Despite the way us English profs like to structure survey classes—and I’m as guilty of this one as anybody—literary history doesn’t tend to break up into neat or orderly time periods and movements. Other than the very explicitly self-identifying and –defined movements, like the Harlem Renaissance, for the most part these categories and trends comprise instead precisely our scholarly efforts to look back at complex and overlapping collections of writers and texts and styles and focal points and assemble them into more easily digested (and, yes, taught) bits. Doesn’t mean that the bits aren’t without value or can’t help us see our literary and cultural history, just that they can be pretty reductive or limiting, especially in how we see a particular author or text. But having said that, sometimes the moments when literature shifts from one style or movement or another are more overt and striking; and as I get toward the close of my first semester teaching American Drama, I’ve come to realize that the early 20th century, and even more exactly the founding of the Provincetown Players in the mid-1910s, represents exactly such a transitional moment.
Up through the end of the 19th century, American drama had been dominated by the melodramatic—the over-the-top villains, the doomed love stories, the comic relief characters, the big musical cues, the swordfights on stage, etc. European drama had been evolving into something much more socially realistic for some time, spearheaded by folks like Henrik Ibsen and George Bernard Shaw, but as far as I can tell, that trend hadn’t reached our shores by the turn of the century. But in the summer of 1915, a group of young playwrights and performers vacationing in Provincetown, Massachusetts, led by a married couple, George Cram Cook and Susan Glaspell—all of whom having experienced rejection and frustration in the mainstream theatrical world of the era—began sharing their works with each other; the following year Cook and Glaspell made the impromptu gathering into an official theatrical community, the Provincetown Players/Playhouse. The Players quickly became best known—and are still most significant in American literary and cultural history—for introducing the works of Eugene O’Neill, who is in many ways the poster child for the shift to a new social and psychological realism in American drama. But while his first plays debuted with them in the late 1910s, and his first hit (The Emperor Jones) in 1920, it is a one-act play of Glaspell’s from 1916 that truly to my mind signals the literary sea-change represented by Provincetown.
That play, Trifles, focuses on an event as melodramatic as they get: the murder of a rural farmer, found strangled with a noose in bed next to his sleeping wife; the wife denies any knowledge of the crime but is of course the principal suspect in her husband’s death. That Glaspell based this event on an actual crime that she had investigated and written about during a stint as a journalist in Iowa makes the play’s focus real but not necessarily realistic; she certainly could have created a melodramatic text from this starting point. But while the play does feature the murder mystery at its core, it does so in a profoundly realistic and powerful way: it is set solely in the farmhouse’s kitchen, and so the three male characters who are ostensibly investigating the crime (two local law enforcement representatives and the neighbor who found the body) are looking elsewhere and fruitlessly for most of the play; the two female characters, the wives of the sheriff and of the neighbor, stay in the kitchen and, through their informal investigations there as well as their conversations and developing understandings, unravel the details of the crime (and a great deal else). When the male neighbor says early in the play that “women are used to worrying over trifles,” he is thus not only entirely wrong about whose focus and knowledge are ultimately validated, but also ironically helping Glaspell communicate a central thesis of her new, realistic dramatic style: that it is in the trifles, the small details of (for example) a farmhouse’s kitchen, that life’s most central questions and identities and relationships can unfold and be captured.
As with all of the works of literature on which I’ll focus in this space, I think the value of Glaspell’s play extends well beyond just scholarly conversations or even classrooms. For one thing, it’s an engaging and often engrossing character study and murder mystery, another example (to echo yesterday’s post on Public Enemy) of how political art can also be appealing and popular (and in multiple iterations, as Glaspell turned it into a short story, “A Jury of Her Peers,” that is great in its own right). But it’s also a really striking reflection of a moment when American drama was changing, when a group of American artists recognized the significance of the far from trifling realities and lives and communities that had often been excluded from our literature, and began to create enduring works focused on them. More tomorrow, on the college professor whose bluff saved the United States.
PS. Two links to start with:
1) The full text of Glaspell’s short play: http://www.vcu.edu/engweb/eng384/trifles.htm
2) Pretty thorough history of the Provincetown Playhouse: http://www.provincetownplayhouse.com/history.html