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Suppressed Desires

by George Cram Cook and Susan Glaspell


Premiered July 15, 1915, Provincetown, MA.

Henrietta Brewster:  Susan Glaspell
Stephen Brewster:  George Cram Cook
Mabel:  Lucy Huffaker

Setting:  A studio apartment in an upper story, Washington Square South.  Through an immense north window in the back wall appear tree tops and the upper part of the Washington Arch.  Beyond it you look up Fifth Avenue.  Near the window is a big table, loaded at one end with serious-looking books and austere scientific periodicals.  At the other end are architect’s drawings, blue prints, dividing compasses, square, ruler, etc. At the left is a door leading to the rest of the apartment; at the right the outer door. A breakfast table is set for three, but only two are seated at it—Henrietta and Stephen Brewster.(1)

Cook and Glaspell’s play Suppressed Desires was performed second, after Boyce’s Constancy, in Neith Boyce and Hutchins Hapgood’s home in the informal social setting that was the fateful first performance of the soon-to-be Provincetown Players on July 15, 1915.  The parts of Henrietta and Stephen were played by the authors and Mabel was played by Glaspell’s dearest friend, Lucy Huffaker.  Kenton’s account gives the impression that Cook and Glaspell had not brought a script of Suppressed Desires with them to Provincetown that summer, or else a complete script of the play had not yet really existed.  This second explanation is difficult to fathom, since they speak of the play’s earlier rejection by theatre companies, but perhaps they only presented it verbally or incompletely; it seems possible in their naiveté of the workings of a theatre they did not grasp that a company would typically need a full script to commit to a performance.  In a letter to Boyce on March 10, 1915, Vorse reveals that “Jig and Sue have written a very funny one-act play on psychoanalysis which they are going to bring out.”(2)  Regardless of the reason, Kenton says that “the gallant little play remained in sparse notes and mostly in memory,” and that once a performance was deemed possible, “the notes were pulled out, the remembered lines added and presto!—the scraps of dialogue, tossed back and forth at each other for fun, fell almost of themselves into a play.”(3)  It is quite possible that Glaspell took the “scraps,” as she would do later with Cook’s autobiographical musings to create The Road to the Temple, and fashioned the play into a structured existence; this would help one understand why Vorse later credits only Glaspell as the author of the play, particularly if she had knowledge of the creation process.(4)

Just minutes before their debut, Glaspell reports that she and Cook took a nervous walk on the beach, saying to each other “Never mind, it will be over soon.”(5)  The play required an interior set, so when Constancy “drew to its triumphant, curtain-less end,” Kenton tells us the “audience was invited to rise and swing its chairs around to face the second stage—an alcoved room through which Bobby Jones had been noiselessly moving with candles and lamps.”(6)   Deutsch and Hanau describe Suppressed Desires as“not just an amusing comedy; it was a keen satire on a viewpoint then coming into an exaggerated vogue.”  In the tradition of Floyd Dell’s plays, Cook and Glaspell were “able to poke good fun” at a topic very much in the minds and on the tongues of the Villagers.(7) Dodge had introduced the ideas of Freud at a psychoanalytic evening at her salon that year where A. A. Brill spoke, a psychiatrist who had met Freud and trained with Jung(8); this created some unrest, with the idea of unconscious behavior causing many to leave midway through his talk.(9)  At least ten articles appeared in major magazines that year about psychoanalysis, and Max Eastman published a two-part article in June and July of 1915 in Everybody’s Magazine that presented a layman’s understanding.  Murphy comments that Eastman’s article “establishes directly several of the things that the play sets up for ridicule.”(10)  Suppressed Desires satirized the current obsession with dream interpretation as a woman, Henrietta, seems unable to stop over-analyzing the dreams of her husband, Stephen, and sister, Mabel.  Psychiatrist A. E. Russell, an obvious reference to Brill, tells Henrietta that his interpretation of Mabel’s dream means that her sister really desires an affair with her husband.  Stephen’s dream is interpreted that he wants to be single.  Eventually this changes Henrietta’s mind about the importance of psychoanalysis, and Mabel is encouraged by Stephen to keep her desire for him “suppressed.”  J. Ellen Gainor points out that the play directly relates to Eastman’s article, because in it he discusses Freud’s famous study of a woman, Elizabeth R, who was “relieved of her physical symptoms when she became conscious of a repressed desire for her brother-in-law,” and because it also refers to A. A. Brill’s case of a young woman who dreamed she was in a street with a flock of chickens; chickens figure importantly into Mabel’s dream.(11)  Eastman’s first article wasn’t published until June 1915: this might lend even further proof that Glaspell and Cook didn’t finish their play until that summer.

Rather than be glad when the performance ended, Glaspell wrote that “when it was over we were sorry.  People liked it and we liked doing it.”(12)  She writes that neighbors who had not been invited were “hurt,” so they wanted to give the plays again.  Vorse writes that “These two plays were so amusing, there was such a breath of life in the performance, that we wanted to do more.”(13) Margaret Steele was using the fish house on the end of Lewis Wharf as an art studio, which was right across the street from Cook and Glaspell’s home, and was in the process of being purchased by Mary Heaton Vorse.(14) Glaspell’s account says that Steele “let us have this.”(15)  Kenton describes that Steele was “put out of her studio” when “before breakfast” the next day “Jig demanded it of its owner in the name of all the nine arts.”  Even though Vorse had concern for Steele, “the group spirit descended upon her in a cloud of words; it prevailed . . . it moved her out before noon and took immediate possession.”(16)

Faced with the need for another play just two days before their second bill of their first New York season was to open (Padric Colum’s The Betrayal was suddenly withdrawn), Cook and Glaspell’s Suppressed Desires was quickly remounted with Cook and Glaspell in their original roles and Margaret Nordfeldt as Mabel.  The cast literally rehearsed in the theatre “until the stage had to be set for the opening night.”(17)  Frank Shay had to quickly alter his pamphlet edition of the plays as it was on its way to press and replace Colum’s play with Suppressed Desires.  Though not originally planned to be performed, Suppressed Desires became to the second bill what Bound East for Cardiff had been to the first: “our best sure fire play.”(18) The program labeled the play “A Freudian Comedy in Two Scenes.”  William Zorach recalled years later that, though acting was a minor activity in her life, when Glaspell was on stage, “the play and the audience came alive.”(19)

© Jeff Kennedy, 2007.

(1) George Cram Cook and Susan Glaspell, “Suppressed Desires,” 1915, the Cultural Moment, ed. Adele Heller and Lois Rudnick (New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers U Press, 1991) 281.

(2) qtd. in Egan 122.

(3) Kenton 15.

(4) Vorse, Footnote 129.  Vorse also writes, “The year before we had acted a play by Neith Boyce called Constancy.”  This would be difficult since the events in Dodge and Reed’s affair on which the play was based had not yet happened.  These discrepancies in Vorse’s accounts will be discussed further. 

(5) Glaspell, Road 251.

(6) Kenton 16. 

(7) Deutsch 8.

(8) Brill founded the New York Psychoanalytic Society in 1911.

(9) Luhan, History 17.

(10) Murphy, Provincetown2/20.

(11) Max Eastman, “Exploring the Soul and Healing the Body,” Everybody’s Magazine 748, 750; andJ. Ellen Gainor, Susan Glaspell in Context, American Theatre, Culture, and Politics, 1915-48 (Ann Arbor, MI: U of Michigan Press, 2004)26.

(12) Glapsell, Road 251.

(13) Vorse, Time 118.

(14) Egan 13-14.  According to Egan, Vorse and O’Brien placed a bid on the wharf when it was put up for sale in 1914.  She describes it as a former Grand Banks wharf, and that the sale of it by the heirs of Issac Lewis to Vorse was announced in the Provincetown Advocate on July 15, 1915.  She mentions that because of “financial and legal difficulties,” final settlement was delayed another year. 

(15) Glaspell, Road 251.

(16) Kenton 16.

(17) Kenton 43.

(18) Kenton 43.

(19) Zorach, Art 47.