk about the life of Mrs. Wright; her struggles as the wife of Mr. Wright and her loss of freedom as a woman. They do this while they go about her things, carefully retelling her story by looking at how things were in here house. With the all the mess that was left in her house, especially in the kitchen, the male investigators assumes that Mrs. Wright was an incompetent housekeeper. But for the women of the story, she was considered as a bothered woman, plague with problems which men knows nothing about.
The play can be considered as climactic, because according to Greenwald, et al, it works on the rising and falling of action in the play (Greenwald, Schultz and Pomo). With a setting of only the kitchen in the Wright’s farmhouse, the rise and fall of action can be seen with the dialogues of the characters, especially between the two women characters, Mrs. Hale and Mrs. Peters. Through their conversations, the story is unfolded. This is also how the climax of the story was reached, when they were able to uncover what really happened in that house.
In this play, the two women were able to pinpoint the real killer, which really was Mrs. Wright. Despite this fact, they didn’t feel any remorse or hatred for Mrs. Wright. Instead, they pitied her for everything that she went through, as well as understood her actions. They used their emotions to decide on the case, instead of turning to what should be rightfully done about their discovery. They chose to keep it between themselves rather than telling their discoveries to the rightful authorities which are looking for the truth.
There are a number of characters in the play, but only a few played important parts in the story. The male characters include the Sheriff, Mr. Hale, and the County Attorney. Both the Sheriff and Mr. Hale are in their middle ages, while the County Attorney is still in his youth.
Their difference in age makes no difference in their character, because the men in this play are portrayed with one type of personality, which is their sense of dominance over females, as well as their intellectual, yet ineffective ways of solving the crime. The male characters here were described as stock characters, which stays the same all throughout the play. They were only supporting characters which have no definite effect on how the play goes. They are there only to serve as a comparison for the female characters who are the ones that played a major role in the play.
The female characters in the story were the wives of some of the male characters. Mrs. Hale was the wife of Mr. Hale, and Mrs. Peters was the wife of the Sheriff. Mrs. Peters was described as a wiry woman of some sort, with a thin nervous face. This description shows that Mrs. Peters was more on the thin side, and that she was a bit old-looking for her age. On the other hand, Mrs. Hale was described to be larger than Mrs. Peters, and was seen to be in a well-off situation. She is in the bulkier side, but her face is described as looking disturbed and fearful. This is because of the event that they were called in; the murder of John Wright and the arrest of Minnie Wright.
The character of these women were complex, where they were shown as passive characters at the beginning of the play, but in the end, they were the ones who played a big role, especially when it comes to solving the murder case of John Wright. At first, some may see them as archetypes of a woman, who was always with their man in whatever they do.
In the end, they were the ones who were able to unmask what really happened at the time John Wright was murdered. Another female character played a big part on the play Trifles, despite not having any appearance in the play. She was Minnie Wright, who was the archetype of an oppressed woman. Gainor (2001), described that she lost her freedom by the time she was married, and was deprived of all the things that could make her happy (Gainor).
The thought of the play was more on the role of women in the society. It was a battle of the sexes when it comes to reasoning about the murder case of John Wright, with all the male characters has the same point of view, as opposed by the point of view of the female characters. The female characters in the story defended or justified the actions of Minnie Wright, while the males tried hard to search for the evidence that would actually pin her down and close the case.
The diction of the play was mundane, wherein the conversations were kept simple and easily understandable (Greenwald, Schultz and Pomo). There was no complex terms used in dialogues, making it easier for the audience to understand. It used simple old English terms which are delivered clearly and fluently. This is very important since the play doesn’t rely much on the settings or actions of characters but in the conversations between the characters.
The music of the play was minimal, because the rise and fall of actions were more on the late parts of the play, wherein the female characters slowly unfolds what happened in the Wright household. It showed the events that led to Minnie Wright’s actions, including the oppressing treatment being given to her by John Wright. The discovery of the dead bird showed the climax of the story, wherein the female characters finally came up with sufficient evidence that influenced Minnie Wright’s actions.
The spectacle of the play was on it’s setting, which is the kitchen of the Wright farmhouse. Here, Susan Glaspell showed the place that embodies the gender role of women in the society, which was the kitchen (Gainor). It was shown as a topsy-turvy place, where everything is a mess. According to the Sheriff, the kitchen’s mess reflected Minnie Wright’s incompetence as a housekeeper. This was opposed by one of the ladies, saying that this is just a manifestation of the problems being experienced by Mrs. Wright. This means that women are expected to be the masters of the kitchen, and that a slight disorder would mean her incompetence.
The play Trifles showed how women were treated during that time. The society perceives it as a gender role, which most of them is forced to comply to. Because of this, most people developed a perspective regarding women’s right and wrong actions. They are easily held liable for their mistakes, and that any deviation to these norms would mean incompetence in the side of these women.
Ben-Zvi, Linda. Susan Glaspell: Essays on Her Theater and Fiction. Great Britain: University of Michigan Press, 2000.
Gainor, J. Ellen. Susan Glaspell in Context: American Theater, Culture and Politics, 1915-48. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 2001.
Greenwald, Michael L., Roger Schultz, and Roberto D. Pomo. The Longman Anthology of Drama and Theater: A Global Perspective. 1st ed: Longman, 2001.