Susan Glaspell’s Poetics and Politics of Rebellion

Susan Glaspell’s Poetics and Politics of Rebellion. Emeline Jouve. Iowa City, University of Iowa Press, 2017; Pp. 258.

Although she was honored with a Pulitzer Prize for drama and produced a diverse body of work critically esteemed in her time, Susan Glaspell’s dramaturgical innovations and contributions to US theatre have largely been overlooked by theatre history narratives for the better part of the twentieth century. With the possible exception of her feminist masterpiece, Trifles, Glaspell’s plays have not been anthologized or celebrated on par with those of her contemporaries, among them Eugene O’Neill, whose career was launched by the company she co-founded, the Provincetown Players. Building on the work of Linda Ben-Zvi, J. Ellen Gainor, and Marcia Noe, among others, Jouve’s monograph furthers the recuperative efforts of feminist scholarship to critically examine Glaspell’s dramatic oeuvre and theoretically position its significance to the development of modern drama.

Following a concise biography of Glaspell’s personal life and professional achievements, Jouve positions her argument in conversation with Robert Brustein’s Theatre of Revolt (1962) in which Brustein, examining plays by celebrated male luminaries such as Ibsen, Chekhov, and Shaw, characterized modern drama as rebelling against communal values and espousing individualism in response to monolithic democratic cultural mores. Brustein singles out O’Neill in particular as the forerunner of the theatre of revolt and modern drama. Jouve, in turn, seeks to recover Glaspell’s significant contributions to the development of modern drama and Brustein’s so-called theatre of revolt, asserting that, “rebellion permeates every level of Glaspell’s dramatic endeavor, from content to form. […] Glaspell explored the potential of drama as an actual instrument of pacifist rebellion to an extent which few playwrights of her generation actually dared” (15-16).

The book is divided into three parts. Part I “Susan Glaspell’s Drama of Denunciation” begins by highlighting Glaspell’s lifelong passionate compulsion to write. Extrapolating from primary documents, such as a 1917 interview in which Glaspell declared that “almost everything in politics is a story,” Jouve argues that the genesis of Glaspell’s inspiration to write lay in questioning the “duplicity of American democracy” (21). Close textual analysis of Trifles (1916), Woman’s Honor (1918), and Alison’s House (1930) reveal how Glaspell’s protagonists, sometimes powerfully absent from the stage as in the case of Trifles’ Mrs. Wright, serve to critique the hypocrisy of democratic ideals that limit or exclude women from legal and public spaces. Productively engaging the notion of “deterritorializing the self” from Una Chaudhuri’s Staging Place: The Geography of Modern Drama (1995), Jouve explores stage directions, settings, and space, arguing that in Alison’s House and many of Glaspell’s works, the domestic space, the home, is simultaneously a place of constraint as well as a site of creative freedom. This section also treats The Inheritors (1921) and Free Laughter (1917), which was only recently unearthed in 2010. Free Laugher, a comedic play about banning laughter, showcases Glaspell’s clever deployment of form as content.

Part II, “Susan Glaspell’s Drama of Resistance” draws on Brustein’s concept of revolt as well as Albert Camus’s notion of the rebel, first exploring the female protagonists of The People (1917), The Inheritors (1921), and Springs Eternal (1943). Categorizing the protagonists into two types of rebels, the idealist and the individualist, Jouve asserts that, for Glaspell, whose health was fragile, “writing was the most efficient mode of activism she was able to embrace, so she gave the stage to her fictitious combatants to lead the revolt” (94-96). Throughout the analysis, Jouve not only finds correlations between Glaspell and her characters, several of whom she portrayed onstage, but also breaks down Glaspell’s language at the rhetorical level, identifying how metaphor, repetition, verb tense, and alliteration underscore intention and theme. For example, in The Inheritors, Madeline’s dialogue depicts her as the ultimate “idealist rebel and mouthpiece of the playwright,” in the tradition of Thoreau’s “Civil Disobedience.” In The Outside (1917) and The Verge (1921) among other works, Jouve finds “individualist rebels” who differ from the aforementioned idealist counterparts putting “their own prerogatives before the common good,” prizing freedom of choice and defying gendered conventions of family and society (126). Included in this section is the first scholarly treatment of Wings, an unpublished, fragmented play from the Berg Collection of the New York Public Library. Jouve’s analysis of Wings positions the male protagonist among Glaspell’s individualist rebels who “desire to overthrow the cultural order,” freeing himself from the conventional role of male breadwinner to pursue his desire to fly. Here again, Jouve finds significance in setting and correlation among the playwright’s subjectivity and form and content, noting that the experimentation of form in Wings echoes the protagonist’s actions in The Verge: “Like her heroine who experiments with form in the 1921 full-length play, Glaspell takes her experiments a step further by resorting to expressionism in order to render the invisible by the visible, to make existential confusion visually manifest through the set” (135).

In Part III, “Susan Glaspell’s Drama of Hope,” Jouve contrasts Glaspell’s canon with Brustein’s “revolting” dramatists whose work critiqued existing conventions and institutions but failed to offer solutions or alternative ideas. Conversely, Glaspell’s drama “envisages collaboration as the alternative to conventional coercive patterns that split society into the oppressed and the oppressors, and as a means to achieve social harmony in the face of political and cultural abuses” (165).  Jouve persuasively argues that Glaspell stages “positive revolts,” highlighting how collaboration manifests in some of the aforementioned plays through examples of sisterly, national, and international solidarity. This last section concludes by countering previous scholarship that has viewed the protagonists of Bernice (1919) and Chains of Dew (1922) as compromised in their feminist ethos for sacrificing their own self-empowerment to bolster their male counterparts. Citing Glaspell’s real-life choices in support of George Cram Cook, her professional and romantic partner, Jouve argues that these protagonists’ models of self-sacrifice “turn out to be covert strategies to undermine oppressive structures from within” (204). Jouve’s exhaustively detailed textual analysis helps to cement Glaspell’s place among the trailblazers of modern drama and is a welcome addition to the growing body of scholarship addressing Glaspell’s contributions.

Jennifer-Scott Mobley
East Carolina University

The Journal of American Drama and Theatre
Volume 34, Number 1 (Fall 2021)
ISNN 2376-4236
©2021 by Martin E. Segal Theatre Center