Study Guide

Trifles

By Susan Glaspell

Trifles Introduction

Susan Glaspell (1876-1948) was a pioneering woman—and we don't mean the kind that wore bonnets. Glaspell's pioneer spirit blazed to life in her writing, not in her headgear. In her lifetime, Glaspell published over fifty short stories, nine novels, a biography, and fourteen plays.

Makes you feel pretty lazy about your pack-a-day Netflix habit, eh?

But maybe you're one of the five Luddites that haven't succumbed to the black holes of Interwebz time-wastitude. You might think, "So what? Lots of people have published lots of stuff."

Yeah, no doubt. But Glaspell did all this at a time when women in America got zero respect. The glass ceiling was so low that the ladies had to crouch to walk around (which isn't so easy in a corset). That didn't stop Glaspell, though. Her novels were bestsellers, her plays got rave reviews, and she even won a Pulitzer Prize.

Even though Glaspell wrote heaps of other stuff, these days most people hear her name and think of Trifles. Don't let the title fool you. This play isn't trifling. For starters, it's one of the most anthologized plays of all time (which probably has something to do with why you're reading this right now). More importantly, it's one of the most anthologized plays because it's one of the first examples of American feminist drama. Also, it's awesome.

Even today, the play feels dark and has an edge like a straight razor. Inspired by a murder that Glaspell reported on when writing for a Des Moines newspaper, this one-act climaxes when two farmwives challenge male-dominated society by hiding evidence that could convict another farmwife who strangled her emotionally abusive husband. The evidence is a dead canary with its neck snapped—which is also evidence that this play is dark, challenging, and unafraid to ask tough questions.

Not only is Trifles a trailblazer on the feminism front, it also helped to remodel American theatre as a whole. Let's face it: when Trifles was first performed in 1916, American theatre was a total fixer-upper. Most plays on Broadway were sappy melodramas, and the mainstream theatre was kind of a joke. So along with her husband, George Cram Cook, Glaspell founded the Provincetown Players, a company dedicated to producing new, innovative, intelligent plays that... didn't suck.

Starring Glaspell as Mrs. Hale (yeah, she acted too), Trifles was first performed by the Provincetown Players in a ramshackle fish house-turned-theater on the tip of Cape Cod. Though they had humble (and fishy-smelling) beginnings, the Provincetown Players totally revolutionized American theatre. With Glaspell and playwright buddy, Eugene O'Neill, at the forefront, the Provincetown Players singlehandedly put the U.S. on the theatre map.

The sad thing is that even though Glaspell was a rock star while she was alive, everybody sort of forgot about her after she died in 1948. For years, all those plays and books mostly gathered dust. It wasn't until the 1970s, when modern feminists started resurrecting the work of neglected female writers, that people started to again bow to The Glaspell. Now Susan's pioneering spirit is once more blazing for all to see.

What is Trifles About and Why Should I Care?

Trifles is the play for fans of The Fall, or Broadchurch or Fargo or Zodiac or anybody whose Netflix is constantly suggesting they watch movies "with a strong female lead" or "gritty mystery." (Kind of creepy when it has you pegged, right?)

If you're like us, you dig few things more than sitting down and watching a misunderstood detective solve a murder—usually running rings around all the incompetent cops while she's at it.

Trifles is like one of those detective dramas… but with some serious twists. For starters, our super sleuths aren't cops, psychics, mystery writers, or ghost whisperers. Instead, they're average, ordinary farmwives, living in a time in America when women didn't have a lot of rights. Not an exciting enough twist for you? Then how about this: instead of trying to bring a criminal to justice, they crack the case and keep the evidence from the cops.

Okay, wait. Don't get us wrong. Obstructing justice isn't high on our list of Awesome Things. But what is awesome is that Susan Glaspell flipped a genre on its head before it totally existed.

What's even better is how the play's plot turns make every audience member ask themselves some real-deal questions. Like: What is the nature of justice? Or: When you're part of an oppressed group, do you have a responsibility to uphold the laws of your oppressors?

Yeah, this play is thought provoking as well as twisted and grim. Looks like this play is also for people whose Netflix suggests, "shows that make you think."

Trifles Resources

WEBSITES

The International Susan Glaspell Society
This organization is dedicated to making the world recognize the might of the almighty Glaspell.

Project Gutenberg
Click here for a free copy of the text. Gotta love that Gutenberg.

Provincetown Players
Want to check out pics of famous artists in funny bathing suits and get the history of the Ptown Players?

MOVIE OR TV PRODUCTIONS

Trifles (2009)
Here's the most recent stab at taking the play to the big screen.

Trifles (1930)
Behold the oldest movie version that seems to exist.

ARTICLES AND INTERVIEWS

Times Review
Check out this NY Times review of a recent experimental production by Theater of the Two-Headed Calf (yeah, that's their name).

Get Scholarly
Get smart and read this scholarly essay on Glaspell's part in murder mystery history.

Hot Debate
Click here for the controversy over NYU renovating Glaspell's old haunt, the Provincetown Playhouse.

VIDEO

Lego Version
Are you in the market for a no-budget Lego version of the play?

Hokey Old Movie
This film clip might feature some seriously hokey acting, but you do get a glimpse of what it might've been like when Hale first found Mrs. Wright.

Creepy Marionettes
Wondering how a party line telephone worked? These creepy marionettes will explain it all for you.

AUDIO

Too Lazy to Read?
Then just click here and listen to some so-so actors read it out loud.

A Jury of her Peers
Click here for the British accented audiobook of the short story version of the tale.

IMAGES

Oldschool Trifles
Here's a pic from one of the very first productions, which proves that men once had a different idea of eyebrow grooming.

Newschool Trifles
Oh, how the times have changed.

Young Glaspell
Some people just look right in faded black and white.

Younger Glaspell
We have a feeling some adult forced her to pose beside this ugly plant.

Glaspell Rocks a Typewriter
What if she's typing, "All work and no play makes Susan a dull girl"?