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Close the Book

by Susan Glaspell


The second play on the first bill of the 1917-1918 season was written by Glaspell as a response to Cook’s plea for a comedy while she was visiting Iowa in December 1916.  Close the Book was read to the Players membership on December 27, 1916 under the title Family Pride and accepted for production, but the Players did not mount the play until this first bill of the new season.  The play is set in Glaspell’s native Iowa and revolves around a family whose recent ancestor, a Revolutionary War hero, was the founder of a university.  The family still makes up the school’s trustee board, with the Uncle the president of the school’s Board of Regents.  The grandson, Peyton Root, is a professor at the school and challenges the family propriety and position, of which his mother feels the guardian, by being engaged to a woman named Jhansi, who boasts a gypsy ancestry and who is quite an outspoken and liberated woman on campus.  Peyton’s family clearly disapproves of Jhansi as a prospective bride for Peyton, mostly because of her orphaned status and gypsy roots.  In a well-meaning effort to made things better for the couple, Peyton’s aunt Bessie secretly does some research on Jhansi’s background and discovers she is actually the daughter of a well-respected milkman and a woman who did missionary work who were married in the Baptist church.  Bessie shows up to dinner with the news to tell Jhansi “You are one of us!” and brings a U. S. Senator and his wife who are cousins of her birth mother to corroborate the information.(1)  Jhansi initially won’t accept this news; in fact, she doesn’t want it to be true and is not interested in being “respectable,” but Bessie has brought proof in a book titled Iowa Descendants of New England Families.(2)  Peyton’s mother congratulates him on this news, now happy to accept Jhansi into the family, but Jhansi releases him from their engagement.  It comes out that Peyton has told Jhansi that, based more on conjecture than reality, that his mother is actually an illegitimate child; this seems to have done much to make Jhansi feel better earlier in their relationship.  His grandmother, shocked at the accusation, proves the conjecture false with her wedding license and daughter’s birth certificates.  After discovering to their delight that her grandfather had burned down a neighbor’s house, Jhansi and Peyton begin to look at the fine print in the book.  There they find more sordid details about certain family members in both of their families, including a grave-robber and a seller of whiskey and firearms to the Indians, which infuriates the family members listening.  Peyton tells Jhansi, “I don’t know that we need to leave society.  There seems little—crevices in these walls of respectability.”(3) The play ends with Peyton announcing to his grandmother, “Here’s something about your ancestor Gustave Phelps,” to which she rises and commands: “Peyton—close that book.”(4)

Ozieblo believes that the play, Glaspell’s first to be set in her home-state of Iowa, is a direct reflection of what took place that December during her trip to Davenport as she accompanied Cook’s mother on her rounds of Davenport society.  “Her childhood perception of alienation was renewed, although in reverse,” for now Glaspell, the daughter of a poor Davenport farmer, was a respected writer and playwright and “her presence in all the best drawing rooms was eagerly sought, but she was unwilling to mingle with the coterie of small-town highbrows, with their pretensions and pseudo culture.”(5)  Also, Glaspell had married Cook in scandal, though Ma-Mie’s acceptance of her and her direct involvement in the Players seemed to make that a thing of the past.  Unfortunately, Ozieblo doesn’t give us any more than conjecture as evidence of this, though Sarlos corroborates somewhat by stating that “George Cram Cook was the model for Peyton Root, the central character,”(6) but he does not imply that Glaspell was the model for Jhansi.  Glaspell, however, reminds us in The Road to the Temple, that Cook “grew up in a town that had a Cook Memorial Library, the Cook Home, and a Cook Memorial Church.  I am constrained to say again—there having been no Glaspell Home for the Friendless—these things are relevant.”(7)

In the satirical fashion of Suppressed Desires, Glaspell has named the family the Roots and with humor has exposed and conveyed a number of ideas within this “bitter comedy of manners.”(8)  Ben-Zvi points out some of these: “the conformity expected of married women, gypsies or not, and the way in which propriety and its purveyors control dissent merely by imposing their values on new arrivals to their ranks.”  She points out that Glaspell also takes equal aim at her Village bohemian friends who have with pride forsaken their family identities, and that “radicals are held up to parody as well as conformists.”  Beyond Cook, one thinks of Rita Wellman, Pendleton King, Dorothy Upjohn, Ira Remsen and even O’Neill, all with extremely famous fathers or grandfathers, who seem to have joined the ranks of Bohemia and who sought, at least for a time, a different sort of life.  Gainor points out that the issue of race is touched on for the first time by the Players when at a crucial moment of exposure early in the play the grandmother likens being a gypsy with being negro.  The idea of free speech, particularly pertinent to the Players as the Espionage Act was threatening so many opposed to the United States’ involvement in the war, is mentioned when Peyton says that he and Jhansi need to finish an article on free speech due that evening to the local paper.  The grandmother dismissively responds: “Free speech? How amusing.”  Peyton counters with, “You may be less amused some day, grandmother.”(9)  After she is stopped by her daughter from discussing the race issue as being an intolerable topic, Grandmother ironically replies “Well, if there’s nothing else we may speak of, let’s talk about free speech.”(10)  Gainor points out that Glaspell “frequently critiques the Midwest and its narrow social codes in her novels, plays, and stories by juxtaposing characters with unacceptable provincial views to those figures superior to their neighbors’ limited perspectives.”  Her analysis also leads her to feel that Glaspell eases the bite of the play’s themes, much as occurs in Suppressed Desires, by tying up the play with a comic ending that sidesteps any need for conclusion about the issues that have been raised: “Glaspell’s elimination of Jhansi’s Otherness suggests a conservatism that cannot be reconciled with the political liberalism suggest in the play’s opening.”(11)

Critical response to the Close the Book added to the admiration that reviewers already had exhibited for Glaspell’s work.  Ralph Block, for the New York Tribune, wrote that “Miss Glaspell has learned exceedingly well the trick of light satire of the two current moralities . . . and there are moments in the play which raise the hope that she may some day write a longer one in the same vein.”(12)  In a slightly underwhelming review, the unsigned critic for the Boston Evening Transcript wrote that the play was a “slender skit on the reputed tendency of many modern young women to foreswear ‘respectability.’”  He concludes, “The piece is notable only for the ease of the dialogue and the unforced sprightliness of its wit.”(13)  John Corbin, however, in an article about Little Theatre in the New York Times published a few days after the bill’s closing, writes that “The outside world has dealt roughly with the moral, or rather immoral, poses of the Villagers; but to find them dissected with a scalpel you will have to go to Susan Glaspell’s Suppressed Desires and her Close the Book, which is a part of the new Provincetown bill.”(14)  Gainor points out that the critics looked at the play as parody, but in doing so “they chose to treat the play dismissively, rather than to look beyond the plot and the most accessible themes to its more serious social content.”(15)

While Moise is listed as the director of the play, no set designer is mentioned, though Block writes that the set “even in so small a stage, is entirely satisfactory.”(16)  Like O’Neill’s The Long Voyage Home, the cast included a mix of established members and new actors to the company.  Of the “old” guard, Glaspell played Mrs. Root, Peyton’s mother; Justus Sheffield played Uncle George; and David Carb played State Senator Byrd.  The new actors include Avrile Unger as Jhansi (Edith Unger), Clara Savage as Grandmother Peyton, Alice Macdougal as Sister Bessie, Esther Pinch as Mrs. Byrd, and James Light as Peyton Root.  Clara Savage had been head of the press section for the National American Woman Suffrage Association and was currently an associate editor with Good Housekeeping magazine; the magazine would send her to Europe to cover the war within the year.  Esther Pinch would go on to act on Broadway, appearing in 1922 in the Kaufman and Connelly comedy Merton of the Movies for almost a year.

© Jeff Kennedy 2007.

(1) Glaspell, Plays 79. (1)

(2) Glaspell, Plays 84.

(3) Glaspell, Plays 95.

(4) Glaspell, Plays 96.

(5) Ozieblo, Glaspell 112.

(6) Sarlos, Provincetown157.

(7) Glaspell, Road 13.

(8) Ozieblo, Glaspell 113.

(9) Glaspell, Plays 68.

(10) Glaspell, Plays 74.

(11) Gainor, Glaspell 70.

(12) Ralph Block, “The Provincetown Players Reopen in Macdougal Street,” New York Tribune, 3 Nov. 1917: 13.

(13) Boston Evening Transcript, 8 Nov. 1917.

(14) John Corbin, “Little Theatre Plays,” New York Times, 11 Nov. 1917: 78.

(15) Gainor, Glaspell 68.

(16) Ralph Block, “The Provincetown Players Reopen in Macdougal Street,” New York Tribune, 3 Nov. 1917: 13.