Written for a ReDiscovery Series reading with Garrett Anderson, the STC Artistic Fellow. The reading was directed by Holly Twyford and was striking for the unease it produced in the audience, many of whom remarked on the despair produced by its ironic double ending. -DL
Susan Glaspell is perhaps most recognized today for Trifles (1916), her first play, but her prolific career and event-filled biography argue for her place as one of the founding figures in modern American Drama. Born in Davenport, Iowa in 1876, Glaspell worked at the Des Moines Daily News and had already launched a career as a successful novelist when she began an affair with George Cook, a classics professor and writer known for his progressive beliefs. The two wed in 1913 and moved to New York’s Greenwich Village, where they became focal points for America’s first avant-garde artistic movement. Their friends and fellow travelers included novelists such as Upton Sinclair (who had already written The Jungle, his realist novel about immigrants working in the stockyards of Chicago). Political bedfellows included feminist activist Emma Goldman, as well as socialists John Reed and Louise Bryant, whose lives would later be depicted in the movie Reds. Glaspell, meanwhile, launched a career as a playwright. Her subsequent works would combine her journalistic impulse to chronicle women’s lives and her activist impulse to criticize implacable dogmas.
In 1916, Cook and Glaspell summered on Cape Cod, where they started a nonprofit theatre company devoted to producing works of artistic merit and serious social content. The aptly-named “Provincetown Players” would revolutionize American theatre practice, in part because they served as a launching-pad for one of Glaspell’s discoveries, a young playwright named Eugene O’Neill, whose success quickly came to eclipse hers.
Chains of Dew was written in 1922 and was the final play staged by the Provincetown Players. Preparing The Hairy Ape, O’Neill had left the troupe for Broadway. (Among the many possible ways to read this play, it can be viewed as her veiled response to the vagaries of artistic ambition, particularly of the Great Male variety.) Seeking to emulate O’Neill’s success, Glaspell’s Chains is a departure from her previous work, a cocktail of Shaw and Ibsen that alternates between sophisticated comedy and pointed social critique. However, no commercial producer showed interest, and a dispirited Cook and Glaspell spent the next two years in Greece, where Glaspell would begin to write her biography of Cook, The Road to Temple.
In addition to O’Neill, Glaspell and Cook also rubbed shoulders with poets from the literary avant-garde. In Chains of Dew, Glaspell depicts a poet with Midwestern roots who looks alarmingly similar to St. Louis’ own T.S. Eliot. Like Eliot, Glaspell’s Seymore Standish believes fervently in the liberating power of art. Also like Eliot, Seymore is trapped in a loveless marriage and spends much of his time away from home, in the admiring laps of progressive-minded women. He holds a job as director of a bank and exhibits a disdainful attitude toward the mediocrity of small-town America. One hears Seymore in these words by Eliot:
“I hate university towns and university people, who are the same everywhere, with pregnant wives, sprawling children, many books and hideous pictures on the walls. … I don’t like to be dead.”
The plot involves Seymore coming into increasingly hostile conflict with Nora Powers, a Birth Control League activist from New York. Nora, smitten with Seymore’s poetry despite his detestable personality, follows him to his all-American home in “Bluff City,” a town somewhere in the Mississippi Valley. When she meets his wife and mother and attempts to convert them into free-thinking women, Seymore’s almost existential unease at the prospect produces an agonized kind of comedy.
In Chains, Glaspell depicts a progressive milieu riven by internal contradiction. As a politically minded woman married to a bohemian adulterer in Cook, Glaspell writes with a notable strain of personal outrage about a fact that has become increasingly evident over the last century: the turn-of-the-century avant-garde was not just home to an active and vocal left wing, but also to utopians, egoists, and messianic artists of an apolitical if not arch-conservative mindset. Glaspell’s Chains also has the foresight to predict the schisms wracking a women’s movement casting about for a cause after winning suffrage in 1920 (the same year the play was written). “Birth control” becomes a sarcastic refrain almost as ludicrous in the play as Seymore’s derivative romantic poetry. Finally, the play’s portrait of a bicoastal cultural divide feels eerily contemporary today.
In Glaspell and Cook’s absence, Chains of Dew was drastically cut and hurriedly cast by the remaining members of the Provincetown Players. The reviews were mixed, likely owing to the haphazard nature of the production, and the play was withheld from the 1922 collected edition of Glaspell’s works. Glaspell returned to New York after Cook’s death in 1924. She would never regain the critical success she had garnered with Provincetown, despite winning the 1931 Pulitzer Prize for Alison’s House, based on the life and work of Emily Dickinson.
Glaspell died in 1948 in Provincetown, Massachusetts. A complete collection of her plays was published in 2010, including two previously unpublished works, one of which was Chains of Dew.