Authors: Susan Glaspell

  • Last updated on December 10, 2021

American playwright, novelist, and short-story writer


Susan Glaspell (GLAS-pehl), dramatist, novelist, and writer of short stories, was born in Davenport, Iowa, on July 1, 1876, the daughter of Elmer and Alice Keating Glaspell. Her forebears were among the earliest settlers of Davenport. She graduated from high school in 1894 and then worked for three years as a reporter for the Davenport Morning Republican and Davenport Weekly Outlook. While at the latter she wrote a “Social Life” column and published her first short story. In 1897 she entered Drake University in Des Moines, where she studied philosophy, excelled in debate, wrote short stories for the college’s The Delphic, and served as literary editor of the school newspaper.{$I[AN]9810001932}{$I[A]Glaspell, Susan}{$I[geo]WOMEN;Glaspell, Susan}{$I[geo]UNITED STATES;Glaspell, Susan}{$I[tim]1876;Glaspell, Susan}

Susan Glaspell

(Library of Congress)

After graduating from college in 1899 Glaspell worked for the Des Moines Daily News and wrote a column there called “The News Girl.” In 1901 she resigned this post to return to Davenport and concentrate on writing fiction. Between 1901 and the mid 1920’s she turned out a number of successful short stories. Many of these contain themes similar to what she had written about in her column. During these years Glaspell also worked briefly in Chicago on the Chicago Daily Review and did graduate work in English at the University of Chicago. In 1909 her first novel, The Glory of the Conquered: The Story of a Great Love, was published and became a best-seller. Other successful novels include Fidelity in 1915, Fugitive’s Returnin 1929, Ambrose Holt and Family in 1931, and Judd Rankin’s Daughter in 1945.

In 1912 Lifted Masks appeared, a collection of thirteen of Glaspell’s stories that exemplify her local-color writing. In 1913 Glaspell, then thirty-six, married George Cram Cook, a classics scholar and twice-divorced iconoclast from Davenport. The couple settled in Provincetown, Massachusetts, during the summer months and spent their winters in New York City. Cook founded the Provincetown Players in 1915. At the Wharf Theater in Provincetown the group produced Glaspell’s first two plays, the one-act play Suppressed Desires and the one-act play Trifles. Other one-act plays that Glaspell wrote for the Provincetown Players include The People, Close the Book, The Outside, Woman’s Honor, and, together with Cook, Tickless Time. During these years the Provincetown Players was the best-known innovative small theater group in the country; Glaspell participated in many of their productions as an actress.

Glaspell wrote eleven of the one hundred plays produced by the Provincetown Players during its seven-year existence. In the summer of 1916 she invited Eugene O’Neill to join their group, and Cook convinced the Provincetown to open the Macdougal Street Playwright’s Theater in Greenwich Village in September of that year. Known as the Provincetown Playhouse, this was where the group’s plays were performed during winter months. In the 1910’s Glaspell was considered by many to be the Provincetown’s best playwright; subsequently, she and Eugene O’Neill were regarded as its two luminaries. Some of Glaspell’s best stories were also published at this time. These include “Government Goat,” “The Busy Duck,” “The Hearing Ear,” “‘Finality’ in Freeport,” “Pollen,” and “The Escape.”

When Cook decided that the Provincetown Players was becoming too commercial for him, he and Glaspell ended their connection with the theater and in March of 1922 sailed for Greece. Two years later Cook died there of a rare disease. Glaspell returned to the United States, where she soon after started her relationship with the novelist and playwright Norman Matson, who was seventeen years younger than she. In 1926 Glaspell published The Road to the Temple, a biography of Cook’s life. A year later Glaspell and Matson collaborated on the unsuccessful play The Comic Artist, an account of the shortcomings of a cartoonist named Karl Rolfe. In 1929 Glaspell’s novel Fugitive’s Return appeared, which documents her impressions of Greek culture.

In December, 1930, Glaspell’s play Alison’s House was produced and won the 1931 Pulitzer Prize in drama. Based on the life of Emily Dickinson, the play concerns a single day in the life of the Stanhope family, who are moving from their Midwestern home on the final day of the nineteenth century. Although she has been dead for eighteen years when the play begins, Alison Stanhope continues to influence Stanhope family members. Glaspell called her heroine Alison to accommodate Emily Dickinson’s heirs, who were opposed to her using the name or poetry of Dickinson. From 1936 to 1938 Glaspell served as director of the Midwest Play Bureau of the Federal Theatre Project. She then returned to Provincetown, where she lived the last years of her life. She died of a pulmonary embolism and viral pneumonia on July 27, 1948, at the age of seventy-two.

Glaspell was a product of the era of the New Woman (1870-1920). During her forty-year literary career she wrote fifty short stories, nine novels, and fourteen plays. Glaspell allowed herself to be more experimental in her plays than in her fiction. Most of her works deal with issues of gender and class and have women as the central characters, and many of her stories and novels concern the struggles of women for self-realization. Men in her work tend to be less important to the heroine’s well-being than other women. Glaspell’s works are those of a regionalist, and they emphasize the value of the individual; her heroines are often pioneers trying to adapt to a changing society. Glaspell received early acclaim as a writer but then drifted into literary limbo. A revival of interest in her work began in the 1970’s.

BibliographyBen-Zvi, Linda. Susan Glaspell: Her Life and Times. New York: Oxford University Press, 2005. An examination of Glaspell’s relationships with the men in her life, as well as the role she played in the writing communities of Iowa and New York.Ben-Zvi, Linda. “Susan Glaspell’s Contributions to Contemporary Women Playwrights.” In Feminine Focus: The New Women Playwrights, edited by Enoch Brater. New York: Oxford University Press, 1989. Argues that Glaspell’s plays represent the female experience and that through their structure, characters, and language, the plays help to create a woman-centered drama.Bigsby, C. W. E. Introduction to Plays by Susan Glaspell. Cambridge, England: Cambridge University Press, 1987. Contains good biographical information and focuses on Glaspell’s development as a playwright. Provides insightful critical comments on four of Glaspell’s plays: Trifles, The Outside, The Verge, and Inheritors.Dymkowski, Christine. “On the Edge: The Plays of Susan Glaspell.” Modern Drama 1 (March, 1988): 91-105. Examines Glaspell’s theme of “otherness,” of taking risks in order to fulfill one’s potential.Goldberg, Isaac. The Drama of Transition: Native and Exotic Play craft. Cincinnati: Stewart Kidd, 1922. Examines Glaspell’s major plays and compares her dramatic techniques to those of Eugene O’Neill.Makowsky, Veronica A. Susan Glaspell’s Century of American Women: A Critical Interpretation of Her Work. New York: Oxford University Press, 1993. Has a chapter on Glaspell’s life and a chronological discussion of her works, many of which are out of print.Noe, Marcia. Susan Glaspell: Voice from the Heartland. Macomb: Western Illinois University, 1983. A book-length critical biography that emphasizes Glaspell’s idealism.Ozieblo, Barbara. “Rebellion and Rejection: The Plays of Susan Glaspell.” In Modern American Drama: The Female Canon, edited by June Schlueter. London: Associated University Presses, 1990. Explores why a playwright as influential as Glaspell had been to her contemporaries is excluded from many studies of drama and concludes that Glaspell was ignored because of her challenge to patriarchal attitudes.Ozieblo, Barbara. Susan Glaspell: A Critical Biography. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2000. A biography of the playwright.Papke, Mary E. Susan Glaspell: A Research and Production Source book. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 1993. Has a fine introduction, summaries, production histories, commentaries on the critical reception of the plays, and bibliographies of primary and secondary sources.Waterman, Arthur E. Susan Glaspell. New York: Twayne, 1966. Primarily a critical-analytical study of Glaspell’s novels and plays but also contains relevant biographical information. A chapter on the Provincetown Players describes the importance of the group and Glaspell’s contribution to it. A bibliography contains both primary and secondary sources.
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