SUSAN GLASPELL AND EUGENE O'NEILL: THE IMAGERY OF GENDER*
In the Summer-Fall 1985 issue of the Newsletter, Michael Manheim argued that Eugene O'Neill is "a uniquely American playwright," one who should clearly be designated America's "national playwright." A fundamental criterion for such designation is, of course, a connection to the tradition from which the playwright springs, an American grounding. A number of scholars--among them, John Henry Raleigh, Brenda Murphy and Professor Manheim--have explored the relation between O'Neill and American literature and drama of the 19th century. I propose to discuss a more contemporary connection: the strands that link O'Neill and the most significant other playwright of his own period and milieu--Susan Glaspell.
Glaspell's relation to and influence on O'Neill have heretofore not been explored by critics for two obvious reasons. First, her name for too long has been exclusively yoked to the Provincetown Players, the group she co-founded; and therefore her connections to O'Neill have been enmeshed in the debates surrounding O'Neill's indebtedness to that theatre and most particularly to its head, George Cram Cook--Glaspell's husband. Second, her plays have not been readily available. Although critics in O'Neill's time considered her a serious writer worthy of the highest critical attention, she has now virtually disappeared from the canon, condemned until recently to a footnote in theatre history, one of those shadowy figures hovering on the periphery of Warren Beatty's Reds.
That situation is now changing. Glaspell is emerging from those generic studies of Provincetown contributors to become a subject for consideration in her own right. Recently Marcia Noe has published a Glaspell biography, Voice from the Heartland, offering helpful background material; and C. W. E. Bigsby, in his massive three-volume study of Twentieth-Century American Drama, has acknowledged her importance in American writing, arguing that she is "much more accomplished than her present dwindled reputation would suggest." While he still lists her under the Provincetown banner, he does provide an eleven-page study of her major works, often comparing her to O'Neill. (Bigsby will also soon be editing a selection of Glaspell's plays so that the general critical community will have the opportunity of making their own assessment of Glaspell's importance.) What I wish to offer are some general observations on the direction such studies might profitably take. I am less interested in proving influence than in placing Glaspell and O'Neill in juxtaposition, the better to illuminate the works of each, and perhaps to offer some insights about how these two writers--one with exclusively female personae and the other with predominantly male figures--employed particular imagery and themes.
The problem with studies of relation and influence often involves making a case for the direct association and familiarity of the pair being critically coupled. With Glaspell and O'Neill the case is already made. They not only knew each other but were close colleagues, neighbors, and friends from the period when O'Neill first joined the Provincetown group in 1916 until Glaspell's departure in 1922 to accompany her husband on his pilgrimage to Greece. Agnes Boulton, in Part of a Long Story (1958), recalls the close relationship that existed between her husband of three months and their neighbor, Susan Glaspell, during the summer of 1918 in Provincetown. She says that, besides visiting the Cooks most evenings, O'Neill had a daily ritual that involved meeting with Susan:
The close friendship with Glaspell continued. In a series of letters O'Neill wrote to Agnes in the winter of 1920, while he was in New York preparing for the opening of Beyond the Horizon, he often alluded to Glaspell, even mentioning that he was trying to get Tyler, his producer, to read her new play--probably The Verge. O'Neill reports Tyler's reaction: "that girl has a real touch of genius"--O'Neill underlining girl since Tyler assumed that Glaspell was quite young. Actually, she was 44 at the time.
That O'Neill should try to aid Glaspell was not surprising, since both authors were intimately involved in each other's work as board members of the Provincetown Players. Along with Cook, they were the only permanent members from its inception until 1922. All of O'Neill's biographers record that Glaspell and Cook were the first to hear O'Neill read The Emperor Jones, The Hairy Ape, Diff'rent, and The Dreamy Kid. In Glaspell's own papers, in the Berg Collection of the New York Public Library, are letters indicating her desire to have O'Neill's reactions to her latest works, prior to scheduling them for production by the Provincetown Players.
Glaspell clearly had a unique relationship with O'Neill, disproving the narrow roles that Travis Bogard says women played in O'Neill's life--"wife, mother, mistress, or chatelaine." It was to her more than to Cook that O'Neill seemed to turn in matters concerning the Provincetown. When, for example, he needed the Provincetown subscription list to use for solicitations for his Broadway production of Beyond the Horizon, he asked Agnes to contact the Cooks, since "Now I'm not especially friendly with the queer gang except Jimmy who are at present pervading the P.P." Yet in his next letter, in January 1920, he thanked Susan for her help, and for her suggestions on the matter, indicating that it was she who had come to his aid, not Cook.
Although Glaspell may have fulfilled the roles of editorial adviser and confidant before the advent of Kenneth Macgowan in O'Neill's life, it is as a playwright that she may have had the most significant (albeit unacknowledged) influence on O'Neill. In order to assess this connection, it is essential to sketch briefly the major themes in Glaspell's own canon.
Susan Glaspell was born in Davenport, Iowa on July 1, 1876--six years earlier than her standard biographical listings indicate. As the sea is central to O'Neill, the plains and particularly the corn fields of Iowa and the banks of the Mississippi River are at the heart of Glaspell's writing, as is the image of the pioneers who settled the land. A great granddaughter of the earliest settlers of the area, she constantly marveled over the pioneering spirit. In The Road to the Temple, her biography of her late husband Cook--another child of Iowa pioneers--she asks, "what makes a man who has a farm or an orchard or a mill in Massachusetts or New York where there is room enough for him ... get into a covered wagon and go to Indians, rattlesnakes, to backbreaking work of turning wilderness into productive land." "They go to loneliness and the fears born in loneliness," she says of these pioneers.
Young enough to remember her grandmother's tales of life in Davenport's early decades, Glaspell also recognized the difficulty facing the following generations. How do those who come after retain the pioneering impetus? Far too often they lose the vision that motivated their forebears, commit themselves not to further exploration but rather to fixity and stasis, the very antitheses of what their antecedents sought, creating stutifying institutions in the name of a tradition they do not understand and in fact corrupt. Glaspell suggests that while succeeding generations may not be able to move on physically, they certainly can seek new frontiers of the mind and spirit. Her own emancipation from the narrow confines of conventional second-generation life in Davenport is described as a pioneering venture, when, in 1907 at the urging of Cook and his 16-year-old protégé Floyd Dell, she attended a meeting of free thinkers, called the Monist Society:
This pioneering thrust becomes, I believe, the central paradigm in Glaspell's work. Repeatedly in her plays her personae--all of whom are women--break with the confining forms of society, almost always presented as male-dominated, and reach forward to some new awareness, breaking in the process the traditions of society--traditions usually foisted as the inheritance of the past, but now only stagnant and life-threatening. In Trifles, her most famous play, while the men, representatives of the law, move and talk in linear fashion, crisscrossing the scene of a murder as they crisscross the facts of the case in straight lines, undeviating and fixed in their responses, the women, left to themselves, trace new shapes, piecing together on their own, and almost without volition, the motive for murder and their own ties to the act, quilting a pattern of awareness. The same dichotomy between male fixity--the fixity of a society gone rigid--and female pioneering at the outskirts of that society is repeated in one-act plays (The Outside and Woman's Honor) and in the full-length works Bernice, Chains of Dew, The Comic Artist, Inheritors, and Glaspell's masterpiece, The Verge.
In order to understand Glaspell's connection to and possible influence on O'Neill, it is necessary, I believe, to keep this image of pioneering and the thrust for movement in mind. In Glaspell's historical drama Inheritors, her female hero Madeline Morton says to her college professor Dr. Holden, "Just a little way back--anything might have been. What happened?" He answers (speaking with difficulty), "It got--set too soon." In contrast, when O'Neill was asked to comment on the failure of American society, he attributed it to the inability of the country to "set down roots." While the body of both Glaspell's and O'Neill's writing cannot be fully subsumed under this simple dichotomy, I do think that their opposite reflections on America's failure reveal something about their own writing. In Glaspell's plays, invariably, the protagonists attempt to break with society, leave family and home behind, to become independent--which in Glaspell's world usually means outside of the confines of marriage, family and home: alone and free. In many of O'Neill's plays, the reverse is true. Heroes--males--yearn for the very things Glaspell's women spurn: love, closeness, home, family, and belonging. They are, however, condemned by forces outside of their control to lose what they desire. Chance, fate, nature, duplicity, and sex rob them of their hoped-for fixity and place.
The plays that best offer this dichotomy and make the clearest case for the relation between the two writers are The Verge and The Hairy Ape, which I also choose because in them Glaspell's influence on O'Neill in terms of setting and expressionistic detail is most clearly discernible.
Glaspell wrote The Verge during her sabbatical year's leave from the Provincetown during the 1920-21 season. It opened on November 14, 1921, to a mixed reception. O'Neill was in New York at that time, but he may not have seen the play because he was involved with two openings of his own--Anna Christie and The Straw, on November 1 and 10--after which he returned immediately to Provincetown to begin work on his next play, The Hairy Ape, which he finished in two and a half weeks and read to the Cooks at the end of December.
Keeping with the habit of plumbing European sources rather than more obvious American possibilities, critics fail to cite The Verge as a possible source for Ape. Traditionally they have argued for such works as the film The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari and the German expressionistic play From Morn to Midnight, works O'Neill knew far less well than The Verge. The Kaiser play does have a similar plot to The Hairy Ape, involving a woman who dislodges a young man from his familiar routine and life; but it offers far fewer similarities in staging, scenery manipulation, expressionistic devices, and even plot than Glaspell's work.
Briefly, The Verge is about a botanist, Claire Archer, who experiments with new forms of plant life in an attempt to create what hasn't been before--to pioneer into directions that are unknown, the big leap" as she calls it: "explode their species--because something in them knows they've gone as far as they can go. Something in them knows they're shut into just that. So--go mad--so that life may not be prisoned." Her first attempt is called Edge Vine, but it is a failure, "it does not want to be what hasn't been," it retreats to the familiar form, what Claire calls "going back home," and she rips her creation out by the roots for its lack of daring. Instead she turns her hopes to another form, Breath of Life, that may during the course of the play dare to be "alive in its otherness."
While her experiments with plants may prove successful, Claire's own search for escape into new areas is thwarted by three men appropriately named Tom, Dick, and Harry--soulmate, lover, and stolid husband--and by her daughter, sister, ancestors, and religion. Even language, the only means available to frame her desired quest for "otherness," impedes her. When she attempts to explain what makes her different from those around her, she finds herself limited by the patterning effect of the words she must use: "Stop doing that! Words going into patterns ... thoughts take pattern--then the pattern is the thing." Words limit; they also corrupt, since they are often affixed to the very ideas she wishes to escape. When her conventional sister Adelaide entreats her to think of her responsibilities to her family, Claire shouts at her: "I'm tired of what you do--you and all of you. Life--experience--values--calm--sensitive words which raise their heads as indicators. And you pull them up--to decorate your stagnant little minds and think that makes you--And because you have pulled that word from the life that grew it and you won't let one who's honest, and troubled, try to reach through to--to what she doesn't know is there ..." Her words break off. Glaspell's use of repetition, pauses and incessant logorrhea by a hero who struggles with a language that imposes itself between her desire and herself prefigures the playwrights of later decades who make of the failure of language their theme, and the struggle of characters to articulate the unknown their plot.
In The Verge these struggles for personal escape--for pioneering into new territories--are reinforced by the sets and lighting, both expressionistic. The play is in three acts, the first and third set in Claire's laboratory, the second in her tower retreat. Neither venue is realistic. The laboratory is small with a low back wall and sloping glass ceiling whose vaulting dimensions indicate the direction which Claire desires to go--upward. The tower, that she calls her "thwarted tower," is also expressionistic. The stage directions indicate that "the back is curved, then jagged lines break from that and the front is a queer bulging window--in a curve that leans. The whole structure is as if given a twist by some terrific force--like something wrung." The action of this act is seen through the window, "as if [Glaspell notes] Claire is shut into the tower." On it and on the laboratory strange shadows play, produced in Act One by the patterns of frost, in Act Two by an old-fashioned watchman's lantern, hanging from the ceiling, whose innumerable pricks and slits throw "a marvelous pattern on the curved wall--like some masonry that hasn't been."
The most obvious parallels between The Verge and The Hairy Ape are in these expressionistic details. Light, shadow, and dark become externalizations of the inner struggles of the protagonists in both works. The byplay of light and dark seems to imprison the figures as much as the expressionistic shape of the playing area, with the exception that while Claire's laboratory has a ceiling as frustratingly high as her own dream of flight is, Yank's world is oppressively contained, the ceiling bearing down on him just as the forces in the play will thwart any possibility of movement or escape. While the playing areas in The Verge are the domain of Claire--her workplace, her tower--it is clear that she has no control over who enters and who leaves; Glaspell even indicates that the tower confines her as much as it protects her. She, like Yank, is at the control of others, defined by others, even though in Claire's case she owns the house in which the play is set.
The sound effects in the plays are also strikingly similar. In The Verge a persistent bell repeatedly rings on a barren stage before a trap door opens and Anthony, Claire's assistant, climbs up to the stage from the laboratory's unseen cellar to answer it. In The Hairy Ape, the direction is reversed but the effect is the same: a whistle, from some unseen source above, initiates action and controls from without the movements of the men within the hold of the ship.
One of the most striking similarities between the two plays lies in their endings. In The Verge, Claire overcomes the obstacles created by laconic-husband Harry and torpid-lover Dick, but she is less successful in dealing with soulmate Tom, who in many ways shares her desire to isolate self from the conventions of a society in which both feel alien. Tom is constantly making physical escapes, forays to India, options that seem impossible to Claire, who has repeatedly sought freedom in the past through the more common method for women: marriage, first to an artist who proved capable of drawing only banal portraits, and then to a flyer--the 1922 equivalent, I suppose, of the adventurer. (Unfortunately, as she observes of the second, "man flew and returned to earth the man who left it.") At the end of the play, Tom, giving up the role of understanding friend, finally professes his love and, with it, offers what in Glaspell's plays seems to be the obligatory concomitant: protection and confinement. "I love you, and I will keep you--from fatherness--from harm. You are mine, and you will stay with me! (Roughly) You hear me? You will stay with me!" Tom, whose last name is Edgeworth--a human surrogate for the timid plant that hovered on the edge and retreated to safety in convention--proves to be yet another impediment to Claire, and she handles him with the same stroke she used for the plant in Act One: she strangles him, giving him a hug of death, after which she lapses into insanity. This end is, of course, recreated in The Hairy Ape--except that the death hug is administered by a gorilla rather than a potential spouse; and except that, in O'Neill's play, the hero is acted upon rather than acting.
While there are striking similarities between the two plays, what is even more interesting are the variations and the questions they raise about both Glaspell and O'Neill. To analyze them, let me return to the earlier paradigm of Glaspell's dramas, the pioneering movement. Claire is a pioneer who wishes to move outside of the already established forms. "Stabbed to awareness!--no matter where it takes you, isn't that more than a safe place to stay?" she asks Tom. While Glaspell has Claire lapse into insanity--that all too familiar end, along with suicide, for female heroes who dare to be different--she leaves her character standing with face upturned. She may even leave her victorious, because Claire has repeatedly noted earlier that only in madness does society allow one to escape: "Sanity is a virtue to lock one in."
The Hairy Ape is also about displacement, but of a far different kind. Yank does not desire to move from his initial position; he is forced to, and never in the course of the play--except, O'Neill suggests, "perhaps" in death--does he regain the paradise he had lost. Yank begins by knowing his place and relishing it. He belongs. Through the agency of Mildred--the archetypal Eve causing displacement from the modern Edenic albeit horrific home--Yank is unfixed and set adrift. Having been named and labeled, he becomes obsessed with the power of words he cannot control or understand. Like Claire, he suffers because of the limits of language. Given a form and a name--hairy ape--he rejects it, but is incapable of either substituting another or of reclaiming his lost self or name. However, rather than embracing what his displacement affords him--freedom in a world outside the stokehole--he yearns only to return to the prelapsarian home. His forays in scenes five through eight are clearly substitutes for the desired return to the scene of his safety: the home of the ship. When Yank confronts the gorilla--the natural force he would but cannot be, an animal alive without speech or thought--he is crushed, acted upon, controlled by the force of a fate that makes it impossible for humans to achieve release in reversion, just as it is impossible for mechanistic society to return to clear foam and skies except in sea chanties.
From what I have described, one can conclude that a basic difference between the two playwrights is their angle of vision: O'Neill, committed to a tragic world where human suffering leads to awareness, perhaps, but not to victory; Glaspell, to a more optimistic, meliorative world. (The very image of pioneering is after all comedic, assuming as it does that things will be better somewhere else along the way when the pioneer finally arrives.) While certainly true, the differences between the two point to something beyond tragedy and comedy--to something connected, at least in these two writers, with gender. Seen in juxtaposition, it becomes clear that they unfix the common stereotypes of male/female imagery. Yank does not seek new vistas; he longs for protection and home. Claire does not articulate the status quo, the homing instinct, the civilizing motif that Leslie Fiedler loves to describe; she abjures and renounces it. Simply put, both indicate that traditional imagery may be interchangeable, and not routinely affixed to a work because of the gender of the creator. Additionally, these two works, written by friends at approximately the same time, may almost be seen as mirror images of each other: Yank longing to retain what Claire longs to overcome. Perhaps what we have is an indication of the very different desires of the two playwrights: O'Neill, a loner, seeking fixity and home; and Glaspell, about to leave, seemingly against her will, for Greece because her husband wanted to seek freedom and independence.
In the expressionistic detail of The Verge, and in these more subtle ways, Susan Glaspell was an influence on O'Neill, one that O'Neill scholars will have to deal with now that other critics of American culture, feminist writing, and drama have begun to uncover the power in Glaspell's plays. A good starting point, I would suggest, might be Glaspell's connections to Strange Interlude, O'Neill's own play with a strong female persona, surrounded by her own Tom, Dick, and Harry!
* This paper was delivered at the O'Neill session, chaired by Paul D. Voelker, at the Modern Language Association convention in Chicago on December 28, 1985. Fuller treatment of Glaspell's oeuvre appeared in Professor Ben-Zvi's essay, "Susan Glaspell and Eugene O'Neill," in the Summer-Fall, 1982 issue of the Newsletter, pp. 21-29. --Ed.
© Copyright 1999-2007 eOneill.com