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by Susan Glaspell


Bernice, the second play on the fifth bill of the 1918-19 season, was initially significant because it was Glaspell’s first full-length play.  Ironically, though Reed’s opener of the bill was presumed to be the play that would create controversy, it was Glaspell’s work that triggered far wider discussion amongst Village literati and which produced a variety of published opinions.  Stylistically, Glaspell and Reed’s plays couldn’t be more different: Reed’s “cartoon” had broad characterizations, political satire, and highly-stylized physicalizations, which made Glaspell’s play seem quiet, realistic, and filled much more with words, silences and subtext than with action.  For many critics, Bernice propelled Glaspell from the ranks of the best playwright of the one-act genre to writing a work that “takes rank amongst the pitifully few plays that count done by us Americans,”(1) and elicited comments like “the modern American drama has nothing better to show.”(2)

In Bernice, Glaspell employsan important device used in her first play, Trifles (and she used it again in her 1931 play Alison’s House): the on-stage absence of the play’s “main” character and, in this case, the character of the title.  Taking it one step farther than Trifles, not only is the character absent, but we find out almost immediately that she has died before the play begins.  The entire play takes place within a twenty-four hour period, beginning in the late afternoon of an October day.  Act One begins in “the living room of Bernice’s house in the country,”(3) with Bernice’s body lying in a room just behind a door.  The audience is aware that this unseen character’s corpse lay in the other room, and it creates an ominous presence throughout the play.  The two who lived with her in the house, her father, Mr. Allen, and Bernice’s life-long, live-in maid Abbie, are present when the curtain rises, anticipating the imminent arrival of Bernice’s husband, Craig; his sister Laura; and, eventually, Bernice’s best friend, Margaret.  The play takes on the quality of a mystery by making one of the central unanswered questions throughout how Bernice actually died.  We soon find that Craig has been having an affair, his attempt at creating a sense of worth within a failed writing career and in opposition to the virtue of Bernice’s life.  Margaret and Craig are immediately at odds over this, but Abbie announces that Bernice had actually taken her life.  This causes Craig to assume she’s killed herself over his affairs.  Margaret simply won’t believe that her friend would ever consider taking her own life.

The rest of the play springs from the question: Did Bernice kill herself and, if so, why?  During the second act, Margaret’s single activist life and the unseen Bernice’s way of living is contrasted with Craig’s sister Laura’s condescending, bourgeois, and mostly Victorian ideas, who has arrived to help with plans for the funeral.  Abbie finally admits to Margaret that Bernice did not actually kill herself, that she’d died from sudden illness, but that she’d sworn Abbie to tell otherwise.  This confuses Margaret even more, now unconvinced that her friend would do what she initially viewed as a hateful thing.  Craig emerges from spending time in the room with Bernice’s body saying “there’s something wonderful in there.”(4)  Margaret, however, in her confusion feels she could never go in to her.  In Act Three, Margaret decides whether to tell the truth to Craig, but when she sees he is transformed by the thought that Bernice loved him enough to kill herself over his affairs, she begins to have a glimmer of understanding behind Bernice’s motives.  Bernice’s father reveals to Margaret that Bernice’s last words were her name, and how, in his limited understanding of his daughter, he always felt “as if she wanted to give us more. . . .She wanted to give—what couldn’t be given.”(5)  Craig and Abbie rearrange the furniture to the way Bernice had it originally and Margaret finally braves going into the room where Bernice’s body is laid.  When Mr. Allen returns to say they’re ready to take her, he notices they’ve “given the room back to Bernice!”  Margaret responds: “Given everything back to Bernice . . . insight.  The tenderness of insight.  And the courage.  She was wistful.  And held out her hands with gifts she was not afraid to send back.”  Margaret tells Craig simply that Bernice loved him, and he responds that he knows now how much.  Margaret closes the play by saying “And more than that.  Oh, in all the world—since first life moved—has there been any beauty like the beauty of perceiving love?  No.  Not for words.”(6)

Glaspell’s description of the set is a living room with a fireplace and French windows through which we can see the “October woods.”  She leaves the reader or viewer another mystery to solve by not spelling out where this house is located, but instead drops clues in the dialogue.  The house is about a fifteen-minute drive (driving a car in 1919) from a train station, Mr. Allen mentioning that the “train from the West got to the Junction at three,” referring to Margaret’s train, and that there wouldn’t be another until the five o’clock train, so she would probably hire a car versus wait the two hours; the point west she began from is later identified as Chicago.  Craig, when he arrives, speaks of being held in New York by things he had to do.  Though not plainly said, one assumes this is where he has come from with his sister Laura.  Though my first instinct was to place Bernice’s house on Long Island somewhere, Craig differentiates that as where he had been staying “out” while “working.”  Glaspell scholar J. Ellen Gainor suggests that the house is set in either western Massachusetts or even southern New Hampshire, based on references in the play to being “up here in the hills,” a few hours removed from Boston.  This she takes from the discussion that Bernice’s regular doctor was in Boston, and since his young apprentice was ill, “there was no doctor here,” causing one to believe the place was quite remote yet close enough to Boston that their area doctor could travel there within a day.  Gainor also suggests Glaspell set the play in New England to “evoke the spirit of social convention and then exerts pressure upon it through the force of her characters’ expressions of desire.”(7)

The set used for the original production is captured in a single photo, and it appears very much like the living room that Glaspell describes in her opening stage directions.  On the stage right wall is a fireplace, a lamp and shade on the mantle, and utensils for the fireplace next to it; and there is a door upstage right, presumably where Bernice’s body is being kept.  Along the back wall are two large French windows, double French doors that lead outside, and then another large French window.  The French doors have an arch structure surrounding them just left of center, extending almost to the ceiling.  Midway back against the stage left wall is a small table and lamp, with a chair in front of it.  Downstage left there is a small set of stairs, only two of which are visible in the photo, that lead to the rooms upstairs.  The walls have curtains, leaving spaces on the far left and right walls for doors and the staircase; another short set of curtains hangs above the windows and around the doorway arch.  The floor has a large area rug, with another larger table and easy chair stage right in front of the fireplace, and a tea service for two set upon the table.  There are two pillows in the window sill just stage right of the doors.  There is a built ceiling that the walls are attached to, completely containing the set in one piece, with a connecting piece of wood as a lip from the ceiling downstage.  The door stage right is not just plain wood, but gives the appearance of being well-made and crafted.  Beyond the French windows upstage is a tree that spreads its branches the width of the two-sectioned windows and into the area behind the French doors.  The lighting is highly shadowed, with the strongest shadows created by light coming from the stage left side, placing the entire stage left wall in a shadow.(8)  With Bernice needing such an ornate set by Players’ standards, how did the setting for Reed’s play just prior to it look?  Or, how long would the intermission between the plays have to be to reconstruct the stage so fully?  Perhaps the reason for the French doors and windows is that the same set was used as the hall where the Peace Conference was held in France, and only furniture had to be replaced and/or changed between plays.

Standing near the French doors upstage left in the photo are Ida Rauh, who played Margaret, and Glaspell, with a white/grey wig on (or powdered hair), as Abbie, her hands clasped with Rauh’s as she looks down.  Rauh appears to be talking to Glaspell very intently.  Sarlos narrows this moment of the play down to three possibilities.(9)  It seems the strongest possibility that this is the moment right after Abbie admits to Margaret that Bernice did not kill herself and Margaret, “roughly taking hold of Abbie,” says, “Tell me.  Quick, the truth.”(10) Rauh wears a dress made of one fabric, one solid color with long sleeves.  Glaspell wears a light sweater over a dark pleated dress, also of one fabric and color; she appears to have a scarf with a broach or pin holding it together around her neck.  O.K. Liveright played Mr. Allen, James Light played Craig Norris, and Blanche Hays played Craig’s sister, Laura.  No set designers or costumers are listed in the program.
Bernice proved to be a popular play for the Players, Kenton recalling that “on Bernice we gathered them in—subscribers and guests came down in small hordes.  Old subscribers, even after they had called up for guest tickets and told there were none, brought guests down anyway. ‘We’ll make two seats seat    three. . . and we’ll stand.”(11)  This was in large part due to the very positive reviews by many of the major critics.  The acting, when mentioned, was generally praised, with the New York Herald’s reviewer lauding Ida Rauh as doing “some really good acting . . . and was well seconded by James K. Light.”  This unsigned critic gives a backhanded compliment to the play by writing that it was “well-acted for the Provincetowners, but poorly considering the literary merits of the little drama itself.”(12) Broun in the New York Tribune writes that the play is “exceedingly well-acted,” and, though he feels it necessary to qualify a difference between the amateur and professional actor (as he does in reviews of earlier bills), he calls Rauh’s performance “magnificent,” going on to say “This is hardly accident, for Miss Rauh has given enough first class performances to convince us that she is a splendid player in emotional roles; more particularly in roles in which the emotion is designed to smolder.”  Though he feels Rauh gave the best performance in technique and feeling, he calls the others “effective” and individually cites that “Glaspell is not so technically adept, but she plays with convincing spirit and feeling.”  O. K. Liveright is called “exceedingly good,” the “best he has given with the Provincetown Players,” and Blanche Hays is labeled “effective.”(13)  When two weeks later Broun wrote an article titled “All-American Dozen of Our Actresses,” he lists Rauh in the group,(14) mentioning specifically her “superb” performance in Bernice and her ability to “hold a role under tightest rein throughout an evening and yet convince everybody in an audience that something is smoldering underneath the repression.”(15)  The play was directed by professional actor and long-time Player E.J. Ballantine, though there is no mention of his work in any of the reviews.  Kenton concedes that “Bernice was not a cheerful play and yet there was never a serious play more like a mystery play . . . And the actors and audience together worked it out.”(16)

Reactions in print to the play were overwhelmingly positive, with a single prominent exception.  The Brooklyn Eagle called the play “as Henry James would have liked it, ‘ingrowing drama’” dealing with “things behind the obvious, the half tones—hence no plot at all.”(17)   The New York Herald reviewer likens it to Ibsen, stating that, “in fact, it was much more modern than the work of the Norwegian being a remarkable use of psycho-analysis as dramatic material.”(18)  Corbin in the New York Times writes “the little play is quite beautifully simple and deft, perfect in each of its several characterizations as in the great central personality of Bernice.”  He calls it a play “after Maeterlinck’s own heart" (19) and as “tender and heart-wise as Barrie at his best,”(20) and, though he sees the technique as “somewhat primitive,” he believes it is “doubtless intentionally so.  Some themes are best developed in a pre-Raphaelite manner.”(21)  A little over a month after Bernice opened, The Nation mentions the play in an article titled “Little Theatres” by T.H.  The article claims the play is one of the few that “strikes sparks,” and that little theatres can occasionally present a “piece of such sincerity and distinction that all the failures and mediocrities seem worth while if they have made this one production possible.”  The writer believes that Bernice “is not for the commercial stage,” meaning this statement as a compliment:

It is too subtle, too slow, too real.  The characters actually talk, they do not speak for the benefit of the audience.  They group for the solution of their problems with a reality that is actually painful.  And their problems are not the problems of the stage but of souls today, the souls of young people seeking reality, and the souls of old people escaping it. (22)

Broun in the New York Tribune goes off on a diatribe about companies not presenting “true plays, but plays which pretended, or even tried, to be true and never got there.”  Bernice, he states, is notable “for the seemingly accurate portrayal of the things which go on in people’s minds,” though he qualifies that it is “by no means technically perfect,” and in her striving to present real life, he names Life as a collaborator that “has not been altogether helpful to Miss Glaspell” because in trying to be truthful, “the author cannot invariably avoid the sin of being patently painstaking.”  Rather than be direct about Bernice specifically, Broun alludes that he applauds plays that have moments in which “a character says or does something which carries with it a surprise instantly followed by conviction,” calling these rich moments of drama, and stating that a playwright is in a “strong strategic position if she can convince her audience again and again that she knows and understands her characters a little better than they do.”  Though quite indirectly, he is suggesting that Glaspell has achieved this.  He is more direct when he writes, “The play is intensely dramatic, the most important facts about the dead woman are brought out in scenes of conflict between the living characters.”  He believes the play shows that a “realistic play need by no means be humdrum and prosy.  Languages may be beautiful and poetic without being highfalutin.”(23)

Put into question by a few of the critics is how and/or if the audience is able to interpret what Margaret figures out about Bernice’s changing of the truth.  Corbin asks, “And the reason for the deathbed lie?  The play does not explicitly tell us . . . yet we all of us know, all of us, that is, who know masculine vanity and how the vain male can sometimes be strengthened, rendered loyal and even fine, by a pleasing idea that is not quite true.”(24)  Broun calls it the play’s “most serious defect,” stating (one assumes about Margaret) that
. . . one character who is represented as amazingly intuitive was much too slow in her interpretation of the psychology of one act of the dead woman.  We were able to read it correctly long before the character in question.  Our belief in the character’s intuition slumped accordingly.(25)  

Ludwig Lewisohn writes that additional speeches should be written in the first and third acts to “give these the spiritual and dramatic clearness which the second already has.  Crude people will call the play ‘talky.’  But indeed there is not quite talk enough.”(26)  Though some critics uphold the play’s quality in its ability to give voice to the ineffable, they ironically also fault it for not being clear enough in that expression. 
Bernice could easily qualify as the most mature of the Provincetown plays to this point in terms of its attempt to give voice to the human spirit through complex and profound combinations of action, emotion and language, and critics began to argue its place in the development of American drama.  Writing in his book The Drama and the Stage, published in 1922, Ludwig Lewisohn (27) champions Bernice as “not only [Glaspell’s] masterpiece but one of the indisputably important dramas of the modern English or American theatre,” though he says it was presented by the Players “with more than their accustomed feebleness and lack of artistic lucidity.” (28)  He states that “the modern American drama has nothing better to show,” than this play, in which the “surface of the play is delicate and hushed. But beneath the surface is the intense struggle of rending forces.”  He calls Bernice’s last words to Abbie, “a dramatic action that moves, stirs and transforms,” and he summarizes, “through a bright, hard window one watches people in a house of mourning.  They stand or sit and talk haltingly as people do at such times.  Nothing is done.  Yet everything happens—death and life and a new birth.  What more can drama give?”(29)  In Expression in America, which he wrote ten years after these comments above, Lewisohn writes, “I have dwelt upon these plays of Susan Glaspell not only because they were profoundly significant for their day. Their significance remains.”  He speaks of their “psychological” and “creative structure” as standing alone, and of a “libertarian mysticism” that inspires them with “a fresh and inimitably American quality, the very essence of that rebellion of the children of the Puritans against their forbears and their forbears’ folk-way.”(30)

No play produced by the Players thus far created the debate that began about the validity of the dramaturgy used by Glaspell in Bernice.  The play precipitated a heightened energy in discussion that was typically reserved for the latest experiments in Dadaism or the newest fad in visual art.  One journal’s critical response to the play set off a fiery discussion amongst the literati in the Village.  Margaret Anderson, editor of Little Review, wrote an odd piece that seemed to be personally directed at Glaspell.  In the April 1919 edition of the Little Review, Anderson begins her discussion of the play by showing her support for the production, stating that it “made a stir among the intellectuals, which is good, and the critics uptown praised it highly—which is good.”  Anderson clearly wants what to establish a context of support for the Players.  She then begins what amounts to a lecture on the components a play must have to be considered having “drama,” of which, she contends, none can be found in Bernice.  She thinks the play is “well-written,” was “well-presented,” and that the concept of presenting the effect of someone’s death on those in her life is an “interesting idea.”  She tells that she “sat tense with interest up to middle of the last act,” declaring that the “alleged drama centers in the husband,” and then proclaims, “But there is no drama.  This is all I wish to prove.” (31)

To get to drama, Anderson writes, the author must “work through cause and effect,” or must “present dramatically the foibles of a human being who dramatizes himself with charm, intelligence, or power,” or any variation of these.  For Anderson, playwrights like Glaspell, who deal with “general” ideas or with propaganda, must work “in the first realm” (presumably meaning cause and effect), presenting “some intellectual or psychic conflict.”  She believes that Glaspell has proposed something that is a lie: she presents as hero a powerless man who, unable to attain power independently, is conferred power by the report of his wife’s suicide.  “And you can’t make drama out of this kind of lie without giving your discriminating audience the feeling that your play is without context [sic?].(32)  Don’t you see, Susan Glaspell?” she writes, addressing the playwright personally.(33)  Anderson suggests the ways the playwright could make drama out of it, ultimately saying that “someone must be ‘on’ to what is happening—either a character in the play or you yourself when you write.”  This last statement takes on the most personal accusatory tone, suggesting that Glaspell is writing without knowing what is happening in her own play.  Anderson concludes with, “I have just touched the fringe of the discussion.  I wish you would take it up with me.”

The Little Review was at its height in popularity in April 1919 when Anderson issued her response to Glaspell’s play, particularly because it was serializing James Joyce’s novel Ulysses, introducing it to America for the first time (for which they were eventually indicted and brought to trial under the same Sedition Act that The Masses had earlier been charged.)(34)  This researcher can find no evidence of a rift between Anderson and Glaspell prior to this point; they had known each other for years from their days in Chicago and continued to have at least some social contact.  In fact, Anderson would use the Playwright’s Theatre to host a concert by vocalist Marguerite D’Alvarez, who had just recently come from Europe to New York, and followed it with a reception at Christine’s upstairs afterward.(35)   Perhaps Anderson’s comments can be taken at face value, but the manner in which she does it seems to be intentionally confrontational toward Glaspell.
This was far from the last time Anderson would incite a strong response to her comments.  Her article caused two writers, a “Mr. Barnes,” Dr. Alfred C. Barnes, who had been the financial contributor earlier that year to the Players, (36) and Philip Moeller, playwright and former director of the Washington Square Players, as well as a founder and director of the newly-formed Theater Guild, to “rebut” Anderson’s opinions about the play.  To her credit, Anderson printed these rebuttals in the May 1919 issue of Little Review, along with her response to the rebuttals. 

The author of the first rebuttal is not identified with the article, though Anderson’s response later refers to the writer as “Mr. Barnes” and that he has a “knowledge of psychology.”(37)  Barnes does seem to approach his comments from a psychological point of view, stating the “success of the play, for it is a great drama” is due to the contrast of Bernice’s “unified personality versus a series of dissociated personalities, all very human.”(38)  He sees Bernice as “a sort of earthly flowering of the Absolute,” and believes that the audience feels the “continual inspiration she was to her relatives and friends” throughout the play.  He speaks of Margaret’s judging of Craig “by her standards of rightness instead of Bernice’s,” and how this is why she wants to tell him of the lie; this leads to “two of the strongest scenes in the play: the conflict between two good women, Abbie and Margaret, and between Margaret’s goodness and Craig’s weakness.”  He does grant that the denouement is the “weak part of the play if one judges it by the high standards of knowledge and intelligence which the author herself has set and maintained up to that point,” specifically mentioning that Craig’s self-centeredness is fixated and not really a result of the “shock of his wife’s death for love’s sake.”  He qualifies this statement, however, that it may be “more a reflection upon human nature than upon Susan Glaspell’s art.”  Still, he believes the plot is weak here because it fails in the “psychological ensemble which the author has built up with such great knowledge and skill in practically all other details.”  Whether meaning to or not, he supports Anderson’s contention that Glaspell doesn’t know what she’s written by stating that “in its expression and exposition there enters an element of the operation of the unconscious self of which the author herself is unaware,” though he means this as a positive.  Barnes concludes by this that the play will have a life because of its insight and/or its courage “combined with skill in making subtle situations, often only nuances, dramatically moving,” and that the Players have “scored a triumph with an important play, superbly acted.”(39)

Moeller’s rebuttal specifically attempts to call Anderson to account by taking on the language and tone of her original critique.  Titled, “An Important Play,” he writes in the form of a letter directly to “My dear Margaret Anderson,” using both her names as Anderson had done three times in her article with Susan Glaspell’s name.  He begins by speaking of his admiration for the play, and then says directly, “It is you, Margaret Anderson, who have rushed in fluttering your mental wings into the very hell of theory.”  He states that he can’t argue with her about what makes a play (as she has done), but that “new form creates its new reason, and new reason forges its new form.”  He states that while Glaspell has always been a good writer, Bernice “takes rank amongst the pitifully few plays that count done by us Americans.”  He calls Anderson’s idea of cause and effect “an old-fashioned bit of naïve pessimism” and wonders if in her mind all virtuous or heroic deeds and thoughts are just “misread weaknesses.”  He states that he’s not so concerned about whether the play’s hero (reminding her that this is her term) has it, but whether Bernice had it, and how the brilliance of the play is how we are “thrillingly conscious of the fact,” punctuating his jibe by writing, “There’s the theme, Margaret Anderson.”  He believes the play doesn’t concern the husband at all, but it’s Bernice’s power that is dramatized:  “If you have missed this, surely, the lack of power isn’t entirely Miss Glaspell’s.”  He calls her conjecture that we can’t attain power if we don’t already have it “the ugly wraith of a determinism,” claiming she has sent any hopeful agency that encourages people to grow and change “to the limbo or the not-needed,” that doing so robs us of our dreams, and that the issue of the journal in which she states this should be confiscated.  He defends that Glaspell was both consciously and unconsciously aware of what her characters were doing, challenging whether any artist is ever completely “on to himself (quoting from her) when he writes,” and that what gives the play its “rare importance” is that, whether consciously or unconsciously, she has found a way as a dramatist to take us nearer to something beyond our knowing, and with “bewildering clairvoyancy” touched those things “of which we hear but the dimmest echoes and know but the shadows.”  Rather than tread ground traveled before, he contends Glaspell has written a play of “rare distinction and power” that points to a new place for dramatists to touch the “finer values and nuances in the perpetual problem of the human soul.”  Mocking the words Anderson has used, he writes “I too have ‘just touched the fringe of the discussion,’ Bernice I know is worthy of profounder praise and more defense than mine." (40)

Anderson’s response to the two rebuttals is longer than her original article.  She dismisses Mr. Barnes by writing that, with the exception of his last paragraph, he’s simply told what he believes the playwright intended, which Anderson says she was already conscious of, even while watching the play.  She more baldly states that it’s her opinion that what the playwright intended was “something uninteresting, banal, sentimental, undramatic,” and “without significant content, something therefore outside of Art.”(41)  She calls Bernice an “uninteresting Pollyanna” and says she suspects Glaspell “merely regarded her as subject matter,” and if she couldn’t make her subject interesting, she could have made the reaction of her friends interesting.  Anderson is shocked that anyone, referring to Barnes’ critique, could see Bernice as a “complete and unified person,” and her purported desire to see those around her be themselves fully is “a ridiculous ignorance, and to hope is a delightful luxury which only protoplasmic souls indulge in, with grotesque,--no, pathetic—results.”  She calls the portrayal of Bernice’s sacrificial lie the “Christ idea,” that it doesn’t work except with “exceptional people who resent it strongly” (of which Craig is not one), and that scorn is a better way to wake a person up to his “deficiencies.”(42)
Anderson explains her ideas of dramaturgy in her last paragraph, which is what Moeller had taken the greatest exception to, and which was the thrust of Anderson’s initial complaints about the play.  However, one notices that she has shifted in her response from discussing the supposed lack of drama to expressing distaste for the person/character of Bernice.  Rather than truly discussing dramatic criticism and structure, as she seemed to do in her first critique, she explains she was talking “beyond all ‘rules’ of what is and what is not drama,” and that the “convention that ‘emotion expressed in emotion’ makes drama” didn’t originate with her.  She sees her only role as deciding whether any emotions have been expressed, because “nothing lives until some emotion has been created about it,” and believes in this play no one has their feelings made into emotions, thus Glaspell cannot “transfuse her own feelings into emotions.”  She concludes by saying that what Glaspell writes doesn’t interest her, and that they live in worlds “too far removed” from each other, particularly since Anderson doesn’t believe that human nature alone is interesting, and it only becomes so after “it has been affected by consciousness.”  She states that, while Glaspell and Moeller believe that the powerless “can develop themselves into power,” she believes differently: that self-consciousness, or the unified personality, is possible only to the few who attain it, and the proof of that acquisition is that they are “interesting people” and produce an outward sign of that acquisition, which she says “we call Art.”(43)

In the end, what initially seemed like a discussion about dramaturgy may instead have simply been Anderson’s expression of distaste for Glaspell’s view of life.  She hardly returns in her rebuttal to the discussion about drama that she began, though her initial idea is supported by Heap in her article, “The Provincetown Theatre” when Heap states that Bernice “isn’t a play, it bears no relation to drama as an art,” and that the author was simply working out in words a psychological problem.  In the era of Ibsen and Shaw, one is surprised to hear such opinions from these two purveyors of the avant-garde, particularly the two who introduce Joyce, with all of his internal dialogue and psychological sub-text, to America.  They seem to hold different standards for drama than for literature, or else they’re stuck in what Moeller names as “an old-fashioned bit of naïve pessimism.”  Cultural historian Christine Stansell summarizes Anderson’s tastes and the reason for them when she writes “for her, the moderns’ reworking of the relations of culture and society, life and art also demanded a radical reinvention of aesthetics, the propagation of high modernism in devoutly democratic context,” adding, “Anderson, while a supporter of the left, had little interest in realism of any kind and championed instead experimental poetry and fiction.”(44)  There is no record of any reaction or response to this literary controversy by Glaspell.(45)

The original opening dates of the fifth bill of the 1918-1919 season by describing how the original opening dates were changed from March 14-20 to later because the production of Bernice needed more time.  However, I find that the discrepancies between the actual dates of performances listed in print and the dates when critical reviews were published warrants at least a short mention.  The published version of Bernice in Plays by Susan Glaspell (Boston: Small, Maynard and Company, 1920) lists that the play was “first performed by the Provincetown Players, New York, March 21, 1919.”  Deutsch and Hanau’s also list March 21, 1919 as the date of the fifth bill opening.  Kenton lists the dates it played as March 21-27, 1919.  One then wonders why the reviews in the two major papers, the New York Times and New York Tribune, were both published on March 30, 1919, three days after the run ended.  The New York Herald’s review was published on March 24, 1919, so we know the play had to have been on public view at least by March 23.  At least two explanations are possible, though neither can be confirmed.  One is that, because the Players changed the date of the bill’s opening, each publication might have already scheduled other reviews and were unable to reschedule for a publication “slot” until March 30, which happened to be a Sunday edition with more space for theatre than was typical during the week.  The second possibility is that there was an honest fear of political identification with Reed’s play by the two newspapers and, thus, their reviews were withheld until the run was over.  Corbin in the Times alludes to this volatility by asking to “be excused” from identifying the “master” of the “world’s pacificators at Paris,” who, of course, is President Wilson, and from “detailing Mr. Reed’s characterization of his methods.”(46)  This theory falls down a little, though, when considering that Broun’s review in the Tribune doesn’t avoid the subject matter of the play and describes it in detail.  While no definitive answer can be ascertained, having both the Times and the Tribune publish their reviews of a play that their critics thought was highly significant a full three days after that play closed seems at the least unusual.

The play’s significance shows in that it continues to be discussed by contemporary dramatic and literary critics.  Some, particularly feminist critics, have not embraced Bernice as whole-heartedly as Glaspell’s play Trifles.  Most refer to her use of the absent central female character and interpret this in a number of ways.  Jackie Czerepinski writes of how this device “foregrounds ways of knowing and knowledge based on gender as it privileges absence and silence,” adding that this “gendered system of meaning” works in Bernice more subtly than in Trifles. (47) Glaspell biographer Barbara Ozieblo states that Glaspell “takes control of Bernice and Margaret and turns the tables on the philandering male, using his very tactics, by dramatically silencing Bernice,”(48) and later writes that “the patriarchal plot of silencing a woman bears unexpected results . . . Bernice, in death, shows herself to be her husband’s master.”(49)  Veronica Makowsky, somewhat more pessimistic about the outcome, writes that “Bernice uses her death to make changes she could not achieve by living,”(50) and that “The problem is that Glaspell’s unselfish heroines do not help themselves while helping other women, but are typically erased in favor of their male relations.”  This can be explained if Glaspell saw herself as a midwife in an slow-changing progression, as Makowsky hypothesizes when she writes “Bernice has not produced biological children or artistic artifacts, but her legacy to the future . . . will be to promote human evolution, the process that Glaspell considered of paramount importance,” and she suggests that characters in Glaspell’s plays The Outside and The People take much the same role.(51)  Gainor points to Glaspell’s use of “the time honored literary device of the romantic triangle,” though this play’s difference is that the fight is between “Margaret and Craig over the woman they both loved,” versus the typical two men fighting over the same woman.  She also sees Glaspell experimenting with fragmented dialogue, “expressing her thoughts with dashes and imagistic phrases,” showing particularly her female characters searching for a language “’outside’ of conventional communication . . . to capture the complexity and depth of their discoveries.”  This technique will be used more prominently in her play The Verge.  Gainor also points to Glaspell again using physical environment, as she particularly did in Trifles, as an element to know a character, and that, like many of the playwright’s works, “the scenic spaces are virtually anthropomorphized; certainly, they are as important as the characters who inhabit them, becoming a carapace or even a mirror of being.”(52)

Many posit the possibility of Bernice acting as a reflection of Glaspell’s own life with Cook.  Marcia Noe asks if the play could “have grown from a fantasy of Susan’s in which she killed herself to punish Jig for infidelity, all the while rationalizing that the act would bring him to his senses and shock him into living up to his potential as a writer?”(53)  Murphy echoes this with

"At its most obvious, the play may be seen as wish-fulfillment for Glaspell, a Tom Sawyeresque imagining of one’s own funeral, expressing the well-suppressed but understandably somewhat passive-aggressive feeling of a self-sacrificing woman, that if she deprives her loved ones of her presence, they might begin to appreciate her. . . .The characters are easily recognizable as Glaspell, Cook (who imagined himself to be the American Edward Gordon Craig), Glaspell’s mild and rather ineffectual father, and Lucy Huffaker, Glaspell’s closest friend since they were in college together."(54)

Ozieblo offers that the absent heroine of the play “is the product of deep thought about the role of women and a bitter protest of age-old silencing,” and that “Glaspell would never have admitted that she had been silenced by Cook; she insisted that she gladly gave up her career as a novelist to devote herself to his baby—the Provincetown Players.”  Though there is no reference offered to prove it, she believes that Neith Boyce and her marriage to Hutchins Hapgood offered “a classic example of womanly self-sacrifice that Glaspell must have drawn on for her play,” as well as observing the continuing theme in her plays of “independent women who will not be mastered,” which must have been fostered from observing her friends’ marriages.  She reflects that Craig’s need to “’destroy’ or at least ‘reshape’ the life of a woman” is reflected in Cook’s supposed desire to do the same, which, when experienced in his and Glaspell’s daily relationship “affected her differently” than the thrill of it, which Glaspell had written about in The Road to the Temple.  More than one biographer and commentator speaks of Cook’s sexual philandering, particularly the speculation that he and Ida Rauh were involved, and this makes ironic the fact that Rauh played the role of Margaret in this production as Glaspell wrote the play and acted in the role of Abbie.(55)  Ben-Zvi sees this casting, however, as “visually presenting a female unity inherent in the script, between these two Heterodoxy women, who may have loved the same man, but who, like Bernice, did not choose to define themselves as rivals or as victims.”(56)  Bernice was later presented at the Gate Theatre in London in 1925 and was highly praised, “calling attention to the play’s ‘rare beauty.’”(57)  At the end of his review of Bernice, critic John Corbin states, “If the Provincetown Players had done nothing more than to give us the delicately humorous and sensitive plays of Susan Glaspell, they would have amply justified their existence.”(58)  Lewisohn goes even farther when in 1932, after listing other major writers of the period, he states, “Susan Glaspell was followed by Eugene O’Neill.  The rest was silence; the rest is silence still.”(59)

© Jeff Kennedy, 2007.

(1) Moeller, Little Review, May 1919.

(2) Ludwig Lewisohn, The Drama and the Stage (New York: Harcourt, Brace and Co. 1922) 105.

(3) Glaspell, Plays 159.

(4) Glaspell, Plays 207.

(5) Glaspell, Plays 223.

(6) Glaspell, Plays 230.

(7) Gainor, Glaspell 95.

(8) It is possible the stage lighting is not turned on for this photo and that either a flash or only photographic lighting is used instead.

(9) Sarlos, Provincetown 261.

(10) Glaspell, Plays 205.

(11) Kenton 98.

(12) New York Herald, 24 March 1919, pt II, col. 6: 9.

(13) Heywood Broun, New York Tribune, 30 March 1919, Sec. IV, cols. 4-5: 9.

(14) The twelve actresses cited, in alphabetical order, were Blanche Bates, Irene Bordoni, Patricia Collinge, Jane Cowl, Laura Hope Crew, Mrs. Fiske, Vera Gordon, Helen Hayes, Beryl Mercer, Ida Rauh, Florence Reed, and Gilda Varesi.

(15) Heywood Broun, New York Tribune, 13 April 1919, sec. IV, col. 4-5: 1.

(16) Kenton 98.

(17) Article in the Provincetown Players Scrapbook, Theatre Collection, Harvard University.

(18) New York Herald, 24 March 1919, pt II, col 6: 9.

(19) Maurice Maeterlinck (1862-1949) was a Belgian who migrated to Paris, primarily a writer of lyrical dramas.  Lack of action, fatalism, mysticism, and the constant presence of death characterize his early works with the shadow of death looming even larger in his later works.  He was awarded in 1911 the Nobel Prize for Literature.  Maeterlinck was closely associated with the French literary movement of symbolism, which used symbols to represent ideas and emotions. Among Maeterlinck's most famous plays is The Blue Bird (1908), a fairy tale with the theme of the search of happiness.

(20) One assumes “Barrie” refers to James Barrie (1860–1937), Scottish playwright and novelist. He is best remembered for his play Peter Pan; or, The Boy Who Would Not Grow Up (1904), a supernatural fantasy about a boy who refused to grow up.  Many critics think his most accomplished work is the tragicomedy Dear Brutus (1917), in which he skillfully blends fantasy with realism and humor with pathos as it describes a group of people who enter a magic wood where they are transformed into the people they might have become had they made different choices.  His play What Every Woman Knows (1908) portrayed a determined woman, Maggie, whose husband eventually realizes that he owes his success to her.

(21) John Corbin, New York Times, “Seraphim and Cats,” 30 March 1919: 46.  The Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood was started in 1848 by Dante Gabriel Rosetti, John Everett Malais and William Holman Hunt, as a reaction against what they saw as the stale, formula-driven art produced by the Royal Academy at the time. They aimed to go back to a more genuine art, exemplified as they saw it by the work of the Nazarenes, and rooted in realism and truth to nature.

(22)“Little Theatres,” The Nation, 3 May 1919, Vol. 109, No. 2809: 702-03.

(23) Broun, New York Tribune, 30 March 1919, Sec IV, cols 4-5: 1.

(24) Corbin, New York Times, 30 March 1919.

(25) Broun, New York Tribune, 30 March 1919, Sec IV, cols 4-5: 1.

(26) Lewisohn, The Drama and the Stage 105.

(27) Ludwig Lewisohn would become the theatre critic for The Nation in the fall of 1919.

(28) Lewisohn, The Drama and the Stage 102.

(29) Lewisohn, The Drama and the Stage 105-106.

(30) Ludwig Lewisohn, Expression in America (New York: Harper and Brothers, 1932) 397.

(31) Margaret Anderson, The Little Review, April 1919, Vol. V, No. 11.

(32) One wonders if there is not a typo in one place or the other when she says in her first paragraph that the play is without “content” and here in this last sentence says the word is without “context.”

(33) Margaret Anderson, The Little Review, April 1919, Vol. V, No. 11.

(34) The Little Review was begun in Chicago in 1914 when Anderson was twenty-one, and she envisioned the modern literary movement needing a journal to sponsor it.  A year before, she was literary editor at the Continent, Floyd Dell was literary editor of the Chicago Evening Post, and George Cram Cook had become his assistant editor.  In her autobiography, Anderson speaks of Dell and his wife, Margery Currey, being “surrounded by a literary group that gave promise of being the only one of interest in Chicago,” even though her natural inclination was not to be part of groups.  Here she met Theodore Dreiser, Sherwood Anderson, John Cowper Powys, Arthur Davidson Ficke, Llewellyn Jones, and, before they had moved to New York, Edna Kenton, George Cram Cook and Susan Glaspell.  The Little Review in its early days was best known for "partly comprehensible prose and unrhymed poetry brave with dots, in which the bourgeoisie took the count every month,” claimed writer Ben Hecht, who also contributed to the journal.  Anderson lost her early financial backing and support when, after hearing Emma Goldman speak, she wrote articles with overt anarchistic tones.  Then in 1916, Jane Heap, for ten years Anderson's lover and collaborator, became responsible for the design and editing of the magazine, which she continued to do until 1923.  The pair moved themselves and the journal to Greenwich Village in 1917, though their initial response to New Yorkers was that they were “second-rate” intellectually and that, compared to Chicago, they were “still lingering in these primer realms.”  That same year, through the efforts of their new foreign editor Ezra Pound, the Little Review began publishing in twenty issues a serialized version of James Joyce’s Ulysses.

(35) Margaret Anderson, My Thirty Years’ War; an Autobiography(New York: Covici, Friede, 1930) 193.

(36) Barnes had done extensive study in psychology, philosophy and art. <http://www.barnesfoundation.org/h_main.html>

(37) Margaret Anderson, “Neither Drama nor Life,” Little Review, May 1919: 60.  Jackson Bryer, on page 327 of his dissertation “A Trial-Track for Racers”: Margaret Anderson and the Little Review, identifies the writer as Alfred C. Barnes.  Barnes attended plays frequently at the Provincetown and is noted for having given the Players a substantial gift of cash just less than a year before.  He was not only a patron of the arts, but a collector of modern art, having the largest reputed collection of Renoirs in the world.

(38) Alfred C. Barnes, “Susan Glaspell’s Play, ‘Bernice’ a Great Drama,” Little Review, May 1919: 53.

(39) Alfred C. Barnes, “Susan Glaspell’s Play, ‘Bernice’ a Great Drama,” Little Review, May 1919: 55.

(40) Phillip Moeller, “An Important Play,” Little Review, May 1919: 56-59.

(41) This would lead one to believe that Anderson probably intended the word “content” vs. “context” in her first article where there is a discrepancy between the two.  

(42) Margaret Anderson, The Little Review, May 1919.

(43) Margaret Anderson, The Little Review, May 1919.

(44) Stansell 197-198.

(45) Anderson would continue this “Discussion” section of the magazine begun with Glaspell’s play, which coincided with the resignation of Ezra Pound as foreign editor and the “changing complexion” that would result from this important departure.  Bryer, “A Trial Track for Racers” 327.

(46) John Corbin, “Seraphim and Cats,” New York Times, 30 March 1919: 46

(47) Czerepinski writes that female characters who solve the mysteries in Glaspell’s plays are “‘seers’ who are also women who live in the margins of conventional patriarchal society,” and who solve them because they are empathetic versus using the “’universal’ ethical standards.”  She believes that Glaspell is contrasting these women with men and “men-identified women, who are negative or neutral forces—stultifying at worst, spiritually stunted at best—incapable of the vision because they are in a conventional world constructed and ruled by words.”  This is underscored in Bernice by Margaret’s last line: “No. Not for words” and she ends the play with the stage direction of a closing hand gesture.  Czerepinski comments these energies used by “female outsiders” are “beyond articulate explanation, greater than the power of language” and that often Margaret will stop mid-sentence because she tries to describe what she discovers she cannot find words for, particularly when she’s describing Bernice.  Jackie Czerepinski, “Beyond the Verge: Absent Heroines in the Plays of Susan Glaspell,” Susan Glaspell, Essays on Her Theatre and Fiction (Ann Arbor: U of Michigan Press 1995).

(48) Ozieblo, Glaspell 143.

(49) Ozieblo, Glaspell 145-146.

(50) Veronica Makowsky, Susan Glaspell’s Century of American Women, A Critical Interpretation of Her Work (New York: Oxford U Press, 1993)82.

(51) Makowsky 145.

(52) Gainor 101.

(53) Marcia Noe, A Critical Biography of Susan Glaspell, diss., U of Iowa, 1976 (Ann Arbor: UMI, 1976) 108.

(54) Murphy, Provincetown 4/41.

(55) Ozieblo, Glaspell 143: “. . . not to mention her own husband, whose gaze often strayed.”  152:  “The summer of 1919 . . . even more she ached for the lusty, genial man she had married in 1913, and more and more she hated New York, the theater, and Rauh for taking him away from her.”  154: “Eventually, the lure of good argument, companionable drinking, and Rauh’s warm apartment was too much for Cook.”

(56) Ben-Zvi, Glaspell 213.

(57) Papke, Susan Glaspell 37 & 42.

(58) Corbin, New York Times, 30 March 1919.

(59) Lewisohn, Expression in America 398.