Day #2 at the 2013 Shaw Festival began with a lunchtime theater production of Trifles. The lunchtime programs are often little gems. They are always short programs without intermissions; Trifles ran about 45 minutes, allowing theater-goers time to get a quick lunch before the curtain of the 2:00 matinée.
I was intrigued to see Trifles for several reasons. It is two one-act plays by different playwrights being performed together. Both plays were unknown to me. Indeed one of the playwrights, Susan Glaspell, was new to me. Glaspell’s 1916 play, also called Trifles, was her first play. She would go on the write more plays as well as novels and short stories. She won the Pulitzer Prize for Drama in 1931 for her play Alison’s House.
Glaspell’s Trifles is, fundamentally, a murder mystery with a strong feminist message. To contemporary ears the feminism sounds a bit heavy-handed but, considering the play was written almost 100 years ago, the concepts must have sounded very revolutionary indeed. Quilting, an activity that would have been seen, at the time, as unique to women, is a key metaphor; not least because, in the end, it is the women who ‘piece together’ what really happened while the male authorities as unaware and, it appears, likely to remain so.
The second of the two plays, the one by a playwright with whose work i am familiar, was A Wife For A Life by Eugene O’Neill. Written in 1913, it was O’Neill’s first play. It tells the story of two miners prospecting in a remote area who have a shared history about which only one of them is aware. The play is not very good. The length makes it impossible to develop the plot with any subtlety, so it is transparent, and much of the language is ‘stagey’ and ‘preachy’. It feels like blasphemy to write such a thing. O’Neill won the Pulitzer Prize for Drama four times as well as the Nobel Prize for Literature. He would be on anyone’s ‘shortlist’ of greatest playwrights of the 20th century. At the same time, I am in good company in my opinion. O’Neill himself referred to it as “vaudeville written to make money” and destroyed it. It was rediscovered in 1950. Obviously this invites the question; why produce it at all?
I think the reason lies in pairing the two plays together. There is a historical connection between Glaspell and O’Neill. They were founding member of the Provincetown Playhouse in 1915 and earned their early reputations as playwrights there. The plays also have similarities. Both are set in lonely, unwelcoming homes where people have things to hide. The core relationship in both plays is an unhappy marriage and the action in both is driven by a good, but victimized, wife who is not seen onstage.
Both plays use the same set with only minor changes in set-dressing. The cast of the second play is a subset of the cast of the first and there are minimal costume changes. The performances are excellent.
In the end, the two plays are not woven together but they are connected. The connection is visible. It needs to be so the audience understands the transition. It is important that the plays be seen as connected, but not seamlessly. Like the metaphor in the first play, they are knotted. I would not like to see the O’Neill play by itself. Now that I have seen the two of them together it is difficult to imagine either being done without the other.