Born in 1876, Susan Glaspell is best known in literary circles for her stage play "Trifles" and her short story, "A Jury of Her Peers." Both works were inspired by her experiences as a courtroom reporter during a murder trial in 1900. She died in 1948.
Early Life as a Writer
According to a brief biography by Krystal Nies, Susan Glaspell was born in Iowa and raised by a conservative family with a modest income. After receiving a degree from Drake University, she became a reporter for the Des Moines News. According to the Susan Glaspell Society, she worked as a reporter for less than two years, then quit the job to focus on her creative writing. Her first two novels, The Glory of the Conquered and The Visioning were published while Glaspell was in her 30s.
The Provincetown Players
While living and writing in Iowa, Glaspell met George Cram Cook, the man who would become her husband. Both wanted to rebel from their conservative upbringing. They met in a socialist society during a time when Cook had divorced for a second time and longed to experience a rural, commune lifestyle. However, his series of divorces conflicted with the traditional values of Iowa, and so the newly married couple traveled to Greenwich Village. (Susan Glaspell Society).
According to "The Greenwich Village Bookshop Door," Cook and Glaspell were the creative force behind a new style of American theater. In 1916 she and a group of writers, actors, and artists co-founded the Provincetown Players. Both Glaspell and her husband, as well as other drama icons such as Eugene O'Neill, created plays that experimented with both realism and satire. Eventually, the Provincetown Players gained fame and economic success which, according to Cook, led to disagreements and disenchantment.
Glaspell and her husband left the Players and traveled to Greece in 1922. Cook, shortly after achieving his life long dream to become a shepherd, died two years later. Glaspell returned to America in 1924 and continued to write. Her work focused more on her best selling novels, but also included a Pulitzer Prize winning play, Alison's House.
The Origin of "Trifles"
"Trifles" is currently Glaspell's most popular play. Like other works of early feminist writing, it was rediscovered and embraced by the academic community. One of the reasons for this short play's enduring success is that it is not only an insightful commentary on the different perceptions of each gender, but it's also a compelling crime drama that leaves audiences discussing what happened and whether or not the characters acted unjustly.
While working as a journalist for the Des Moines Daily News, Susan Glaspell covered the arrest and trial of Margaret Hossack who was accused of murdering her husband. According to a summary by True Crime: An American Anthology:
"Sometime around midnight on December 1, 1900 John Hossack, a well-to-do, 59-year-old Iowa farmer, was attacked in bed by an axe wielding assailant who literally beat out his brains as he slept. His wife became the prime suspect after neighbors testified to her long-simmering hatred of her abusive spouse."
The Hossack case, much like the fictionalized case of Mrs. Wright in "Trifles," became a hotbed of debate. Many people sympathized with her, seeing her as a victim in an abusive relationship. Others doubted her claims of abuse, perhaps focusing on the fact that she never confessed, always claiming that an unknown intruder was responsible for the murder.
True Crime: An American Anthology explains that Mrs. Hossack was found guilty, but a year later her conviction was overturned. The second trail resulted in a hung jury and she was set free.
Plot Summary of "Trifles"
Farmer John Wright has been murdered. While he lay asleep in the middle of the night, someone strung a rope around his neck. And that someone might have been his wife, the quiet and forlorn Minnie Wright. The sheriff, his wife, the county attorney, and the neighbors, Mr. and Mrs. Hale, enter the kitchen of the Wright household. While the men search for clues upstairs and in other parts of the house, the women notice important details in the kitchen that reveal the emotional turmoil of Mrs. Wright.