Wednesday, July 31, 2013

TRIFLES, two short plays with connected themes at The Shaw

Besides their full-length productions, The Shaw Festival offers a lunchtime feature.  It often is an hour play, offered at 11:30 AM.  This season the selection is two one-acts by different authors, who have a professional connection and feature a connected theme.  The program contains TRIFLES by Susan Glaspell and Eugene O’Neill’s A WIFE FOR A LIFE.


Susan Glaspell, who lived from the late nineteenth century until the mid-twentieth, is noted for her semi-autographical stories and plays which dealt with such issues as gender and ethics, which is represented by characters with principled stands.  She was awarded the Pulitzer-prize and, with her husband, George Cook, founded the Provincetown Players, one of the first American theatres dedicated to modern plays.  Ironic for the coupling of the two Shaw presentations, she is noted for having discovered and nurtured Eugene O’Neil.  The duo are recognized as founders of the American realistic theatre movement.

TRIFLES, an example of early feminist drama, is loosely based on the murder of John Hossack, the subject of a series of articles published by Glaspell, while working for the Des Moines Daily News.  Hossack’s wife was accused of killing her husband, who claimed that an intruder had killed him.  She was convicted, but the sentence was later overturned on appeal.

In TRIFLES we find Mrs. Peters and Mrs. Hale, friends of the reclusive woman, empathizing with her and suspecting that her lack of socializing was caused by an abusive husband.  While searching the kitchen they find a strangled canary, the most prized possession of the woman, hidden in a sewing kit.  The canary was killed in the same way as the husband. 

The male investigators, displaying their chauvinistic attitudes, overlook all of the kitchen area.  As the sheriff says, “Nothing here but kitchen things,” thus characterizing women and their environment as irrelevant and overlooking an important clue.

Glaspell uses the caged bird and its death as a symbol for her view of male dominance and the subordination of women in society.

Shaw’s production, under the direction of Meg Roe is well done.  The backwoods setting and language are nicely etched.  Jeff Irving (County Attorney), Kaylee Harwood (Mrs. Peters), Graeme Somerville (Sheriff Peters), Benedict Campell (Lewis Hale) and Julain Molnar (Mrs. Hale) are all effective in developing clear characters.


Eugene O’Neill, one of the most important of realistic modern American writers, led a life of depression and alcoholism.  The Irish American playwright was a Nobel Laureate in Literature who wrote of characters on the fringes of society, much like himself.  These people often slide into disillusionment and despair.  Most of his works were dramas.  These included ANNA CHRISTIE, DESIRE UNDER THE ELMS, MOURNING BECOMES ELECTRA, and THE ICEMAN COMMETH.  He won numerous Pulitzer Prizes.

A WIFE FOR A LIFE was one of O’Neill’s earliest works, which the writer often referred to as a vaudeville skit and once said that it was the worst play he had ever written.  Ironically, it set the tone for many of the writer’s later works, which usually centered on male characters. 

The script is also unusual as it falls in the theatrical genre of “frontier play,” a mode which O’Neill never used again.

The play concerns a young prospector who is in love with a young woman who turns out to be the wife of his older gold mining partner.  The older man is unaware of it, but he soon acknowledges the relationship, but does not let on.  At the end, the young man leaves to pursue his love, leaving the partner behind.

The script ends with: “THE OLDER MAN(sits down by the camp fire and buries face in his hands. Finally he rouses himself with an effort, stirs the camp fire and smiling with a whimsical sadness and  softly quotes:) Greater love hath no man than this: that he giveth his wife for his friend.” 

Though not necessarily biographical, a few months before he wrote A WIFE FOR A LIFE, O’Neill was in a similar situation when he went on a mining expedition and fell in love with the young wife of the engineer of the group.  It appears, however, he never acted on his feelings.

Shaw’s production is well conceived and nicely acted by Benedict Campbell (Older Man) and Jeff Irving (Jack, the younger man).  The simple set works well.

Both plays concern marriage and turn on the actions of an absent wife, a wife for life. As the director’s notes in the program states, “both plays speak of longing, absence, isolation and searching.” They both derive from the writers personal experiences.  They differ however in the way in which the husband treats his spouse.

Capsule judgement: --TRIFLES is an interesting quick venture in the theatre which presents two pillars of theatrical writing in early works.  It’s worth seeing this production  to experience how Susan Glaspell and Eugene O’Neil give glimpses of their talents in these early endeavors.

TRIFLES runs through October 12 in the Court House Theatre. For more information or to purchase tickets, visit or call 1-800-511-7429.