Trifles is a one-act play by an American playwright and journalist Susan Glaspell, first performed in 1916. The plot is centered around a scene in a local farmhouse where neighbors and the police investigate a murder of John Wright, of which his wife Minnie is suspected. The play explores the themes of justice, moral judgment, gender roles and stereotypes, and isolation. The purpose of this paper is to analyze such elements of the play as stage directions and dialogs and explore how they are used by the author to portray the characters and develop the play’s main themes.
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The play is based on a real-life murder case, which Glaspell covered while working as a journalist. Inspired by her experience and observations, she used them to create a vivid and psychologically accurate representation of a domestic crime. The play starts with the sheriff, the county attorney, and the victim’s neighbor Mr. Hale entering the house accompanied by Mrs. Hale and the sheriff’s wife Mrs. Peters. As the men explore the house and the crime scene searching for evidence, women remain in the kitchen chatting to pass the time. As they look around the room and discuss the ‘trifles’ of the farmer’s wife’s life, they find clues to the couple’s personality as well as evidence that Mrs. Wright murdered her husband. Feeling compassion for the woman who was unhappy in her marriage and intimidated by her husband, they choose to hide evidence, leaving the investigation with no clue to the motive of the crime.
According to Aristotle’s theory, there are six elements common to any drama: plot, characterization, theme, diction, melody, and spectacle. In modern playwriting, some of the elements are less significant, while others can be approached from a slightly different point of view. The setting is just as important in modern drama as plot, characterization, and theme, with diction, melody, spectacle, and stage directions being the instruments used to achieve expressiveness. In modern theater, the story is narrated and the characters are portrayed using dialogue, stage directions, set and character descriptions, and spectacle, with the emphasis being on showing the events rather than telling the audience about them. Plays seek to develop a character through his or her actions and speech rather than a simple narrative.
In her play Trifles, Susan Glaspell uses a combination of these elements to create a vivid and powerful representation of characters and events. By engaging in dialogs and interacting with the stage environment, they reveal their thoughts and characters, confront gender stereotypes, and resolve the moral dilemma of revealing the evidence of the crime they think is justified. Stage directions and dialogs are the main elements through which the play’s conflict and main themes are developed.
The play starts with a description of the kitchen of the abandoned farmhouse where the action takes place. The set is depicted as “a gloomy kitchen, and left without having been put in order—unwashed pans under the sink, a loaf of bread outside the breadbox, a dishtowel on the table—other signs of incompleted work” (Glaspell, p. 36) The towel, the breadbox, and the half-cleaned table are the props with which the characters interact as the play progresses, and which are used to characterize them. While exploring the kitchen in search of evidence, the male characters, appalled by the mess, make contemptuous comments about Mrs. Wright’s housekeeping skills. The women, on the other hand, try to clean the mess and find excuses to justify the lady of the house. The settings description and the character’s reaction to it are used both for portraying Mrs. Wright as a distressed and unhappy woman and for establishing the conflict between male and female characters of the play.
Further stage directions feature such props as a sewing basket, a birdcage, and a box with a dead bird in it. They are the evidence of Mrs. Wright’s crime discovered by Mrs. Hale and Mrs. Peters as they look around the house, and how the two women interact with them emphasizes the moral dilemma they encounter. When they find an unfinished quilt and notice that the last piece of sewing Mrs. Wright has been working on is sewn badly, they realize that it is another indication of her distress. Having contemplated for a moment, Mrs. Hale “pulls at a knot and rips the sewing” (Glaspell, p. 42) in an attempt to hide the evidence of a motive.
This initial decision leads to more drastic actions when the women find a broken cage and a beautiful box with a dead bird. Their reaction as they realize that it was the death of the bird that made Mrs. Wright kill her husband is explicated in the description of their behavior. “The two women sit there not looking at one another, but as if peering into something and at the same time holding back. When they talk now it is in the manner of feeling their way over the strange ground, as if afraid of what they are saying, but as if they cannot help saying it” (Glaspell, p. 43). They contemplate on the idea of their neighbor being so desperate that she resorted to murder and then, driven by compassion, they hastily hide the box with the bird, burying the evidence of Mrs. Wright’s crime.
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All the props used in the play can be described as ‘trifles’ that give the play its’ name. Through stage directions of how male and female characters interact with the props on set, the author develops the idea that ‘trifles’ are what men think constitutes women’s lives. While men occupy themselves with important duties, women chat about sewing, preserves, and other housekeeping matters. But ‘trifles’ are what helps to investigate the crime, showing that they are no way less valuable than the ‘important matters’ that a man’s life is made up of.
The characters are introduced through stage directions and developed using dialog. At the beginning of the play, when the company enters the farmhouse, Mrs. Peters is described as “a slightly wiry woman.” Mrs. Hale “is larger and would ordinarily be called more comfortable looking, but she is disturbed now and looks fearfully about as she enters” (Glaspell, p. 36). The portrayal shows that the women are nervous and uncomfortable as they have to visit the house where their neighbor was supposedly murdered by his wife.
The tension felt by the women is further developed in the dialogs. At first, only men speak, and women keep silent, only making remarks about the setting. As male and female characters interact with the setting, they enter into a verbal conflict, and when the men leave, Mrs. Hale notes, “I’d hate to have men coming into my kitchen, snooping around and criticizing” (Glaspell, p. 39). When the men go upstairs to the bedroom, the women become more relaxed and start to chat about the house and its inhabitants.
The dialog is a characteristic of both the women who engage in it, as well as Mrs. Wright, of whom they speak. Mrs. Wright is not present, being accused of murder and kept in jail, but her character is portrayed and developed through the words of Mrs. Hale, who has known her for a long time. The subject of ‘trifles’ comes up again when Mrs. Peters remarks, “She said she wanted an apron. Funny thing to want, for there isn’t much to get you dirty in jail. But I suppose just to make her feel more natural” (Glaspell, p. 40). Throughout the play, Minnie is portrayed as a woman who is deeply unhappy in marriage and intimidated by her husband, with the ‘trifles’ of her life being the symbols of her unhappiness.
In her play Trifles, Susan Glaspell employs several techniques to portray the characters and represent the moral dilemma that they encounter. The props used in the play are the symbols of ‘trifles’ that make up a woman’s life, and how male and female characters interact with them show their opposing positions in the conflict. While male characters only want to gather evidence of Mrs. Wright’s crime, the women try to understand the emotional pain that drove Minnie to kill her husband. Through stage directions and dialogs, Susan Glaspell shows that to women moral judgment is tied to the feelings of empathy and compassion, whereas men’s moral decisions are impersonal.
Glaspell, Susan. Plays by Susan Glaspell. Cambridge University, 1987.