Susan Glaspell's Poetics and Politics of Rebellion
Studies in Theatre History and Culture
Iowa City (Illinois): University of Iowa Press, 2017
Paperback. xiii+258 p. ISBN 978-1609385088. $65
Reviewed by Linda Ben-Zvi
Tel Aviv University
Émeline Jouve chose for the epigraph to her excellent study of the revolutionary plays of the American feminist Susan Glaspell (1876-1948) a quote from another American revolutionary writer, Walt Whitman: ‘Conquering, holding, daring, venturing as we go the unknown ways, / Pioneers! O pioneers!’ Whitman’s poem, published in Leaves of Grass (1865), is a paean to those Americans who moved westward across the American continent to settle a new frontier, its romantic fervor perhaps stoked by the fact that his own family never ventured beyond the New York seaboard where they first settled.
Glaspell’s family did. Twenty years before Whitman’s poem appeared, her parental grandparents were among the founders of Davenport, Iowa, where she was born and grew up, fed not on romantic pioneer lore but on realistic stories of pioneer struggles and hardships. Critics responsible for the reinstatement of Glaspell’s name and works in American dramatic and literary canons over the last several decades have focused on her own pioneering credentials: a newspaper woman from age sixteen, who put herself through college, later covered politics and murders for Iowa and Chicago papers, when few women held such positions, and eventually amassed enough material to launch a long and successful career (fifty short stories, nine novels, and fourteen plays*), acknowledged one of the most important playwrights of her time. By 1916, as part of the reverse migration of Midwestern writers, artists, and political activists to Greenwich Village, she and her husband George Cram “Jig” Cook co-founded the Provincetown Players, the first indigenous American theatre company that produced 100 original American plays in its seven-year history: fourteen by her friend and colleague Eugene O’Neill (whom Glaspell has been credited with discovering) and eleven by her; and in 1931 she was awarded the Pulitzer Prize for her play Alison’s House, based on the life of Emily Dickinson.
What makes Émeline Jouve’s book both important and original is that she changes this now-familiar biographical focus. Not denying the impact of the American pioneer ethos that shaped Glaspell’s life and writing, she broadens the critical lens by examining the poetics of Glaspell’s dramas—her revolutionary structuring of dramatic language, such as the introduction of verbal patterning, relying on repetitions and sound sense (much like the verbal noun recurrences in the Whitman lines quote above), and innovations in theatrical forms, particularly concerning dramatic space, lighting, and scenic design used to highlight and reinforce political and psychological themes, thereby subtly expanding and redefining seemingly realistic plays by the inclusion of such expressionistic elements. Jouve marshals relevant American and European critical theorists and philosophers to develop her analyses, including Bachelard, Bakhtin, Barthes, Chaudhuri, Foucault, Genette, Irigaray, Nietzsche, and Ricoeur, as well as an American “ternary” (a word Jouve uses often, perhaps too often): Emerson, Thoreau, and philosopher Josiah Royce.
While her discussions of Glaspell’s innovative stage language and dramatic forms provide rich insights into areas rarely explored by other critics, the central thrust of her book is on modes of rebellion in Glaspell’s plays. She takes her leave from Robert Brustein’s 1962 book The Theatre of Revolt : Studies in Modern Drama from Ibsen to Genet explaining that
[r]evolt—the rejection of, or the departure from, established patterns—is the “energy” (The Theatre of Revolt : 415) that drives Glaspell’s plays. As the present work hopes to demonstrate, rebellion permeates every level of Glaspell’s dramatic endeavor, from content to form…. explor[ing] the potential of drama as an actual instrument of pacifist rebellion to an extent which few playwrights of her generation actually dared to do [15-16].
Jouve divides her study of revolt into three parts, each with a brief introduction and each subdivided into three chapters discussing two or three plays each. Part 1 “Drama of Denunciation”, the longest and most successful of the sections, opens in Chapter One with an in-depth discussion of Glaspell’s most famous play, Trifles, focusing on its depiction of ‘the duplicity of American democracy’ , revealed in those ‘conventions and policies that deprive modern individuals of their natural rights’ [16-17], particularly related to women. This is a topic Jouve skillfully extends in Chapter Two, “The Angel in the House”, subtitled “Patriarchy, Traditions, and Female Alienation”, in which she illustrates how the one-act parody Woman’s Honor, as well as her full-length dramas Close the Book, Chains of Dew and Springs Eternal—all subtitled comedies—use humor and parody to critique patriarchal institutions that keep women in place. Referencing Bachelard and Chaudhuri, she also illustrates how brilliantly Glaspell delineates the limits of public and private spaces to which women are traditionally consigned. The final “denunciation” in this section ‘concentrates on the abridgment of the right of free expression …and the manipulation of American history’ illustrated in Glaspell’s plays Close the Book, Free Laughter, and Inheritors, each related to the limits placed on dissent in America during World War I.
Part II moves from denunciation to resistance, Jouve using the definition Camus sets forth in The Rebel : An Essay on Man in Revolt (1951): a ‘ “man who says no: but whose refusal does not imply a renunciation” ’ (The Rebel : 19) , arguing that Glaspell characters similarly ‘say no…striv[ing] to restore the limits, to redefine the contours of their prerogatives’ . But whereas Camus assumes rebels are men, Glaspell shows them as women, and indeed ‘no ordinary women, either’ . She also differentiates them, depending on their motivations, as either idealist or personal rebels. As she notes, there has been a tendency to label Glaspell herself as an idealist, and certainly her protagonist Madeline Fejevary Morton in Inheritors (1921) who rebels against deportation of foreign students and curtailment of free speech on her college campus, as well as the extended imprisonment meted out to conscientious objectors who refuse military induction, is an example of such an idealist. However, when Jouve turns to those she calls ‘personal rebels’, she makes a less compelling case, since she places under this category both Mrs. Peters in The Outside, a woman who runs away from her husband who left her and who seeks only escape from life and oblivion in a former lifesaving station fronting the Atlantic Ocean, and Claire Archer in The Verge—the first full-length American expressionist play—who struggles to run toward some ultimate freedom, free of the bonds of marriage, motherhood, and family.
In Part III, “Drama of Hope”, Jouve returns to Brustein’s The Theatre of Revolt whose Afterword contains the admission that he had focused on what the playwrights he studied were against, not what they were for. Instead, Jouve points to Glaspell’s ‘positive revolts’ , illustrating, in the first two chapters of this part, how the playwright provides ‘substitute ideas or ideals’ to replace the alienating ‘existing conventions and institutions’ Brustein cites (Theatre of Revolt : 415) , most importantly the possibilities of Sisterhood, , a theme that runs through almost all Glaspell plays, and extends as well to the possibility of a new, constructive “National Solidarity” . In the ninth and final chapter of the book, titled “The Paradox of Self-Sacrifice,” however, which deal with the plays Bernice and Chains of Dew, the protagonists, as described, seem to defer to the men in their lives and make sacrificial gifts of their individuality and freedom. To explain this apparent turnabout in Glaspell’s dramas, Jouve cites at length various Glaspell critics dealing with the question, before invoking Luce Irigaray’s mimicry theory of ‘a woman “playing” at being “a woman”, “play[ing] with mimesis” to “unveil” ‘the invisible side of female oppression to transform society from within’ (This Sex : 76) , or discussing the use of parody and humor to undermine patriarchy, which she persuasively presented at length in Part II, in relation to Glaspell’s Woman’s Honor, [48-58] and would have bolstered her discussion here.
Choosing to organize a study of a playwright’s body of works under several discrete themes, spread throughout a book, rather than discuss each drama individually can lead to fragmentation, repetition, and discontinuity or insufficient explanation in one section which will emerging at a later point in the study. However, Jouve is such a fine, solid writer, and her critiques almost always sufficient unto themselves, that this is rarely a problem. Illustrating a strong critical and aesthetic understanding of drama, she presents in this book an impressive compendium of Glaspell criticism to date and extends it through her invaluable insights, making an important case as to why Susan Glaspell deserves to be reinstated to the position she held during her lifetime as one of the most innovative and important playwrights of the twentieth century.
*Glaspell also co-authored two one-act plays, Suppressed Desires and Tickless Time with her husband Georg Cram Cook for the Provincetown Players, and a full-length play, The Comic Artist (1927) with her then-partner Norman Matson, which Jouve does not discuss. She does include the play fragment ‘Wings’, which my co-editor J. Ellen Gainor and I did not include in our book Susan Glaspell : The Complete Plays.
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