Susan Glaspell’s One Act Play Trifles

Susan Glaspell’s one-act play, Trifles, is based on actual events that occurred in Iowa at the turn of the century. From 1899-1901 Glaspell worked as a reporter for the Des Moines News, where she covered the murder trial of a farmer’s wife, Margaret Hossack, in Indianola, Iowa. Hossack was accused of killing her husband, John, by striking him twice in the head with an ax while he slept.

Initially it was assumed that burglars had murdered the farmer, but a subsequent sheriff’s investigation turned up evidence suggesting Mrs. Hossack was unhappy in her marriage. Ultimately, she was charged with and found guilty of the crime and sentenced to life in prison.

Over the course of sixteen months, Glaspell wrote twenty-six articles covering the case, from the announcement of the murder until Hossack’s conviction. The author found herself feeling more and more sympathy for the accused, in spite of the grisly nature of the crime.

Years later, Glaspell and her husband, George Cook, along with some friends, founded the Provincetown Players, an amateur theatrical company on Cape Cod, Massachusetts. In 1916 the group presented a summertime series of plays that included Eugene O’Neill’s Bound East for Cardiff. In need of a new play to end the season, Cook suggested Glaspell should write a one-act for the company. Her memory of the Hossack trial inspired Trifles.

Trifles is a murder mystery that explores gender relationships, power between the sexes, and the nature of truth. In the play, the farmer and his wife never actually appear; instead, the story focuses on the prosecutor, George Henderson, who has been called in to investigate the murder; Henry Peters, the local sheriff; Lewis Hale, a neighboring farmer who discovered Wright’s body; and Mrs. Peters and Mrs. Hale, wives to the two local men.

While the men bluster and tramp around the farmhouse searching for clues, the women discover bits of evidence in the ‘‘trifles’’ of a farmer’s wife—her baking, cleaning and sewing. Because the men virtually ignore the women’s world, they remain blind to the truth before their eyes.
Trifles Summary

The setting for Trifles, a bleak, untidy kitchen in an abandoned rural farmhouse, quickly establishes the claustrophobic mood of the play. While a cold winter wind blows outside, the characters file in one at a time to investigate a violent murder: the farm’s owner, John Wright, was apparently strangled to death while he slept, and his wife, Minnie, has been taken into custody as a suspect in the crime.

The sheriff, Henry Peters, is the first to enter the farmhouse, followed by George Henderson, the attorney prosecuting the case. Lewis Hale, a neighbor, is next to enter. The men cluster around a stove to get warm while they prepare for their investigation.

Mrs. Peters and Mrs. Hale follow the men into the kitchen; yet, they hesitate just inside the door. They are obviously quite disturbed by what has happened in the house and proceed with more care than their husbands.

In a play filled with minor details (trifles) that take on major significance, the entrance of the characters is very revealing. There is an obvious divide—social, psychological, and physical—separating the men from the women, a fact that takes on a larger significance as the play progresses.

The investigation begins with Henderson questioning Lewis, who discovered the murder the day before. Lewis explains that he was on his way into town with a load of potatoes and stopped at the Wright farmhouse to see if John and Minnie wanted to share a telephone line with him, since they were neighbors. The farmer admits that he didn’t think John would be interested, since he didn’t like to talk much and didn’t seem to care about what his wife might want.

When he appeared at the Wright’s door early in the morning, he found Minnie rocking nervously in a chair, pleating her apron. When he asked to see her husband, she quietly told Lewis that he was lying upstairs with a rope around his neck, dead.

Lewis summoned his partner, Harry, to check the grisly scene. The two men found John just as his wife described him. Minnie claimed someone strangled him in the middle of the night without disturbing her. ‘‘I sleep sound,’’ she explained to her shocked neighbor.

Henderson suggests the men should look around the house for clues, beginning with the bedroom upstairs and the barn outside. Henry casually dismisses the room where… » View complete Trifles summary

10 responses to “Susan Glaspell’s One Act Play Trifles

  1. In Trifles, the men believe that they grant female identity by virtue of the women’s relation to men rather than through their inherent qualities as females.

  2. This story symbolizes people having something to hide. There is a hidden story inside this story with these people. Something more had to have happen for these events to have happen.

  3. I like this story because it has totally turn around part. I also like it because the way she explained everything creates an image in your mind.

  4. I thought that this play was really interesting because not only could i follow it clearly, but it really made me think about alot of things.

  5. This is a very interesting drama and a mystery behind it as well. This short story is based and judged on gender. Since the husband was murdered while he slept and was hit on the head twice, the two men accusing the women guilty. Strongly they believe it was all her, for the reason that the relationship was rocky.

  6. This is an interesting drama because it resembles a direct example of the early feminist drama genre movement. With this in mind, knowing that such drama was written in the early 1900s clearly demonstrates the long struggle that women have to endure in order to achieve their civic rights. Nevertheless, sadly such goal has not been completed yet, only partially.

  7. The concepts and issues brought up in this play are very interesting!

  8. The play seems to be intriguing because of the mystery of why the husband was killed, but a lot has to do with gender roles as mentioned in the summary

  9. great play it shows different things and takes things in another direction, enjoyed it a lot and learned from it.

  10. This play is really short, but it touches on a lot of interesting subjects. Probably number one is the relationship between gender and power in American society, though admittedly in the early 20th century.

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