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Susan Glaspell's "Trifles"

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Susan Glaspell's groundbreaking drama Trifles (first performed by the Provincetown Players of Massachusetts on August 8, 1916) is one of the greatest works in the history of American theater. An early feminist chef d'oeuvre, it is based on a murder trial that Glaspell (1876-1948) covered as a young news reporter for Des Moines Daily News. This one-act drama (Glaspell's very first published play) has become one of the most anthologized works of all times. A year after its stage premiere, Glaspell rewrote the play and published it as a short story under the title of A Jury of Her Peers (1917). A prolific and best-selling author of fifteen plays, nine novels, over fifty short stories and a biography, she is today recognized as America's first important modern female playwright and a pioneering feminist writer who revolutionized the American theater.

A talented and greatly admired amateur actress who performed in all her staged works (as well as in many other plays), she and her second husband founded the Wharf Theater in Provincetown, Massachusetts (which later moved to New York City). Better known as the Provincetown Playhouse, it was the first modern American theater company which rejected the commercialism of Broadway's sentimental melodramas. Looking for serious artistic plays to stage at her theater, Glaspell discovered the young and little known Eugene O'Neill, who became her close collaborator and eventually one of America's greatest playwrights. Relocating to New York City's Greenwich Village, Glaspell and her husband joined the local avant-garde artistic circle, with which some of the best-known journalists, poets, writers, antiwar socialists and feminist activists of the day were associated, such as Upton Sinclair, John Reed, Louise Bryant, Emma Goldman, Edna St. Vincent Millay, Max Eastman and Theodore Dreiser—as memorably shown in Warren Beatty's now classic movie Reds (1981). In 1936, she was appointed Midwest Bureau Director of the FDR Administration's Federal Theater Project. Two of Glaspell's later plays were awarded the prestigious Pulitzer Prize for Drama in 1931 and 1938.

The irony in the play's title is that people tend to ignore “trifles” like other people's ideas, feelings, views, observations, hurts, troubles, insecurities, merits, etc. According to this literary masterpiece of the early feminist movement, women tend to pay attention to “little things” like that, but men generally do not.  Standpoint feminism argues that because women hold a marginalized place in society, they are able to have a unique and significant view of the world, which is not available to the dominant group (men). The ironic title probably comes from the words of one of the five stage characters, Lewis Hale (originally played by Glaspell's second husband, George Cram Cook), who says early in the play: “Well, women are used to worrying over trifles” (p. 935). In Trifles, the murdered farmer John Wright did not care much about his wife's feelings and opinions, nor about her emotional attachment to her pet, a caged canary. Nor did the three male investigators care much about the accompanying two women's opinions and insights into this murder case. As a matter of fact, the play's title is more sarcastic rather than just being merely ironic in its symbolic connotation. Given their gender's socially and legally subordinate position in early 20th-century America, anything that women in general said or did, or were concerned about was looked down upon as mere “trifles” by American men—unless it involved a wife's murder of her lawfully wed husband.

In Trifles, there is a clear distinction between sex roles in the official search of the now empty farmhouse (because the Wrights were a childless couple). The three investigating men are on an official business, searching for material evidence to confirm their suspicion that Minnie Wright had strangled her husband with a rope in his drunken sleep. The two women are simply accompanying their husbands, but are also looking for a few of Minnie's personal belongings that the jailed woman has asked for. While the three men are busy spreading out and roaming self-importantly around the farmhouse in search of a “smoking gun,” the two women are cooped up in the cold kitchen (where, according to old custom and patriarchal tradition, all females belong), which Mr. Henderson, the conceited county attorney, visits only once and very briefly at that. After all, what could a lofty officer of the law like him possibly find in a kitchen—which is the wife's domain—except for a few “trifles,” such as food, cooking utensils, dishes and plates, among other “kitchen things”? It is ironic that some of the “trifles” that the two women do find in the kitchen—an empty bird-cage with a “broke” door and a strangled canary, hidden in “a pretty box” obviously intended to bury the dead bird in—are the best clue about what really happened on the day of the farmer's unsolved murder. But the country prosecutor, the sheriff, and the deputy sheriff could not have cared less about such “trifles,” especially since they had been discovered by the two women, rather than by serious and efficient law-enforcement professionals like themselves. So, the play is all about “trifles,” including Minnie's previously careful and perfectly executed sewing stitches, which all of a sudden become erratic and uneven (a sure sign of her sudden agitation and nervousness).

The unseen central figures in the play—Mr. and Mrs. Wright—are absent from the cast of characters appearing on stage. Even though she never admits it, it looks like Minnie Wright might have killed her husband and owner of the farmhouse—perhaps in revenge for his cruel strangulation of her canary, perhaps out of fear for her own safety—or even out of fear for her life. That is why she obviously has a lot to worry about now that she is “held for murder.” As the county attorney George Henderson tells the two women, “I guess before we're through she may have something more serious than (her frozen) preserves to worry about” (p. 935).

At the beginning of the 20th century, what Minnie would have faced in a court of law are a male judge, a male prosecutor (most likely George Henderson himself), and an all-male jury. Any lawyer she may have hired for her legal defense—if she could afford it—would certainly have been a man, too. She would not have been provided with the free services of a public defender, because it was only in 1963 that the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that the Sixth Amendment of our Constitution's Bill of Rights requires the government to provide free legal counsel to indigent defendants in criminal cases like this one. Today, there is a very good chance that either the court judge or the state prosecutor, or even both, would be female. Also, a mixed jury of more or less evenly balanced number of men and women jurors would sit in court to hear her legal case. Any defense attorney, or even a free public defender, could be of either sex, depending on her personal choice.

But who was Minnie's dead husband, John Wright? Farmer Wright appears to be a bit different from the other otherwise equally tough and sexist men in this play—more aloof, less talkative, much harder, colder, blunter, and also stingier, especially with regard to his lonely and apparently abused wife. For example, Mr. Hale says that he once tried to get him to install “a party telephone” in his gloomy and isolated farmhouse—a single telephone line that is shared by several neighboring households. But Mr. Wright adamantly refused, “saying folks talked too much anyway, and all he asked was peace and quiet—I guess you know about how much he talked himself.” Nor did Mr. Wright care much about how his isolated, lonesome and house-bound wife felt about getting a telephone at home, “...I thought maybe if I went to the house and I talked about it before his wife, though...I didn't know as to what his wife wanted made much difference to John” (p. 936).

Paradoxically, the farmer seems to have had a reputation of being “a good man,” but very aloof. Mrs. Peters says that “I have never seen him in town” (p. 941). According to Mrs. Hale, “...he didn't drink, and he kept his word as well as most, I guess, and paid his debts. But he was a hard man, Mrs. Peters. Just to pass the time of day with him—[Shivers.] Like a raw wind that gets to the bone” (p. 941). The two women suspect that he has killed Minnie's little bird, as much as he has previously “killed” her singing: “No, Wright wouldn't like the bird—a thing that sang. She [Minnie] used to sing. He killed that, too.... She used to sing pretty well herself.... I wish you'd seen Minnie Foster when she wore a white dress with blue ribbons and stood up there in the choir and sang” (p. 943). Mrs. Peters and Mrs. Peters also blame him for the bleakness, coldness and unfriendliness of his farmhouse: “It never seemed a very cheerful place.... But I don't think a place'd be any cheerfuller for John Wright's being in it.... I stayed away because it weren't cheerful.... I've never liked this place...it is a lonesome place and always was” (pp. 938, 941). It is a “lonesome place,” which not even next-door neighbors like Mrs. Hale visited much because of the unfriendly, “hard,” and stingy (“close”) nature of Mr. Wright. But unlike the two women, the misogynistic county attorney George Henderson prefers to blame Mrs. Wright, not her husband, for the gloominess of their farmhouse: “No—it's not cheerful. I shouldn't say she had the homemaking instinct” (p. 938). Farmer John therefore appears to have been far more rough and disrespectful to Minnie than either Mr. Hale or Mr. Peters are shown to be to their wives on stage.

It does not look like the all-male investigating team is interested at all in the “trifles” discovered by the two women, such as the empty bird-cage, its smashed door, and the body of a dead canary. Instead of looking through Mrs. Wright's personal things, the men have far more important business regarding the crime scene—like examining the rooms upstairs and the barn, or studying the rope, with which the farmer was strangled in bed. Or looking into what exactly an obviously nervous Mrs. Wright said to Lewis Hale and the other farmer, Harry, on the previous day when they visited the farmhouse, both looking in vain for Mr. Wright about the matter of the “party telephone.” Mrs. Peters even makes fun of the men's haughtily superior and self-confident attitude, “...it's a good thing the men couldn't hear us. Wouldn't they just laugh! Getting all stirred up over a little thing like a—dead canary. As if that could have anything to do with it—with—wouldn't they laugh! (p. 943).

Unlike the men, both women grasp the heart-breaking domestic drama behind this hardly uncommon tragedy: “We all go through the same things—it is all just a different kind of the same thing” (p. 943). Seeing their eagerness to have Minnie charged with murder, Mrs. Hale (who was played by Susan Glaspell in the original production of the play) and Mrs. Peters hide the body of the dead canary from the men. They realize that Mr. Henderson, an overzealous county prosecutor who appears to be biased against women, especially when openly saying to them things like “Ah, loyal to your sex, I see” (p. 938), could use the dead bird as evidence to persuade the all-male jury that Minnie had a motive to kill her husband. Even Henderson admits to Mrs. Peters that “...it's all perfectly clear except a reason for doing it. But you know juries when it comes to women” (p. 944)—that is, how biased against women all-male juries were in their unjust and cruel patriarchal society.

Huddled in the cold kitchen, the two women talk with each other (and often each to herself alone) about the strange circumstances of John Wright's mysterious death:

MRS. HALE Well, I guess John Wright didn't wake when they was slipping that rope under his neck.

MRS. PETERS (crossing slowly to table and placing shawl and apron on table with other clothing) No, it's strange. It must have been done awful crafty and still. They say it was such a—funny way to kill a man, rigging it all up like that.

MRS. HALE (crossing to left of MRS. PETERS at table) That's just what Mr. Hale said. There was a gun in the house. He says that's what he can't understand (p. 937).

Indeed, why didn't Mrs. Wright use the gun instead of the rope to kill her abusive husband? Mrs. Hale does remark that “There was a gun in the house,” but it is quite possible that Minnie Wright did not know how to use it. Or maybe she was too squeamish about firearms or the sight of blood. Or, more likely, she perhaps felt that the punishment ought to fit the crime: Mr. Wright had wrung the neck of the poor canary, so she decided to strangle him with a rope in his sleep. (Unless the farmer killed himself for some unknown other reason—which is not entirely unlikely in this particular case: poor harvest, unpaid debts, stock market losses, loneliness, drunkenness, chronic depression, terminal illness, etc.). But Mr. Wright must have been very drunk when he went to bed, otherwise he would have most certainly woken up from the noose tightening around his neck—even if the strangulation had indeed “been done awful crafty and still.” I have read somewhere that it takes quite a while to strangle somebody with a rope, even if the strangler is a strong young man like the infamous “Boston Strangler” in the early 1960s, for instance. And if the farmer had awoken up a bit too early, then the county attorney and his two men would have surely been investigating Minnie Wright's murder instead of John Wright's....

Conclusion

As I wrote in the introduction, this one-act play is a trailblazer of early feminist drama. The ironic title of Trifles has largely shaped its revolutionary feminist meaning. Glaspell's two female characters, Mrs. Peters and Mrs. Hale, are very sympathetic to Minnie, the faceless victim's wretched wife, because they understand her possible motive, which leads them in the play's finale to hide the material evidence against her. By contrast, the three male investigators are blinded by their coldly efficient but futile search of the empty farmhouse's bedroom and barn (instead of focusing on the kitchen, as the two astute women have done). In the end, the men fail to find any hard evidence that could convict Minnie in a court of law or prevent her from being acquitted by the jury. Meanwhile, Mrs. Peters and Mrs. Hale quickly find an empty bird-cage with a smashed door and the body of a dead canary hidden inside a box, with its neck mercilessly wrung—that is, killed in the same way as farmer John Wright.

To describe their long and revealing conversation in the freezing kitchen, Glaspell uses an innovative dramatic technique that employs mutual monologues, in which each woman speaks aloud to herself rather than to the other woman. The women's discovery in the kitchen leads them to the conclusion that Mrs. Wright must have murdered her sleeping husband in revenge for his strangulation of her little pet (According to Mrs. Hale, “She liked the bird. She was going to bury it in that pretty box,” p. 943). Clearly, the “caged bird” represents here the physically and spiritually imprisoned American wife—a very common symbol of women's oppressed status as second-class citizens in early 20th-century America. At the risk of obstructing official justice, our two female amateur sleuths take the law into their own hands, rather than follow the unjust laws and prejudices of women's traditional oppressors (men).


Works Cited

Glaspell, Susan. Trifles, in J. Ellen Gainor et al. Eds. The Norton Anthology of Drama, 2nd shorter edition. New York, London: W. W. Norton & Company. 2014, pp. 931-944. Print.