Historiographies of Modernity: Susan Glaspell and “Jig” Cook
- Author: Noh Aegyung
- Publish: Feminist Studies in English Literature Volume 21, Issue1, p141~176, Apr 2013
A disparity in the tenors of Susan Glaspell and “Jig” Cook’s modernist projects seems inevitable due to the hierarchical gender relation underneath the “companionate” façade of their marriage. A conspicuous sign of this disparity is the clashing historiographies between male and female characters in
Tickless Time(1918) and Alison’s House(1930). A collaborative short comedy by Glaspell and Cook, Tickless Timepresents a male visionary named Ian, immersed in the task of replacing the “tick” sounds of the clocks and watches at home with a sundial, and his wife who is “afraid of tickless time.” Her emotional and practical attachment to the aural materiality ― “the tick” ― of temporal movement contrasts with her husband’s preference for “eternal time,” which he believes to be delivered by the sundial. The couple may reflect the contrasting historiographies of Glaspell and Cook, one eager for the forward movement of time, and the other returning the present to the mythic and primitive past of civilization in an affinity with the ahistorical “classicism” championed by such celebrated male modernists as Eliot and Joyce. A rather timid female eagerness for temporal movement in Tickless Timeevolves in Alison’s Houseinto feminist optimism about the progress of history. A socially condemned New Woman character in the play greets the dawn of the twentieth-century under auspices of the legacy of a Victorian foremother. Closely reading the two plays, this article aims to explore the clashing historiographies of Glaspell and Cook, and contextualize them within the broader gender politics of Modernism.
Modernist historiographies , gender , Susan Glaspell , George Cram (“Jig”) Cook , Tickless Time , Alison’s House
In a comparative study of the conflicting attitudes of the culture of the nineteenth-century and of the twentieth-century towards history, the historian Carl E. Schorske asserted:
The nineteenth-century “historicism in culture” ― its way of “thinking
withhistory” ― was succeeded by the twentieth-century “modernism in culture” with its way of “thinking withouthistory.” Undoubtedly the greatest master of Modernism, James Joyce thus expressed the Zeitgeist of his day through the voice of a young hero in Ulysses(1919): “History is a nightmare from which I’m trying to awake” (34).
Modernist ahistoricism took diverse forms, from haughty elitism distanced from the culture of the masses to egotism to insistence on the autonomy of art. Most importantly, in representing the chaos of modern life and history the most celebrated modernist writers appropriated myths. T. S. Eliot proclaimed in “
Ulysses, Order, and Myth” (1923) that his much worshipped “classicism” ― “a goal toward which all good literature strives” ― was gloriously manifested by Joyce’s adoption of a “mythical method,” in which the petty daily occurrences in the life of a modern Dubliner are paralleled with a Homeric saga, over a traditional “narrative method”:
The reduction of modern history to some antiquated myths, which Eliot glorified as “the discoveries of an Einstein,” an artistic equivalent of a modern scientific breakthrough, exposes a disconcertingly contradictory side of modernist projects. Because male modernists’ turn to the primordial narratives of civilization for a new literary form to capture the essence of modernity and modern history sabotages the view of history as a future-oriented project hinged on temporal progress and development. Such a circulative notion of history is fundamentally a sign of historical conservatism. The liberal vanguardism in their preoccupation with the invention of new literary forms ― Ezra Pound’s often-cited obsession was with “form, not the form of anything,” his famous mantra “make it new” ― was in contradiction with their reactionary ahistoricism. Predictably, regardless of their formal innovation, their conservative ahistorical cultural politics turned into right-wing political affiliations with the fascist orders installed by Hitler and Mussolini in the cases of Pound and Eliot.
The oxymoronic hybrid of formal innovation and historical conservatism in Modernism meets its theatre version in New York’s Greenwich Village, the epicenter of the American bohemian avant-garde culture in the early twentieth-century: the playwright Susan Glaspell’s husband, who was often nicknamed “Jig,” George Cram Cook (1873-1924) was an ultimate Grecophile who founded the Provincetown Players, a monumental amateur ‘little theatre’ that served as midwife to the birth of American dramatic modernism by staging plays of such celebrated indigenous playwrights as Glaspell and Eugene O’Neill, after the Dionysian theatre he worshipped. His commitment to realizing the collaborative ideal of the ancient Greek drama through his own theatre community shares a certain kinship with the whole modernist project of patterning the present after the mythic and primitive. For him, theatre was fundamentally a group effort to claim back the spiritual energy of its original primitive collectivism. Glaspell records him verbalizing this faith in
The Road to the Temple(1927), her biography of Cook published after his death:
Cook’s vision was of a quasi-tribal art drawing spiritual unity from diverse individuals who could freely move across the boundaries of acting, writing, and producing plays. A group of social revolutionaries and writers who gathered around Cook and Glaspell to inaugurate the Provincetown Players in the summer of 1915 were “the talented elite of that epoch’s counterculture” with “a more conscious desire to lead their own lives and
to express themselves unconventionally” (Sarlós, Jig Cook44-45) bearing resemblance to the demographic profile of Modernism. With the purposeful staging of indigenous playwrights against commercial Broadway and a thirst for “new,” they became a true modernist pioneer in American theatre, as admitted by the Boston Postat the end of their second season: it reported that they did “get away from stage convention” with the aesthetics “so modern that they not only write about modern things but satirize them” (qtd. in Jig Cook33).
As playwright, Cook made his aesthetic commitment to Modernism overt although his talent seems to have consisted more in rallying and inspiring people around his projects than writing. Besides his Eliotian “classicism” of modeling a theatre on the Dionysian theatre of ancient Greece, his plays ― often met with lukewarm to poor receptions by critics and audience, with the exceptions of some short-length collaborations with Glaspell such as
Suppressed Desiresand Tickless Time― display the mythic as well as the avant-garde qualities of Modernism. Change Your Style(1915), staged at the little wharf house improvised as theater in the inaugural year of the Players, features a fledgling painter named Marmaduke Marvin, Jr., whose preference for post-impressionist over traditional and academic style results in a trouble selling his highly abstract cubist painting. The financially troubled modern painter typifies the avant-garde painters of Modernism, who were invited to the Armory Show in 1913, the first public exhibition of modern post-impressionist art in America. The Athenian Women(1918), a rewriting of Aristopanes’ Lysistratawhich was criticized as “the too obvious attempt to state present day problems in terms of Greece” (Sarlós, Jig Cook87), clearly showcases what Eliot meant by the “mythical method” “of controlling, ordering, of giving a shape and a significance to the immense panorama of futility and anarchy which is contemporary history.” Cook’s modernist traits are not limited to this predilection for the mythic and Greek. He was an enthusiastic producer of the world premiere of O’Neill’s Emperor Jones(1920), an epitome of modern primitivism championed by such eminent modernists as Conrad and Lawrence, to a critical acclaim that reassured the nationwide reputation of the Provincetown Players.
Another dramatic innovator bonded by marriage to the charismatic director made her own modernist contribution, which has often been treated as subsidiary to the achievement of O’Neill, a Nobel laureate and more preferred darling of theatre historians. A playwright of greater artistic caliber and discipline than Cook whose historical significance today has shrunk to his role as founder of the Provincetown Players, Glaspell (1876-1948) was the most creative and productive playwright representing the group along with O’Neill, providing eleven plays during her seven-year collaboration with them through the teens and twenties including the critically acclaimed one-act
Trifles(1916) and the experimental feminist masterpiece The Verge(1921). Originally a bestselling novelist whose literary career was begun at the turn of the century in 1902, she made her commitment to theatre in fact “forced” by her husband when she settled in Greenwich Village after their marriage in 1913. Without asking her, Cook abruptly announced a plan to stage a play by her for the second season of the Provincetown Players.2 Glaspell’s panicked protest at what looks like something between demand and command from him ― “you will have to sit down to-morrow and begin one” ― as described in The Road to the Temple(255-56) shows just a small instance illustrating the uneasy master-disciple dynamic between her and the charismatic producer. Until Cook’s death in 1924, Glaspell faithfully followed his often whimsical plans on theatre, writing plays regardless of her will, and later dropping this career when escalating conflicts between the group’s new members and Cook’s leadership drove them to depart for Greece in 1922. In the meantime, she quit the novel, her own genre, undergoing what Veronica Makowski dubbed a “fictional drought” (24). Given that drama was a genre “forced” on her, it is an utter irony that a general consensus among her critics, from Arthur Waterman to C. W. E. Bigsby, is that “it was as a dramatist” rather than as a novelist “that she came closest to realizing her full potential” (Bigsby 30).3
A modernist as well as feminist who challenged male authority and patriarchal norms in writing, Glaspell remained in a rather traditional role when it came to her personal relationship. She was a member of Heterodoxy, the New York-based feminist organization “for unorthodox women” (Schwartz 1), but according to a witness she had “that talent for making men feel appreciated, something they needed, and may not have gotten elsewhere” (Ben-Zvi,
Susan303). Her stepdaughter Nilla, a child from Cook’s second, previous marriage, states that Glaspell “subordinated herself completely, always to the man of the moment, was anything but a feminist, and always sad when work of her own succeeded more than my father’s” (Noe 10). Ann Larabee argues that Glaspell and Cook’s “companionate marriage,” a marital arrangement popularly adopted by the Greenwich Village bohemians in the early twentieth century, camouflaged by its outward rhetoric of gender equality female subservience to men who assumed the de facto exclusive right to “worldliness and authority”: “These wives . . . worked uncomfortably within the language and theory of their husbands, forming, at times, cryptic methods of subversion and resistance” (94).
A disparity in the tenors of Glaspell and Cook’s modernist projects seems inevitable due to the hierarchical gender relation underneath the “companionate” façade of their marriage. It is most conspicuously displayed in their conflicting historical perspectives which look deeply ingrained and old. As a twenty-year-old columnist of the
Weekly Outlookin Davenport, Iowa, between 1896 and 1897 before she entered Drake University, Glaspell expressed in a column her disapproval of those flaunting their genealogical inheritance: “A true aristocrat looks little to the past and much to the future…what our fathers did yesterday reflects small credit on us. It is what we ourselves accomplish today that we are going to be marked by” (qtd. in Ben-Zvi, “The Political” 278). The past-defying and future-oriented fledgling journalist later turned into a writer not abandoning this vision. “Unlike Jig, Susan always looked for seeds of the future,” Robert K. Sarlós states, which manifests through her female protagonists “intent on creating something unprecedented.” By contrast, “from his adolescence, Jig was preoccupied with the passage of time, with signs of that passage, and with the past; even the future he saw as a reclaiming of the past” (“Jig Cook” 254). As Ben-Zvi wittily calls it, he was an “anachronistic holdover” ( Susan255) in love with the great past. It must have been this notion of history as repetitions of the past that eventually led him to worship and practice the Dionysian drama and end his life in Greece.
The couple’s contrasting historical outlooks manifest themselves in their plays. Their collaborative short comedy
Tickless Time(1918) presents a male visionary named Ian, immersed in the task of replacing the “tick” sounds of the clocks and watches at home with a sun-dial, and his wife who is “afraid of tickless time.” The wife’s emotional and practical attachment to the aural materiality ― “the tick” ― of temporal movement contrasts with her husband’s preference for “eternal time,” which he believes to be delivered by the sun-dial. They may reflect the contrasting historiographies of Glaspell and Cook, one eager for the forward movement of time and the other returning the present to the mythic and primitive past of civilization and thus displaying some affinity with the ahistorical “classicism” championed by such celebrated male modernists as Eliot and Joyce. A rather timid female eagerness for temporal movement in Tickless Timeevolves in Alison’s House(1930), a Pulitzer-winning three-act play by Glaspell, into feminist optimism about historical progress: a socially ostracized New Woman character in the play greets the dawn of the twentieth-century under auspices of the legacy of a Victorian foremother. The following two sections of this article will examine the clashing historiographies of Glaspell and Cook, each looking towards future and past, by a close reading of the two plays, and locate them within the broader gender politics of Modernism.
2While her public statement was “when in 1915 my husband organized the Provincetown Players I became interested in writing for the theatre,” she corrected it in an unpublished note: “I began writing plays because . . . Cook ‘forced me to’ . . . . I didn’t want my marriage to break up so I wrote ‘Trifles’ [sic]” (Larabee 97-98). 3One of the earliest Glaspell scholars, Waterman stated that “there is no question . . . that Susan Glaspell’s importance to our literature derives primarily from her dramatic achievement” (119).
Cook’s temporal consciousness as modernist who “loved all things that record time” (Glaspell,
The Roadvii) is caricatured in Tickless Time, a one-act comedy written in collaboration with Glaspell and premiered by the Provincetown Players. Ian Joyce, its central male character, builds a sun-dial in his front yard in the firm belief that it will bring him to “a first-hand relation with truth.” In defiance of time standardized by the mechanical arbitration of clocks, he demands that his hesitant wife, Eloise, convert to the use of the sun-dial. Ian’s Apollonian worship of a primitive measurement of modern life is in a similar vein to modernists’ reliance on the mythic and primitive to give a sense of order to the chaos of modern life and history. Like them, Ian holds the view that something universal -- “truth” that is “original” ― may emanate from the Apollonian sculpture he built to measure modern time. Pressing Eloise to share this belief, he speaks:
But Eloise’s conversion to his unfamiliar system involves a rather painful ritual of burying all the clocks and watches at home into the “graves” dug behind the sun-dial:
Despite her eventual, rather blind conversion to Ian’s scheme, Eloise is not without qualms about it. For example, finding his relentless death verdict on her cherished cuckoo clock too extreme, she protests, “I like to hear the ticking of a clock,” for “this was a wedding present” from her friends (82). This male-female dynamic of the one pushing his idea and the other pressed and patronized to embrace it, or the one dumping a wedding present ― a symbol of blissful marriage ― without a second thought and the other trying to salvage it, remains a jarring backdrop behind the buoyant mood of the whole comedy. When their friends ― the couple Eddy, “a Standardized Mind,” and Alice, “a Standardized Wife” (80) ― arrive, Eloise, persuaded by Ian, begins to parrot his praise of the sun-dial. She declares she is done with clocks, the “approximations arbitrarily and falsely imposed upon us” and “the lies we inherited” that now “lie buried there” (85) in the graves.
Ian’s idiosyncratic notion of time delivered to the “standardized” crowds evokes the proud elitism discovered in modernists, who posited themselves as visionary individuals in battle with the collective bourgeois culture.4 While the culture of machines such as alarm clocks is generally considered a symptom of modernity, it falls prey to the cultural battle of modernists insofar as it serves cultural collectivism. This is the nature of a cultural battle waged by Ian, whose break with clocks means a break with the collective as well as mechanical modern culture. By contrast, Eddy, “a Standardized Mind,” as his character is defined so, says he prefers the collective wisdom of humanity to “ideal time” proposed by Ian, for he believes that “the ticking of a clock means the minds of many men” (88). Gathering some elitist arrogance from Ian’s insistence on solar time with its benefit of “a first-hand relation with truth,” Eddy and Alice throw quite “standardized” questions to him and his follower Eloise: “How are you going to connect up with other people?”; “Do you mean to say that you are going to insist on being right when other people are wrong?” (86)
Comic relief emerges when the sun-dial is found to have some critical defects. These issues are partially and rather vaguely raised early in the play in a dialogue between Eloise and her neighbor Mrs. Stubbs, when they talk about a confusing dinner schedule in case they should count on the sun-dial. They receive a fuller exposure later: the sun-dial is twenty minutes ahead of the standard Eastern time, and what is worse, it “only tells the right sun-time four days in the year” (87). Eloise is astounded at the math needed by adding or subtracting minutes for the adjustment of one time plan to the other. To make matters worse, after several frantic trips back and forth between the kitchen and the sun-dial to time the cooking of dinner, Annie, the cook, calls it quits, packing her suitcase for want of any clock to consult. The alarm-clock is hurriedly dug up from the grave to avoid the practical problem of losing a cook. Ending all the fuss is Mrs. Stubbs who enacts the role of a much needed
deus ex machinaby saying, “let them that want sun time have sun time and them that want tick time have tick time” (91). Tickless Timeoffers a revealing, though a bit hyperbolic, picture of gender politics within Modernism, whose leading figures were mostly male. More importantly, its comic portrayal of the modernist gender politics is rooted in the marital scenes of Glaspell and Cook, the play’s co-authors. In The Road to the Temple, Glaspell describes Cook molding a sun-dial at the garden of their Provincetown home in the same year that the play was premiered. It was equipped with a base held up by four nude figures for which Glaspell posed as model. She assisted him, similarly to Eloise, by supplying plaster and water (281). Ian’s worship of the sun-dial as a source of “eternal time” (84) reflects the Grecophile writer and director’s adoration of things “eternal,” which he often associated with Greek civilization. No wonder his final settlement was in Greece, where he died in 1924 to Glaspell’s utter devastation.
What is missing in the scanty volume of scholarly comments on
Tickless Time, which is mostly due to its reprint being only recently available ― included in Complete Plays by Susan Glaspell(2010), edited by Linda Ben-Zvi and J. Ellen Gainor ― since its first publication in 1920, is that the gender roles in the play are interwoven with the gender politics of Modernism played out in Glaspell and Cook’s own marriage.5 Among the commentators on the play, only J. Ellen Gainor brieflymentions its gender issue: after mentioning the play’s humor on a certain fanaticism ― the “audience is led to see the ludicrousness of such fanaticism and to expect a more measured perspective to prevail in the end” (89) ― she remarks on the “characters conforming to deeply rooted conventions of heterosexual gender behavior, including an intellectually domineering and condescending husband who masks his superiority through the guise of protectiveness and a flighty, shallow, and emotional wife who relies on her husband for guidance” (91). While the play undeniably critiques as its major theme a machine-operated modern culture on one hand and some extreme fanatic/modernist antidote to this mechanical and dehumanizing modernity on the other, its caricatures of a modernist-type visionary and his less intellectual wife indeed call for a feminist reappraisal of the kind of Modernism led by male artists, such as Ian and his real model Cook. This type of a critical look at the play’s male modernist character is more appealing and justified by the fact that, unlike what is officially known about the play being credited to both Glaspell and Cook, Ben-Zvi in her biography of Glaspell infers that “hers was the dominant hand in shaping the work” (207), based on Cook’s correspondence with Glaspell about the time when it was composed. If this is true, Glaspell’s own feminist satire on male modernists (her husband included), as exemplified in the character of Ian, gets much easier for us to see.
Also needing to be supplemented to the problematic gender roles in the play, which I see as reflecting a gender hierarchy in Glaspell and Cook’s own marriage as well as in the cultural politics of Modernism, are the clashing perspectives between a male visionary and the female characters over the “tick” of the clock, the aural unit of time and, by extension, of history. Eloise objects to Ian’s burial of “the clock [which] my grandmother started housekeeping with” (83), but he dismisses this objection saying it is why her grandmother turned into “a meticulous old woman” “with a standardized mind” who “lacked scope” (83). Regardless of Eloise’s preference for or abhorrence of mechanical modernity represented by the clock, it functions here as an innocently symbolic object loaded with the history of her foremother’s domestic labor, her unappreciated sweat at home. Not only is Eloise’s grandmother slandered, but the female characters are mostly handicapped by Ian’s new time project. Their domestic schedules are jumbled, particularly related to cooking. Eloise, Mrs. Stubbs, and the cook Annie all find it too taxing with no clock around to meet their customary mealtime. Eloise thus warns Mrs. Stubbs against offering a cold dinner to her husband if she strictly observed the sun-dial. Hence her ironic advice to this neighbor: “Mrs. Stubbs had better be false and arbitrary too. Mr. Stubbs might rather have his supper than the truth” (84). Eloise lists other inconveniences about the sun-dial as well, but all the practical problems predicted by her, such as failed train schedules, missed dentist appointments, and the late arrival of guests for dinner, are too randomly refuted by Ian:
Naturally attached to the sound of “tick,” and feeling estranged from Ian’s vision of “a first-hand relation with truth” carried out by the sun-dial, Eloise shouts out at one point of the play, although she will succumb to him later: “I need a tick! I am afraid of tickless time!” (83). Ian’s solar project pitted against the tick of the clock that his wife is emotionally attached to appears to be a metaphor about a male genius who is interrupted and challenged by a female partner with more practical and emotional concerns. No wonder it is always the women, Eloise and Mrs. Stubbs, who are subject to Ian’s repeated complaints: “you are in the way of the sun” (81, 84). Hinting at women’s interruptions in his Apollonian project, and degrading, as discussed earlier, their (the grandmother’s) history of domesticity in which the practical management of time -- through the tick of the clock ― mattered much, Ian positions himself as a man with “scope” free of “standardized mind,” the opposite of Eloise, and her grandmother. Then, his burial of clocks ― “And now ― a little grave for little clocks” (83), he says to Eloise ― symbolically connotes his disregard for women with their history of domesticity. Despite his self-promotion as an innovator of form, he is trapped in the antiquated patriarchal norms of gender hierarchy. The whole play thus becomes Glaspell’s ― if she really was a major hand in the writing of the play, as suggested by Ben-Zvi ― satirical attack on the self-contradictory male Modernism which was preoccupied with formal invention while stuck in the old paradigms of gender. This probably explains why Ian prefers the “tickless” “eternal time,” something set and stabilized, to the “tick” of the clock, an aural reminder of temporal
movement. Following in the footsteps of Eliot and Joyce whose formal invention was conjoined with historical conservatism, Ian and, by extension, Cook, his putative real model, adhere to the backward and reactionary historiography of male Modernism.
Suppressed Desires(1915), another collaborative comedy between Glaspell and Cook that dramatized the contemporary frenzy over Freudian psychoanalytic treatment, Tickless Timealso comments on a discovery of modern science, as Marcia Noe and Robert Marlowe noted (57): Absolute Time as pursued by Ian was proved impossible by Einstein’s theory of relativity, which propounded that the rate of the passage of time is relative to the inertial frame of reference of those perceiving it. They argue both plays were “Glaspell and Cook’s critique of the modernist impulse to eschew convention and conformity, subvert established aesthetic norms, and attain personal growth and authenticity by embracing new scientific and psychological theories” (52). Indeed, Tickless Timepungently satirizes both “modernism” with its “experimentation with the limits of form itself,” and “the limits of traditional thinking and idealist notions about the cosmos through Ian’s failure” (58). Yet, the writers’ critique of the modernist impulse in the play involves a rather too direct self-mockery, for its satirical attack is heavily concentrated on a male visionary driven by the oxymoronic amalgam of modernist formalism and old idealist metaphysics. He appears to be a very reincarnation of Cook, the sun-dial builder driven by his own demons of idealistic notions and inventive urge.
4On this topic, see Raymond Williams, The Politics of Modernism: Against the New Conformists (London and New York: Verso, 1989). 5For example, Ben-Zvi regarded the play as “a hilarious spoof of dreamers and the pitfalls they face” (Susan 207); Noe and Marlowe, a response to the contemporary scientific concerns with space and time advanced by Einstein; and Gainor, “a response to then current concerns with the growth of industrialism in America” and “the conflict between natural truth and industrial progress” (87-88).
Tickless Timepresents a key male figure reflecting Cook’s reactionary historiography as male modernist, Glaspell’s last published play Alison’s Houseoffers a feminist obverse of this regressive historical outlook of male Modernism through certain optimism about the progress of time and history. Centered around a family of a fictional Victorian poet named Alison Stanhope who “has been dead eighteen years” (5), its plot consists of their doting memories of her and debate over how to deal with the increasing public curiosity in her secluded life. As the play’s premiere performance in 1930 concurred with the centenary celebration of the birth of Emily Dickinson, critics quickly supposed that Alison’s character was based on the legendary “Myth” of Amherst.6 The image of Alison as described by her nephew and niece ― “wearing a white dress” with “her brown hair . . . parted in the middle, and held loosely at the neck . . . looking straight ahead, as if into something” (124), and giving them “an apple -- pebble from the river ― little cakes she’d baked . . . always her jolly little verses with them” (36) ― closely matches that of Dickinson publicly known through her photo and biographies. Alison’s newly discovered poems on the “anguish and beauty of her [adulterous] love” (139) recalls Dickinson’s unconsummated passion for a married man, a tale spread by the 1924 biography written by her niece, Martha Dickinson Bianchi.7 Retelling the myth of Dickinson and her literary legacy, the Pulitzer-winning three-act play presents an instance of “biographical dramas about women writers” (195), which, according to Anita Plath Helle, ultimately aims at “the creation of a new literary history” (196). As Glaspell’s dramatic “new literary history” built upon re-invented names and chronology, Alison’s Houseends on the positive note of historical progress, with a Victorian poet’s legacy freed from the oppressive puritan ideology of emotional repression and privacy at the first stroke of the clock ushering in the twentieth-century, and more importantly, by the active intervention of a New Woman character named Elsa.
Set in Alison’s old homestead on the Mississippi, on “the last day of the nineteenth century, December 31, 1899” (3),
Alison’s Housebegins with a reporter from Chicago arriving to cover the last moments of the poet’s house, now cleared by her family. They are gathered there in preparation for the poet’s infirm sister, Agatha, to move out. The public frenzy around the late poet’s private life is perceptible, with the reporter (Knowles) begging for a peek into her writing room, and her college-attending youngest nephew Ted irking the family by trying to seize some details of her private life for the purpose of reporting them to his English professor. The characters undergo a generational divide regarding whether Alison, now reevaluated as “different” and a “rebel” (13), “belongs to the world” or “to just us” (25). Agatha, who “worshipped” and “guarded” Alison “her whole life through” (119), has kept the house alone since her death, and now she even sets fire to the poet’s room, though in vain, to protect “what Alison left” (24). The poet’s brother John Stanhope (Stanhope hereafter) stands on her side trying to protect the “sense of family” (71), “hold a family together,” and “have some pride” (72). He wishes to leave Alison’s legacy as private, and he would rather have it “destroyed” (69) than exploited. Another character wary against the attempts “to snatch . . . sensationalism” (15) from the family is Louise, his daughter-in-law, who is “too serious” a prig about “the law of life” (16) to add to the voice of the young.
A turning point is brought by Agatha, who changes her mind just before her sudden death in the second act. With a short dying wish, “For ― Elsa” (107), she passes on Alison’s unknown love poems, contained in a “leather portfolio,” to Stanhope’s daughter Elsa, a social rebel who “ran away with the husband of [Louise’s] best friend” (77) and has just come back to the house. Elsa “did so want to come” to Alison’s house for “the last time.” “It wasn’t that I wanted to. I had to” (113), she says, suggesting that she was summoned by some mysterious call from the poet. Stanhope believes Elsa “harmed” and “disgraced” (71) the family, comparing her transgression with his and Alison’s forbidden loves abandoned long ago. Yet reading Alison’s poems, “the story she never told” about the “anguish and beauty of her love” (139), he regrets having thwarted Alison’s love for a married English professor: “In this room I asked her to stay. He was below” (140). Elsa realizes that this must have been “a death” for the poet, which was written into “life eternal” in her poetry so that it could be “found” later (141). For the rest of the play, a generational clash unfolds regarding the fate of Alison’s poems. The young claim that “they are for the world” (148), while Stanhope refuses “to show her heart to the world” (142), wishing to destroy the poems before “her century” (142) goes, as it will protect his sister’s “intimate papers” against the “vulgar world” (145). A strong opposition to this puritan and patriarchal imprisonment of Alison’s legacy within a private space is raised by Elsa, a new woman playing a nemesis to the Victorian patriarch: “It’s Alison’s heart. You wouldn’t keep that from -- living in the world she loved” (146). Ann, the family’s young secretary and daughter of Stanhope’s suppressed lover of old, who has now fallen in love with the reporter Knowles, joins the young voice. She begs Stanhope to give Elsa the final decision on the poems, “because Alison said it ― for women” (150), and let Alison “speak for Elsa, Mother, and me” (150), the women in love, past and present. At the clock’s stroke ushering in the twentieth-century, the play ends with Stanhope, an embodiment of Victorian patriarchal values, surrendering to his daughter, a new woman condemned for making a daring choice so different from that of her Victorian foremothers, and acknowledging the poems as Alison’s “little gifts” “from her century to yours . . . For Elsa ― From Alison” (154).
A sexually liberated new woman who chose love over social convention is adopted as an heir to the literary “gifts” from a Victorian poet, a victim of “an age when people did not tell their love” (149-50). Reflected in the solidarity established between two generations of women in love are Glaspell’s feeling about her own adulterous love with Cook, which wound up with marriage in the end, and her often-cited credo put in
The Road to the Temple: “To succeed in love is the greatest beauty in life. Love is fulfillment, and the great ordeal” (389). When Louise reproaches Elsa for eloping with a lover ― “You can’t run away with a married man ― live with a man who has a wife and children and not be talked about” (13), it closely echoes Glaspell’s own affair with a twice married man with children, which scandalized her Iowa hometown.
This aspect of the playwright’s personal life was central to the reading of the play by the eminent drama critic Bigsby, who criticized her on the point that “the moral complexities of her originally adulterous affair with Jig Cook never really seem to have ceased fascinating her” (26), and that she was “intent on offering yet another justification for herself and her actions” (27-28). But, as Gainor put it, it is too “simplistic” to dismiss the play as some “therapeutic exercise to relieve feelings of guilt” (232). Apart from the author’s personal experience, the adulterous love thematized in the play could be equally considered, I believe, as a metonymic representation of broader feminist issues at the
fin de siècle, since the sexual liberation of the “New Woman” was such a central agenda amid the so-called “sexual anarchy” which characterized the era’s decadent culture according to Showalter.8 More importantly, such a “simplistic” assessment of the play as Bigsby’s fails to consider that the theme of adulterous love in the play is intertwined with the issue of woman’s writing: Alison’s poems serve as the palimpsests of the patriarchal and puritan oppression of not only women’s emotional life but its public display through writing. Then, Glaspell’s additional major agenda should be a protest against the male-dominated literary history that had rendered the writings of talented literary women unseen― “anonymity runs in their blood” (50), deplored Virginia Woolf ― to the public eyes. In that respect, it is intentionally designed that Alison, a literary foremother of Elsa, is absent on stage and wasanonymous when alive, just like Dickinson, the quintessential embodiment of female absence and anonymity in the literary marketplace who chanted “Absence disembodies ― so does Death / Hiding individuals from the Earth” (J 860) and diminished her existence to “Nobody,” finding it “dreary ― to be ― Somebody” (J 288).9 The playwright extends her solidarity to the Victorian poet redeeming her from the antiquated role of a patriarchal victim by turning her literary legacy into a liberating and immortal agency for the women of the past and the present. This is obvious when Ann, of the young generation, asks Stanhope to “let her [poems] speak for Elsa, and Mother, and me” (150). What Glaspell ultimately did by writing Alison’s Houseis to redeem her literary foremother from the patriarchal prison of privacy, absence, and anonymity, and pay a long-overdue tribute to a literary tradition of her own in an attempt to re-write the status of the women writers who had been exiled to what Annette Kolodny termed “the isolated islands of symbolic significance” (54) in American literary history.
Yet as a New Woman writer, Glaspell could not embrace Alison/Dickinson simply as a positive precursor and role model, for the poet equally embodies a cautionary tale of Victorian womanhood. As Gilbert and Gubar noted in their very brief discussion of
Alison’s Housein No Man’s Land: The Place of the Woman Writer in the Twentieth-Century, Volume I, The War of the Words(1988), the playwright’s portrayal of Dickinson is a case of “ambivalent acts of obeisance to female precursors”: while Alison’s poems are benedictory “gifts” ― “life eternal” ― to her metaphorical daughters, her life is “a monitory example of loneliness that never died, loneliness which her descendents must therefore eternally confront” (209). Nevertheless, Glaspell’s legitimization of a socially stigmatized, but loneliness-defying new woman as heir to her legacy ― the poet’s work as well as loneliness ― ends the play on a positive note hinting at a better feminist future for the younger generation. This is evinced by Elsa’s hopeful anticipation about her socially condemned love. “Glad I have love,” she says, for she anticipates that Alison may be “glad I am not alone”:
In all probability, Glaspell projects her own wish into a young avatar by designing her to posit a poet mother as an ultimate authority to bless her rebellious love. Historical optimism comes to the fore with the Victorian poet’s legacy mediating the cultural transition between the end of the oppressive old era and the dawn of modernity, whose promise is presented in the form of a woman’s liberation from the puritan/Victorian ideals of privacy and emotional repression.
Through a reordering of the biographical material ― replacing Dickinson, dead in 1886, with Alison, dead five years earlier, and Lavinia, her sister, with Agatha, both dead in the last year of the nineteenth-century ― Glaspell follows her own logic of time re-chronicling the shift from “the blackest page of our history” (92), the so-called Alison’s century, to the dawn of the twentieth-century. The whole nineteenth-century receives her idiosyncratic feminist re-evaluation: Eben, the poetically gifted first son of Stanhope speaks for Glaspell as he mourns over Alison’s “century going ― her century . . . the whole century being piled on top of her, that she couldn’t get out from under” (36-7), implying the weight of patriarchal oppression over a talented literary woman confined in the private sphere of domesticity.
The turn of the century ― “December 31, 1899” (3) ― set as the midpoint between the dark Victorian past and the hope-loaded feminist future in the twentieth century leaves us wondering at the historical vision that drove Glaspell to draw such an
arbitrarydemarcation of historical time. An explanatory frame of reference for this can be found in Showalter’s study on the culture at the fin de siècle. It is “the metaphors of death and rebirth that we project onto the final decades and years of a century.” In nature, these metaphors employed to convey our “sense of an ending” are subjective, and similar to what Frank Kermode meant by the projection of our “existential anxiety” “on to history.” The sense of an ending we hold with respect to the end of an era has little to do with the objective and factual, for fundamentally it is generated by the tricks of our “imagination” ( Sexual Anarchy2). Then, we may take the historically re-imagined turn of the century by Glaspell as a temporal metaphor pregnant with the sense of “death and rebirth” that was bred from her historical “anxiety” and “imagination”: say, the “death” of Victorian women under oppression ― Alison and Agatha ― and their “rebirth” into New Women ― Elsa and Ann. Yet a lingering question is why Glaspell revisited the historical past to show the future prospect of women’s progress. What possibly kindled her interest, circa 1929 through 1930, the time when the play was conceived and composed, to look back on the historical past? In addition, is that method much different from the reactionary and regressive historiography of male Modernism as exemplified by Cook?
A common sense tells us that we may become retrospective and nostalgic when our present does not measure up to our past. A list of things on both social and personal levels may have amounted to the disappointing present for Glaspell in the late 1920’s before the premiere and publication of
Alison’s House. On the social level, a popular sentiment of American women during the period was that their life had not much improved since their suffragist struggle and victory. Widely divided feminist fronts failed to capitalize on that suffragist victory and push further on social reforms of women’s interest:
In addition, the raging anti-liberal cultural politics of the Red Scare pushed them to the corner. The gloom over Heterodoxy, a radical feminist club “for unorthodox women” of which Glaspell was a member, illustrates the feminist deadlock at the time:
The unfavorable political and cultural climate for the feminist fronts perhaps drove Glaspell to look back on the time into which she could better project the prospect of women’s progress.
On the personal level, in the mid- through late twenties Glaspell had to part from the collaborative legacy with Cook. Until his death in 1924, she had been a submissive wife and self-degrading partner with the charismatic director and writer: she collaborated in the Provincetown Players writing dramas on his demand, sacrificing her true passion for the novel; when Cook fell apart from the Players, she faithfully followed him to Greece, which was his idea of an ideal place to settle in. After his death, for nearly three years she was wholly devoted to editing and writing about his legacy and literary achievements:
Greek Coins: Poems by George Cram Cook(1925) and The Road to the Temple(1927), a biographical paean to him. Then, Alison’s Houseturns Glaspell’s clock from the teens and twenties, when she was associated with Cook through marriage, dramatic collaboration, and literary commemoration, back to the turn of the century, when she was a fledgling journalist, fiction writer, and single. Working for a local newspaper in Des Moines, Iowa, after graduating from college, she empathetically reported in 1901 on the trial of an old Midwestern farmhouse wife convicted of killing her husband, and it was a material to be picked up fifteen years later for her first independent one-act drama Trifles. Having boldly dropped a short fling with journalism, she returned home in 1902 to be a professional novelist. It was a pivotal moment of Glaspell’s life, a moment of her “rebirth” as an artist and writer. Compared with her life between the 1910’s and 20’s, as wife and playwright collaborating with an authoritarian husband, this earliest phase of her literary career at the turn of the twentieth century is marked by some perky youthfulness and independence of an educated new woman. By turning back to the turn of the century, Glaspell may have desired to re-boost her morale of independence, which she wanted most after Cook was gone.
This historical retrospection of Glaspell’s can be misunderstood as of a kind with the reactionary and regressive historiography of male Modernism. However, her return to the past, which I explained in terms of the political climate and the personal circumstance she was situated in, is distinct from the other’s circulative notion of history by holding to a faith in the linear progress of history. This faith originates in the peculiar position of women with respect to the dissolution of the nineteenth-century. As Raymond Williams remarked, “When a social order is dying, it grieves for itself, but at that very time it might be expected that all those who have suffered under it can at last release quite opposite feelings: of relief, at least; or of confident reconstruction; or of rejoicing” (97). The “feelings of relief” and “of confident reconstruction” exuded by Elsa who is triumphant over and hopeful for the upcoming century at the end of
Alison’s Housesuggest it is women “who have suffered” under the “dying” “order” and men who should “grieve” for its death knell.
These contrary positions of men and women may have determined either backward or forward historiographies of Cook and Glaspell. Again, Showalter makes a case for Glaspell’s future-oriented progressive feminist historiography, as opposed to its conservative male counterpart, in her pointed observation that “while male artists in the
fin de sièclesaw the prospects of a coming apocalypse, and feared the death of familiar structures, even the death of literature, women writers had less to lose in the disappearance of old cultural forms and much to hope for in the birth of a new century” ( Daughters of Decadencexviii). A feminist modernist, Glaspell would rather choose historical naivety, the naïve idealism of women’s progress, than the conservative historiography of male Modernism while risking herself being labeled as idealist. Defying the “classic” norms of gender, her historical optimism should be a feminist counterpoint to the ahistorical “classicism” of male modernists. Hers should not be dismissed as an idiosyncratic vision, for Gertrude Stein, despite her pro-fascist stance, celebrated the American history as “a space of time that is filled always filled with moving” (258), contrary to Eliot who hymned static and eternal time in Four Quartets(1943).
6Waterman, for example, asserted that Alison is “a thinly disguised Emily Dickinson” (87). The play’s earliest reviewers, between 1930 and 1931, made similar comments. For a detailed account of these, see Mary Papke, 92-97. Katharine Rodier’s award-winning essay offers an excellent survey of the biographic sources and parallels between the play and the Dickinson biographies. The young Mabel Loomis Todd, who later became a mistress of Dickinson’s brother Austin and editor of her poetry collections in the 1890’s, described the poet in a letter as “the character of Amherst . . . a lady whom the people call the ‘Myth’: She has not been outside of her house in fifteen years . . . . She dresses wholly in white, and her mind is said to be perfectly wonderful” (qtd. in Gilbert and Gubar, The Norton 839). 7About her aunt’s secret love, Bianchi wrote: “It was instantaneous, overwhelming, impossible. There is no doubt that two predestined souls were kept apart only by her high sense of duty, and the necessity for preserving love untarnished by the inevitable destruction of another woman’s life” (47). 8Showalter examines “New Woman” as part of the “sexual anarchy” characterizing the culture at the fin de siècle in the third chapter of Sexual Anarchy: Gender and Culture at the Fin de Siècle (London: Virago, 1992). 9Dickinson’s poems in the text are from Thomas H. Johnson’s edition of The Complete Poems of Emily Dickinson (Boston: Little, Brown and Company, 1960). References to her work are cited parenthetically with the editor’s initial “J” followed by their numbers in the edition.