SUSAN GLASPELL AND EUGENE O'NEILL
Susan Glaspell is cited for three things in most O'Neill studies: bringing O'Neill and the Provincetown amateur theatre group together, through her chance encounter with Terry Carlin on the streets of the resort in July 1916; describing the group's reaction that evening to the reading of Bound East for Cardiff; and recording the subsequent performance of the work--the first O'Neill production--on July 28, 1916. After these three almost obligatory references--and, perhaps, mention that she and her husband, George Cram "Jig" Cook, were the first to hear The Emperor Jones, The Hairy Ape, Diff'rent, and The Dreamy Kid--Glaspell is allowed to fade to the background, consigned to "one of" status: one of the members of the Provincetown Players, one of the prolific writers associated with the group, one of the neighbors O'Neill knew in Provincetown.
Contrary to this limited role that critics have assigned her, Susan Glaspell was far more than a peripheral figure in the playwright's life. From the time they met in 1916 until the Cooks left for Greece in March 1922, Glaspell and O'Neill enjoyed a close personal and professional relationship, one unique in O'Neill's experience because it cut across the usual demarcated needs he sought to fulfill in relations with women and men. In an introductory essay for the collected letters of O'Neill to Kenneth Macgowan, Travis Bogard describes the usual schism in O'Neill's friendships:
In the years preceding 1921, the dual role Bogard describes was more often filled by Glaspell than by her husband. Because of the inherent tensions existing between the director and his most important playwright over the nature of the theatre they founded--the "beloved community of life-givers" or the pragmatic Playwright's Theatre, a place to mount productions--O'Neill sought support, solace, and advice from Glaspell, not Jig.2 For example, in a letter to Macgowan in 1921, O'Neill muses over a dream theatre:
The next words are "Susan would." They are crossed out, however, and instead O'Neill inserts, "You will know, if anyone." Whether O'Neill was referring to Glaspell as such a playwright or, more likely, as one who would know of such a writer, he seems by habit to have initially thought of her. The conditional form is replaced by the future tense when he addresses his newly found protégé, Macgowan; but up until 1921, it was Glaspell who usually performed the role Macgowan was to undertake.3
In Part of a Long Story, written in 1958, Agnes Boulton recalls the close relationship that existed between her husband of three months and their neighbor, Susan Glaspell, during the summer of 1918 in Provincetown. She says that, besides visiting the Cooks most evenings, O'Neill had a daily ritual that involved meeting with Susan. "After Gene was finished working he went across the street to Jig Cook's house, read the head-lines, talked to Susan Glaspell, who would be through her work by this time."4 These visits caused Agnes to feel a jealousy that she could still recall forty years later:
The woman Agnes describes, whose conversation men found "stimulating" and "helpful," was 40 years old the summer she met O'Neill. She was already an established writer, having published three novels--The Glory and the Conquered (1909), The Visioning (1911) and Fidelity (1915)--a collection of short stories, Lifted Masks (1912), and numerous uncollected stories which had appeared in leading magazines since 1903. Her background was markedly different from O'Neill's. Born in Davenport, Iowa, on July 1, 1876,5 she--like Cook, who was also a Davenport native--displayed great pride in her pioneer fore-bears who had settled the area. Throughout her life, she continued to identify with the vitality and intensity of these settlers, but she was aware of modern distortions in the pioneering spirit that had vitiated its earlier values. Madeline Morton, the young hero in her historical play Inheritors, recognizes this loss: "Just a little way back anything might have been. What happened?" Dr. Holden, her college professor, says simply, "It got--set too quickly."6 Unlike O'Neill, who blamed the failure of the American dream on rapidity of growth--"it hasn't acquired any real roots"--Glaspell in her writing bemoans the tendency for societies and people to slip too easily into patterns that preclude change and growth.
The most consistent theme in her fiction and plays is the drive of the protagonists--usually women--to escape forms thrust upon them by the society in which they live. The direction in a Glaspell work is outward, from the confining circle of society to the freedom of "the outside." This desire is illustrated in one of her earliest essays, written for the Davenport Morning Republican, on which she worked as a reporter after high school: "I am like the flowers in the hot-house, a forced production.... How would it feel to be free? ... and be a free thinker and an eccentric, generally?"7 Glaspell uses the same image, without the awkward phrasing, in her most experimental play, The Verge.
What probably saved Glaspell from being a local colorist like another celebrated writer from Davenport--Octave Thanet (a.k.a. Alice French)--was her association with a group that formed in Davenport in 1907. Called the Monist Society, it welcomed all who were ready to reject conventional beliefs which were in contradiction to their intellectual convictions. The chief mover of the group was Jig Cook, aided by 17 year old Floyd Dell; and it was Jig's idealism that activated the members to break with tradition, just as it was to galvanize the Provincetown Players which he founded nine years later.8
It was under Cook's influence that Glaspell turned to theatre when the two married and moved to Greenwich Village and Provincetown in the spring of 1913. Cook had seen the Irish Players during their tour of America in 1909, and he had been startled by the range of the group, just as O'Neill had been. The Abbey Theatre offered a clear alternative to Broadway fare. In The Road to the Temple, Glaspell's biography of her husband, she describes the usual plays they encountered in New York in 1913:
Glaspell and Cook tried their hands at playwriting in 1915, doing what Floyd Dell said the Village enjoyed best: ridiculing itself, in this case the new obsession with Freudianism that was sweeping the area.9 When the play was rejected by the Washington Square Players, the Cooks, with their friends Hutchins Hapgood and his wife, Neith Boyce, decided, in Boyce's words, to "do it ourselves." Given in the living room of the Hapgood house on the evening of July 15, 1915, Suppressed Desires by the Cooks and Constancy by Boyce became the first productions of a group that, as Glaspell later wrote, "closed without knowing they were Provincetown Players" (Road, p. 251).
On September 5, 1916, at the end of a season in which the small group put on 11 plays in the Wharf theatre, "a place where ninety people could see a play if they didn't mind sitting close together on wooden benches with no backs" (Road, p. 253), the participants met to incorporate and write a charter for their theatre. When they disbanded six years later, only O'Neill, Glaspell, and Cook remained of the original 29 signators. During the intervening time the three were continually active in the functioning of the theatre; and because of the democratic nature of the organization, they were called upon to make all major decisions.10 That meant that before a play was mounted the executive committee, to which Glaspell and O'Neill belonged, would meet and read each work. For example, in a letter to Glaspell on August 27, 1921, Cook writes, "Gene has to read it (to approve it),"11 referring to Glaspell's The Verge, which she was then completing.
In its six years of existence the original group compiled an extraordinary record, given its inauspicious beginnings and limited resources. It produced 96 plays by 45 different playwrights. O'Neill was the most prolific writer, with 15 plays given under the aegis of the group; Glaspell was second with 11.
Critics most often concentrated on the works of the two most active members and usually linked their names in reviews, citing both O'Neill and Glaspell as co-founders of a new American drama. For instance, Issac Goldberg said, when writing about O'Neill in 1922, "This then is the sketch of a man who is but at the beginning, and with him and Susan Glaspell, it may be, begins the entrance of the United States into the deeper currents of continental waters."12 Lawrence Langner, a founder of the Washington Square Players, noted, "We regarded the Provincetown Players as 'amateurs' in everything except their playwrights O'Neill and Miss Glaspell."13 And Barrett Clark wrote, "It is just as true that if it hadn't been for the plays of O'Neill and Miss Glaspell there would not have been much reason for the continuation of the theatre and probably few subscribers."14 Finally, Ludwig Lewisohn said in 1932, "Susan Glaspell was followed by Eugene O'Neill. The rest was silence; the rest is silence still. The Provincetown Players dispersed."15 In short, at least during the period in which they first began to write plays, both Glaspell and O'Neill shared the critical laurels as the playwrights who first brought modern drama to America.
The commitment to drama as a form, however, was never as all consuming with Glaspell as it was with O'Neill. She often said that she began writing plays "because my husband made me." The idea of a theatre seemed to her, as to Cook, an extension of the life they were leading among a close-knit group of friends. Less idealistic than her husband, she did not hearken back to ancient Greece for a model. Instead she simply wrote, "Perhaps we wanted to write plays and put them on just because we knew more intensely than the fishermen that the tide comes, the tide goes. You cannot know that and leave things as they were before" (Road, p. 257).
While their motivations were different, the form of their works tended to parallel each other in their early careers. Due to the limited resources of the theatre and the inexperience of the writers, both began with one-act plays which generally had one set, few characters, and little in the way of scenery. The majority of O'Neill's short plays were based on his sea experiences. Glaspell, with no backlog of material, had to search for plots and--like O'Neill--for new dramatic forms. Trifles, the play that followed Suppressed Desires, is based on an actual experience she had had while covering a murder story as a reporter in Des Moines. However, in the play, her most popular and successful work, Glaspell overthrows the conventional detective story. Slowly, with absolute control of her material, she restructures the familiar genre: the murder is never seen, the murderer absent, the motive unclear, the emphasis deflected from the accused to the accusers, and the attention focused not on the active male investigators who seek clues, but on their passive, accompanying wives, who are gradually drawn into a covenant with the absent woman accused of the crime. The men chide the ladies for being concerned with the "trifles" of the farm kitchen where the action takes place: the unbaked bread, dirty towel rack, sewing left undone. But it becomes clear in the course of the play that in these daily trifles motives for violence can be found, a truth the women recognize through their own experiences with subjugation.
As in her earlier work, Glaspell is able to connect the language and the action. Her characters are inarticulates: they pause, stammer, and speak in half sentences. The most often-used mark of punctuation here, as in most Glaspell plays, is the dash, which indicates lapses in the continuity of the discourse. Unlike O'Neill's inarticulates, whose reticence often stems from poor education, Glaspell's characters generally cannot find words because they are still in the process of discovering what they want to say and are often unable or unsure of their own thoughts. The playwright's great contribution to American dramatic language is her daring act of placing these stammerers in the center of the action, and allowing them to verbally stumble toward some understanding of themselves, often never totally framed in words. Conversely, Glaspell suggests that glibness and verbal dexterity may be the mark of superficiality, used by characters who are spokespeople of a fixed society. For example, while the men in Trifles are never at a loss for words, the women must painfully--almost mutely--grope toward some apprehension of the motives for the murder that has taken place. Yet only the women come to any understanding in the play, albeit unclothed in words.
The same disparity between verbal facility, understanding, and the roles of the sexes is also demonstrated in The Outside, where two women--a sophisticated city woman named Mrs. Patrick, and her servant, a local woman named Allie Mayo--struggle toward some meaning to the life they share on the outer reaches of Provincetown harbor--a barren buffer of land fronting the sea, called "the Outside." Both have left society because of lost love; but it is Allie, the woman "who has not spoken an unnecessary word for twenty years," who attempts to bring her mistress back to life through a recognition of the bravery inherent in a life lived at the fringe of society. Once again Glaspell focuses as well on the failure of men to accomplish what women can do. Although the men in the play struggle to resuscitate a drowning victim,16 they are unsuccessful; physical activity has proven a failure. The passive, mute Allie, however, is victorious in her own personal resuscitation of Mrs. Patrick. As in Trifles, the shared experiences of women provide a covenant that is supportive.
The Outside is the one play in the Glaspell canon that makes such specific use of Provincetown, which both she and O'Neill loved so well. In fact, the life saving station in which she places the action is the very one, overlooking Peaked Hill Bars, into which O'Neill would move two years after Glaspell wrote her play.17
Glaspell wrote seven short plays, but by 1919 she was, like O'Neill, ready for a more extended form. His first full-length play, Beyond the Horizon, opened on Broadway on February 4, 1920; her first long work, Bernice, had its premiere at the Playwright's Theatre on March 21, 1919, opening to good reviews. While different in details, all of Glaspell's six full-length plays--Bernice, Inheritors (1921), The Verge (1921), and Chains of Dew (1922), all written for the Provincetown Players; and The Comic Artist (1928) and the Pulitzer Prize-winning Alison's House (1931), written after the demise of the group--have elements in common.
First, they usually focus on a fully developed female hero. She may be physically absent, as in the case of the dead Bernice and Alison, but her presence still pervades the atmosphere; and it is her home in which the action takes place, an indication of her importance to those who surround her. Next to these dominant women, the men with whom they live--husbands, fathers, lovers--are painfully lacking in vigor and intelligence. They are all incapable of understanding the women and, for the most part, resent their superiority. Bernice's husband, Craig, is a writer of mediocre talent who has taken no pleasure in his wife's capacity for life--"a life deeper than anything that could happen to her."18 In Inheritors, Madeline Morton also stands in isolation from the men around her. She alone is the true spiritual descendent of her ancestors, carrying on their values in a world that no longer appreciates such beliefs. Even more harassed is Claire Archer, the hero of The Verge. More than any other Glaspell character, she seems to dominate the world in which she lives; however, her intelligence and forceful personality do not guarantee her easy passage to the life of independence she craves. She is surrounded by the proverbial Tom, Dick, and Harry: friend, lover, and husband. None is able to completely understand her desires, none can offer more than passing comfort, and all prove obstacles she must inevitably overcome.
Glaspell wrote The Verge on a sabbatical year's leave that she and Cook took during the 1920-21 season of the Provincetown Players. It opened on November 14, 1921, with critics confused about what to make of the experimental scenery and the difficult plot.19 Despite the critical reception, it is Glaspell's greatest dramatic achievement and her most experimental work. In her depiction of a woman who tries to develop new forms of plant life in order to create what has not existed before, Glaspell moves into areas not yet attempted on the American stage. Taking as her point of departure the expressionistic staging that had begun to appear in Europe in the first decades of the century, O'Neill's own groundbreaking experiments in The Emperor Jones in 1920, and Robert Edmond Jones's expressionistic use of masks and scenery in the March, 1921 Broadway production of Macbeth, Glaspell creates a work in which scenic design and lighting become projections of the main character's inner struggles. And her introduction of visual symbols derived almost directly from Freudian psychology is unique to the American theatre in the 1920's.
The action of the play takes place in Claire Archer's laboratory and her tower retreat. Neither place is meant to be realistically depicted; they are externalizations of states of mind, created as much by light and shadow as by physical properties. The laboratory is a small area with a low back wall and a sloping glass ceiling whose vaulting dimensions indicate the direction in which Claire is determined to go--upward and outward, away from the confines of family and custom. Superimposed upon the scene are complex patterns of light, presumably made by the frost outside the room. In the stage directions, Glaspell calls these patterns "inherent in abstract nature and behind all life."20 It is through this elaborate latticework of design that the audience must glimpse the action. At the back of the room a strange vine "creeps along the low wall, and one branch gets a little way up the glass. You might see the form of a cross in it, if you happened to think it that way" (p. 2). This is Edge Vine, a new plant form that Claire has created. However, it proves an unwilling creation, preferring to retreat to the familiar rather than take hold as a thing that has not been before. In an adjoining room, barely visible, is a more promising hope of new life: Breath of Life, a flower that Claire has bred. Light focuses on this new plant, a symbol of the possibility in nature of new forms unknown in the past.
When the play begins, all is dark in the laboratory except for one shaft of light that comes from an open trap door. It is from the unseen space below that Anthony, Claire's assistant, emerges in response to the repeated sound of a buzzer; and it is into this sanctum that Claire will descend in an attempt to escape the numerous people who invade her work area. The buzzer that precipitates the action of the play is similar to the whistle in The Hairy Ape: sharp, mechanical, and able to get humans to respond automatically. It is a sound coming from an unseen place, demanding some action.
The first and third acts take place in the laboratory; the second is set in Claire's tower, an area even more expressionistically rendered. Claire calls it her "thwarted tower" because of its odd shape. The stage directions indicate that "the back is curved, then jagged lines break from that, and the front is a queer bulging window, a curve that leans. The whole structure is as if given a twist by some terrific force--like something wrung" (p. 58). The action is viewed through the distorted window, and the effect is of seeing some womb-like enclosure in which the protagonist vainly attempts to retreat and seek escape and comfort. Yet, like Yank's domain, it does not prove invader-proof. Repeatedly, people enter in order to threaten Claire's territory and dislodge her, ascending the stairs leading to her tower rather than descending as Mildred does to perform a similar function in The Hairy Ape.
Again, as in Act I, the byplay of light and shadow is contrived to heighten both the battle between characters and the struggle within Claire. Glaspell indicates that the tower is "lighted by an old-fashioned watchman's lantern hanging from the ceiling; the innumerable pricks and slits in the metal throw a marvelous pattern on the curved wall--like some masonry that hasn't been" (p. 58). In the same way that Yank's stokehole is made to assume the nature of a cell by the use of shadows approximating bars, Claire's tower--like her frost-encrusted laboratory--takes on a non-realistic form. It becomes a visual externalization of the darkness through which Claire must travel, toward a light she can only faintly perceive. "The world of the three dimensions is only a mine, a quarry, raw material for building in the fourth dimension," Glaspell would later write (Road, p. 160). In The Verge, she is able to produce a work that moves away from the confines and limits of realistic theatre, into a world rarely depicted on the stage before her experimental attempt.
O'Neill probably did not see the production of The Verge because he was busy, during the period it ran, with two openings of his own--Anna Christie and The Straw, on November 2 and 10--after which he returned immediately to Provincetown to begin work on his next play, The Hairy Ape, which he finished in two and a half weeks and read to the Cooks at the end of December 1921. Denying the influence of European expressionism, he acknowledged only one source: The Emperor Jones. But The Verge--which O'Neill had read by the end of August 1921--deserves acknowledgement too. If not a direct source, it was at least an influence on the structuring of the play, creating a climate by its very existence and groundbreaking experimentation that allowed O'Neill to proceed rapidly down the same path. Despite the similarities in several aspects of the work--small, confining areas; shadows producing distorted shapes; piercing sounds; intimations of unseen areas; characters struggling to maintain their hold on personal territories--no critics have cited The Verge as a possible influence on The Hairy Ape. Louis Sheaffer, for example, searches for parallels in a film, The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari, and Kaiser's expressionist play From Morn to Midnight. The latter work does have a similar plot, involving a woman who dislodges a young man from his familiar routine and life; but it lacks the staging devices that O'Neill employed. In structure, The Verge offers a closer parallel, and it is a work with which O'Neill was certainly more familiar.
For her part, Glaspell never did get to see The Hairy Ape, for she and Cook left for Greece on March 1, 1922, nine days before it opened. From Greece, she wrote to Edna Kenton about the play: "Anyway it's nice that Ape went over with a bang, paying the bills and gleaning the glory."21
On her return from Greece in 1924, after the untimely death of her husband, Glaspell did not reestablish relations with O'Neill, in part because of the animosity that attended the transfer of authority from the Provincetown Players to the newly formed Experimental Theater that followed its demise. O'Neill did write to Glaspell on May 26, 1924, indicating his feelings at the death of Cook:
After O'Neill's marriage to Carlotta, the two became even further estranged, as did most of O'Neill's Provincetown friends because of the obstacles his new wife created for his earlier associates. However, in certain plays O'Neill wrote later in his career, traces remain of the influence of Glaspell's work: the use of an absent person depicted as a palpable presence hovering over the action, and the stultifying effect of a house and the "trifles" in it as embodiments of the dead person (Desire Under the Elms); and the anguished attempt of a highly volatile, sensitive woman to escape the past and to manipulate the men who revolve as satellites around her (Strange Interlude).
Aside from her mention of him in The Road to the Temple, Glaspell published nothing recalling her relationship with O'Neill. However, in her papers, two items appear. In a notebook, she has this brief entry, under the heading "Misfits": "Terry's philosophy on Gene: 'Every soul is alone. No one in the world understands my slightest impulse.' 'Then you don't understand the slightest impulse of anyone else.'"23 And in notes on the Federal Theatre Project, which she served as Midwest representative from 1935 to 1938, Glaspell has an outline for a talk she planned to give on O'Neill. She writes, "Hands himself everything--sea--fate--God--murder--suicide--incest--insanity. Always the search for new forms. Because necessary to what he would express."24 It was Susan Glaspell who accompanied him at least part way in this search.
1 "The Theatre We Worked For": The Letters of Eugene O'Neill to Kenneth Macgowan, ed. Jackson R. Bryer, intro. Travis Bogard (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1982), pp. 15-16.
2 There was a difference of opinion about the importance of the Provincetown Players to O'Neill's career. In notes for an article to appear in The Little Review, Nov. 18, 1920, Cook wrote, "Had O'Neill not been a member of the group which he knows to be ready to make any interesting new departure, to attempt the untried, he would have had no incentive to write The Emperor Jones." (The Eugene O'Neill holograph essay, Berg Collection, New York Public Library.) O'Neill, for his part, while crediting the Provincetown and Cook, told Barrett Clark, "But I can't honestly say I would not have gone on writing plays if it hadn't been for them. I had already gone too far ever to quit." (Barrett Clark, Eugene O'Neill: The Man and His Plays (New York: Dover, 1947), p. 31.
3 O'Neill was not the only writer who found support from Glaspell and, to a lesser degree, Cook. In her copy of Sinclair Lewis's Our Mr. Wrenn is the following inscription: "To Susan Glaspell, but for whose encouragement and understanding this book would never have been finished, and to George Cram Cook--prince--from the author." (Berg Collection, New York Public Library.)
4 Agnes Boulton, Part of a Long Story (New York: Doubleday, 1958), p. 178.
5 There has been some debate about Glaspell's actual birthdate. Although she listed it as 1882, records indicate that she was actually six years older.
6 Susan Glaspell, Inheritors (Boston: Small, Maynard & Co., 1921), p. 140.
7 Susan Glaspell, "Social Life," Weekly Outline, No. 1 (1897); rpt. Marcia Noe, "Susan Glaspell: A Critical Biography," Diss. Univ. of Iowa, 1976. This is the most complete record of Glaspell's life.
8 For a discussion of the Monist Society, see Susan Glaspell, The Road to the Temple (New York: Frederick A. Stokes, 1927), pp. 188-199. Hereafter this work will be cited in the text as Road.
9 Floyd Dell, Homecoming: An Autobiography (1933; rpt. New York: Kennikat Press, 1961), p. 250. Dell provides excellent descriptions of life in Davenport when Glaspell and Cook lived there.
10 Cook later regretted this democratic organization. In a letter to Edna Kenton written in 1922 from Greece, he said: "I have got used to a bunch of self-seeking egotists--the Provincetown Players. They are and have always been subnoxinal in ability to work together for a common purpose.... If I am ever again to play that game there shall be absolute tyranny--and the tyrant unquestionably me. A questioned tyrant is bad to deal with." In the same letter he makes this reference to O'Neill: "His mood toward us was bad." (Eugene O'Neill Collection, Barrett Library, Univ. of Virginia.)
11 Letter from Cook to Glaspell, August 27, 1921, Berg Collection, New York Public Library.
12 Isaac Goldberg, The Drama of Transition (Cincinnati: Steward Kidd Co., 1922), p. 471.
13 Lawrence Langner, The Magic Curtain (New York: E. P. Dutton & Co., 1951), p. 25.
14 Clark, p. 30.
15 Ludwig Lewisohn, Expression in America (New York: Harpers, 1932), p. 393.
16 The drowning victim's arm is the only part of his body that is seen, a technique reminiscent of O'Neill's use of the arm of the invisible husband in Before Breakfast.
l7 For a description of the locale see Road, pp. 286-287.
18 Susan Glaspell, Bernice (Boston: Small, Maynard & Co., 1920), p. 173.
19 Although several critics ridiculed its strange form, Stark Young defended it: "No play of Susan Glaspell's can be passed over quite so snippily as most of the reviewers have done with The Verge: for Miss Glaspell is one of the few people we have in our theatre who are watching the surface of life to find new contents and material.... Prattling about new forms in the theatre and then fighting any attempt at new material is a poor game." (Stark Young, "Susan Glaspell's The Verge," New Republic, XXIX (July 1921), 47; rpt. Gerhard Bach, "An Annotated Bibliography in English," Susan Glaspell und die Provincetown Players (1979). The bibliography contains critical reactions to all of Glaspell's major plays, and is an invaluable aid.
20 Susan Glaspell, The Verge (Boston: Small, Maynard & Co., 1922), p. 2. Subsequent page references will be included parenthetically in the text.
21 Letter to Edna Kenton, May 1, 1922, Barrett Library, Univ. of Virginia.
22 Letter to Susan Glaspell, May 26, 1924, Eugene O'Neill Collection, Barrett Library, Univ. of Virginia.
23 Susan Glaspell notebook, Barrett Library, Univ. of Virginia.
24 Berg Collection, New York Public Library.
© Copyright 1999-2007 eOneill.com