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The People

by Susan Glaspell


The third play on the eighth bill of the Players first season in New York City (1916-1917) was most likely the play that Glaspell wrote in response to Cook’s request to her in December while she was away in Davenport on her yearly holiday trip to her hometown.  Glaspell wrote in The Road to the Temple that she had “dutifully written”(1) The People in the fall and arrived with it when she first set eyes on 139 Macdougal, but Glaspell biographer Ben-Zvi believes that she was “fictionalizing for continuity and effect.”(2)  The reality that the Players were still desperate for plays in December and that The People was not read to the group until January 17, 1917 supports this conclusion.  It’s a highly ambitious play, asking for twelve characters on stage, the most ever for the Players thus far (one more than Bound East for Cardiff had asked for).  Kenton called it a “native play” because it is a thinly veiled depiction of the revolutionary magazine The Masses, which so many in the Players, including herself, had either written or worked for.(3)  A satire without being too wicked, Glaspell uses the title to represent both the name of the publication and the group who come to convince the staff of the magazine that it must continue.  Many commentators strongly believe that, because the Players and the Masses had similar governing structures and shared the goal to be revolutionary in their respective fields, Glaspell is also reflecting the inner workings of the Players here and, ultimately, speaking to them as well. 

The play opens with the small administrative staff (similar in number to the Players' staff) waiting for their editor, Edward Wills, to arrive back from a fund-raising trip to California.  The fate of the magazine seems to hang on whether Wills has been able to come up with more funds during his trip.  Similarly, Max Eastman, the editor of The Masses, had just returned from one of his many “lecture tours” that took him to California and always involved fund-raising as an element, though the continuation of that magazine was not particularly in doubt at the time.  The associate editor in the play, Oscar Tripp, fashioned after the Masses associate editor Floyd Dell, is writing in the office when we are introduced to The Woman from Idaho.  In an early example of expressionistic character writing, Glaspell gives proper names to only four of the twelve characters; the others are given names that tell either where they are from or what their particular literary or philosophic contribution is to the magazine.(4)  The Woman from Idaho tells Oscar she wishes to see editor Wills and, after learning she’ll have to come back later, she decides she’ll go outside and “watch the people go by,” because “it’s so wonderful to see them.” Oscar, in his flinty and put-upon way, tells her he doesn’t have time to because he’s “too busy editing a magazine about them.”(5)  Sara, a writer most likely fashioned after Mary Vorse, also comes looking for Wills, stating she wants the paper to go on and, in trying to figure out why they don’t sell more, decides “The fault must lie with us.”  This opens a whole can of worms as one by one the other contributors enter and place their blame for problems with the magazine: The Artist, probably similar to Masses and Ashcan artist John Sloan, wants to devote “more space to pictures and less to stupid reading matter”;(6) Oscar wants more poetry; Earnest Approach says the magazine has been “afraid of being serious” and needs to get rid of all the levity; The Light Touch, of course, says they’ve been too serious; The Firebrand (clearly based on Hippolyte Havel) says they’ve been “Too damn bourgeois!”;(7) and The Philosopher believes that they should be more careless to get it more perfect, less definite to “have more definiteness,” and not know what they want so they would find what they’re after.(8)  In the midst of this, Wills enters and states the obvious: “I’ll tell you where the fault lies. Here! Just this! Everybody plugging for his own thing. Nobody caring enough about the thing as a whole.”(9)  The Boy from Georgia enters, starry-eyed about being in the place where they create the magazine and states he’s come to see the editor, who asks that he return later. Similarly, the Man from the Cape enters and is asked to return later as well. 

Wills, in a conversation with Sara, states his honest doubt about having enough reason to continue the magazine, that “The social revolution is dead,” and that their desire to help their fellow man doesn’t seem to “connect up with anything.”(10)  Sara reminds him that their original goal was “to express ourselves so simply and so truly that we would be expressing the people,”(11) and then reads him a lengthy editorial he’s written himself that calls people to use what time they have to show others the beauty in the world because “I myself could see farther if he were seeing it all.”(12)  Wills denigrates his motive for writing it, saying “I wrote it because I was sore at Oscar and wanted to write something to make him feel ashamed of himself.”  Hearing Wills’ words, The Woman from Idaho, The Boy from Georgia and The Man from the Cape re-enter, the Woman challenging Wills that he wrote those words because “it’s the living truth, and it moved in you and you had to say it.”  When he asks who she is, she tells him “I am one of the people.  I have lived a long way off.  I heard that call and—I had to come.”  The Boy chimes in that he’s come after reading the magazine, quitting school because he wants “something different and bigger—something more like this.”  He’s heard they weren’t being allowed to sell the paper on newsstands and he’s come to sell it on the streets.(13)  The Man from the Cape has come “for the rest of what you’ve got,” causing the others to agree with this as their greatest purpose for their visit.  When Wills confesses he hasn’t anything more to give, The Boy responds “But you made us think you had,” and the Woman tells him “And you have. If you hadn’t more to give, you couldn’t have given that.”  She reminds him what the other two have given up to come, and that she herself has given up her tombstone, as in her family’s saying “He won’t even have a stone to mark his grave.”  She’s referring to the fact that she’s given up her livelihood, sewing, to make the trek, and in doing so, given up her tombstone.  The words she read in their magazine were “like a spring” and “they made me know that my tombstone was as dead as—well, as dead as a tombstone.  So I had to have something to take its place.”  Throughout the play, Oscar makes caustic retorts, but Sara finally takes him out of the room, telling The Woman, “Talk to him, Tell him about it,” referring to Wills, and The Boy exits with a stack of papers to sell on the street.  When The Woman and Wills are alone, she says she’s sorry for him “because you have the brain to say those things and not the spirit to believe,” while she has the ability to know that what he said was true.  He asks her to sit down, but says she’ll go, telling him “I suppose it’s not fair to ask you to be as big as the truth you saw.”  Wills tells her he supposes she’ll regret having made the trip, but she recounts that seeing “all the people” in the country on the long trip was wonderful. “Seeing—that’s the Social Revolution.”  She tells him his “great words carried me to other great words,” specifically of Lincoln: "I said it over and over. I said things and didn’t know the meaning of them ‘till after I had said them.  I said—'The truth—the truth—the truth that opens from our lives as water opens from the rocks.'  Then I knew what that truth was. 'Let us here highly resolve that these dead shall not have died in vain.'  I mean—all of them.  Let life become what it may become!—so beautiful that everything that is back of us is worth everything it cost."(14) They are interrupted by the printer, Tom, who needs to know if the paper is going to stop since he can still get a job at another.  Wills replies, “Stop! This paper can’t stop!” but Tom wants to be sure: “But—I’ve got to be sure.  This—is the truth?”  Wills counters. “The truth.  The truth that opens from our lives as water opens from the rocks.”  The Woman has the play’s last line: turning to Tom she tells him, “Nobody really needs a tombstone.”(15)

One is immediately struck, like in many Glaspell plays, by the fact that the two women in the play are the only characters with hope and the ability to inspire and move the men from where they are to a larger vision of what might be.  With Cook cast as editor Wills and Glaspell as The Woman from Idaho, the end of the play feels much like art imitating life, but rather than imitating the life of The Masses, it imitates the life of the Players, with Glaspell in the role she most often had to play with Cook when he lacked the “spirit to believe.”  One is also reminded that Glaspell wrote the play in response to despairing letters from Cook over the lack of any decent plays to perform, the infighting and sour attitudes, and the fear that they would not survive their first season.  Gainor notes that “The messianic fervor Cook felt for the theatre comes through more clearly in Wills’ speeches about The People than in Eastman’s editorial pronouncements.”(16)  She also writes that “one is tempted to associate Glaspell with this character through her performance, as if the playwright had created a role that would allow her to give voice to the fervent views she could not speak in her own persona.”(17)  Bev-Zvi comments that “Susan’s goal, finally, is to provide an impassioned reminder about how a revolutionary group, any revolutionary group, dedicates itself to certain goals at its inception and then loses sight of them along the way.”(18)  Murphy writes how the play “exhibits the in-group-mentality of coterie drama, but shows elements of Glaspell’s later method in that it moves from a satiric mockery of the flaws in the group to an earnest and mystical suggestion of how they can be ameliorated.”(19) 

The People was directed by Nina Moise, perhaps the only person capable of moving around twelve actors on the Players’ small stage.  Kenton wrote that they had “hardly more than a square yard between them to play on,” and that “more than any other play on the bill [it] showed the goodly effect of competent direction.”(20)  Moise also played the role of Sara and recalled later in an interview with Sarlos her anxiety of memorizing the editorial she reads to Wells, so the text was placed inside the prop magazine.  Toward the end of the run, however, the magazine didn’t get placed on stage one night and she was forced to improvise the speech.(21)  The set for the play, the office of The People, was most likely designed by Don Corley as new head of the scenic committee, but he is not credited in the program. 

The Eighth Bill opened on March 9, 1917 and ran for six days.  Kenton felt that “from the beginning to end this was an extraordinary good bill” and, as proof, they added an extra night and “could have sold out the house for another two or three performances.”(22)  Broun’s reaction to The People appeared the Sunday after the bill and began by saying that “Miss Glaspell has done more for American drama than any playwright of the year.”  Here he refers to the sum of her works: Trifles given by the Washington Square Players that past November, the Players’ productions of Suppressed Desires, and now The People.(23)  This is no small accolade for a critic from a major New York newspaper to make in his first critical review of the Players; such a statement was an early fulfillment of one of the Players goals to affect American theatre.  About The People specifically, he compared it to King’s Cocaine as “much less showy . . . but infinitely sounder and more worthwhile,” then wrote that he felt it was in “need of condensation and simplification, but . . . it is built upon a gorgeous plan and developed with humor and telling eloquence, despite a trace of intrusive literary quality.”  He even hoped that he could reprint for himself the editor’s passionate editorial because it was “capital piece of writing.”  He mentioned specifically four of the actors: he felt Cook was “good as the editor,” that Kemp was amusing as the anarchist (most likely he was imitating Hippolyte Havel, though Broun would probably not have known that), that Moise’s reading of the editorial was “a telling bit,” and that Glaspell played The Woman from Idaho “with depth and spirit.”(24)  Broun commented in his review that “the setting and the lighting of the plays in the tiny theatre is interesting and attractive,” but he also hated the seating (he’d seen the bill twice), prompting him to write “After one more bill, which will be made up of the season’s successes, the Players will seek another theatre.  It is to be hoped that they find it.”(25)

© Jeff Kennedy, 2007.

(1) Glaspell, Road 206.

(2) Ben-Zvi, Glaspell 181.

(3) Kenton 54.

(4) Murphy observes: “In using abstract, emblematic characters, she had taken an element of the non-representational drama of Maeterlinck, witnessed at Provincetown in the work of Louise Bryant, Mary Caroline Davies, and Alfred Kreymborg, and put it to effective use within the representational framework.  She also suggested a way in which the representational might be fused with the non-representational to create the new dramatic idiom that she was to make her own (Murphy, Provincetown4/3).

(5) Glaspell, Plays 36.

(6) Glaspell, Plays 39.One of the constant tensions within The Masses was over it’s determination to present both visual art and literary material and the tension between the artists and writers who fought over that balance.  Eastman writes in his biography of a dispute in March 1916 he called “the war of the Bohemian art-rebels against the socialists who loved art” (Eastman, Enjoyment 548).

(7) Glaspell, Plays 41.

(8) Glaspell, Plays 42.               

(9) Glaspell, Plays 40.

(10) Glaspell, Plays 49.

(11) Glaspell, Plays 48.

(12) Glaspell, Plays 49.

(13) What The Boy was referring to about not being able to sell that magazine at newsstands referred to that past December’s issue of The Masses being banned from sale in New York’s subway newsstands because it included a poem, “A Ballad,” about Mary and Joseph that was deemed sacrilegious.

(14) Glaspell Plays 58.

(15) Glaspell Plays 58-59.

(16) Gainor 65.

(17) Gainor 66.

(18) Ben-Zvi, Glaspell 185. 

(19) Murphy Provincetown Players 4/1.

(20) Kenton 54.

(21) Sarlos, Provincetown 134.

(22) Kenton 53.

(23) Heywood Broun, New York Tribune, 18 March 1917, part IV, col. 2: 3.

(24) Heywood Broun, New York Tribune, 18 March 1917, part IV, col. 2: 3.

(25) Heywood Broun, New York Tribune, 18 March 1917, part IV, col. 2: 3.