Glaspell Shorts, Orange Tree, London

Click to follow
The Independent Culture

The warmly received UK premiere a few weeks ago of Susan Glaspell's Chains of Dew (1922) created eager anticipation of these three one-act plays by the little-known American writer. Glaspell was part of the rich cultural ferment in Chicago and Greenwich Village that began a few years before the First World War and lasted until the Depression. Her satire of reactionaries and her support of feminists have led admirers to call her the American Ibsen.

Glaspell was a talented writer, but hardly of that stature, as can be seen in The Outside (1917), which dabbles in Ibsen-style mysticism and sea symbolism. It begins with an image of Ibsenesque boldness – a drowned man is brought to the door of a woman who, separated from her husband, lives in a former rescue station. But the play trails off into dialogue that is flowery and portentous: The lonely wife occupies "the edge of life, where life descends to dwarfed things not worth a name"; she is told that "springs will come when you will want to know that it is spring". Svetlana Dimcovic's production and Katie McGuinness's performance as the wife are intelligent and thoughtful, but this kind of pseudo-poetry has outlived its time.

If The Outside is dated, however, Trifles (1916) and Suppressed Desires are, respectively, chilling and charming. Another version of the tale told in Glaspell's best-known work, the short story "A Jury of Her Peers", Trifles is set in a bleak Midwestern farmhouse.

A sheriff and prosecutor are looking for proof of a motive so they can bring a murder charge against the farmer's wife, who claims a stranger strangled her husband while she slept; the men, who are accompanied by the sheriff's wife (exquisite Helen Ryan) and her friend, ridicule the women's absorption in domestic details, but in such apparent trivia the women find the incriminating evidence – and keep it to themselves. The friend even accuses herself of a lack of compassion that might have prevented the murder: "I wish I'd come over here and seen her. That was a crime. Who is going to punish that?"

What's especially touching is the way the two women, in forming their deductions and deciding to break the law, nervously rebel against their own husbands' low opinion of them. Helen Leblique's sensitive production painfully evoke the time – not so long ago, not even past – when women feared not only their spouses but their own contrary thoughts.

In the mischievous Suppressed Desires, busybody Henrietta (the ebullient Ruth Everett) has discovered in self-taught psychoanalysis a wonderful opportunity for dominating her family. So eager is she to interpret her husband's dreams that she wakes the poor man up in the middle of every night to hear the latest one.

Her sister is quizzed about her own husband: "Are you happy with him? Or do you only think you are, or do you only think you ought to be?" If her sister is unsure, Henrietta sternly commands, she must do her duty to herself and leave him. The biter, of course, will soon be bit, when Henrietta's dangerously impressionable sister (sweet, chirpy Pia de Keyser) and her own, exasperated husband (dry, droll David Annen) come up with some dream interpretations of their own. Phoebe Barran's bouncy production of this play of 1915 points up its apt commentary on the sanctimonious self-indulgence of the present.

These shorts make one eager to see Glaspell's most important play, a defence of academic freedom against commercialism, xenophobia, and political interference. It is probably too expensive for the Orange Tree to take on, but if a better-off management will revive The Inheritors, it is guaranteed a work of extraordinary pertinence.

To 19 April (020-8940 3633; www.orangetreetheatre.co.uk)

Comments