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Woman's Honor
by Susan Glaspell


The final play of the surprise seventh bill of the 1917-1918 season was Susan Glaspell’s Woman’s Honor.  This satiric piece is about an attractive young man accused of murder who chooses to suffer for a crime he did not commit rather than spoil the honor of the woman with whom he’d spent the night of the murder and who could give him an alibi.  A newspaper account released strategically by his lawyer telling of his situation motivates a number of women to come to sacrifice their honor for his old-fashioned morals by saying they were the woman he’d been with, though each has their own specific reasons for wanting to declare themselves.  Rather than give them names, Glaspell gives allegorical titles to each: The Shielded One (though she reveals herself as Mrs. Oscar Duncan within the play), The Motherly One, The Scornful One, The Silly One, The Mercenary One (who’s really looking for a stenographer’s job and leaves when it’s assumed she’s come for the same reason as the others), and the Cheated One.  The play becomes a discussion of what “woman’s honor” really is, the Scornful One saying “woman’s honor would have died out long ago if it hadn’t been for men’s talk about it,” to which the Motherly One replies, “I suppose it really has to be kept up, as long as it gives men such noble feelings.”(1)  When the Shielded One baldly asks them to define woman’s honor, their answers include “a thing men talk about,” “a safe corner,” “a star to guide them,” to which the Shielded One replies, “Aren’t we something more than things to be noble about?”(2)  The women ultimately decide that the position is actually boring, the Motherly One suggesting that they get a plan for men to be noble about something else.  Finally, as the they argue about who should be “the woman,” now clear that none of them is in actuality, the Prisoner throws up his hands and ends the play by saying to his lawyer, “Oh, hell.  I’ll plead guilty.”(3) 

There is an extant photo of a scene from Woman’s Honor that shows the set to be very simple: four walls with painted molding through the center, and two doors, one in the center along the back wall and another just to the stage left side.  Cast members are seated on a variety of chairs and benches set around the walls, and there is a large square rug just a little smaller than the area of the entire room.  One presumes the photo must be staged, as is proving to be typical with the Players, since there is no scene in the play in which all six women are present at the same time, yet all six are in this photo.  The costumes for each are distinct, matching their characters.  The cast included Glaspell as The Cheated One, Rauh as The Scornful One (the irony here should not be lost as it is probable that Rauh was still having an affair with Cook), Marjory Lacey as the Shielded One, Dorothy Upjohn as the Motherly One, Norma Millay as the Silly One, and Alice MacDougal as The Mercenary One.  Justus Sheffield played Mr. Foster, the lawyer, which was Sheffield’s real-life profession, and newcomer Clark Branyon played Gordon Wallace, the accused young man.  No director is listed, but staging this kind of larger cast play was Moise’s specialty, so it is likely she and Glaspell co-directed the play; no set or costume designers are listed either.

Beginning by writing that Glaspell has “brilliant dramatic achievement to her credit” and listing three of her plays, Broun in the Tribune calls Woman’s Honor “an excellent idea of a one-act farce, but it suffers because the author has overelaborated her original scheme” and because “she is not half so much interested in her story as she is in using it as a means of discussion.”  He believes that “farce is an almost impossible medium for discussion,” and that the uneven pace of the play eventually stalls “only to finish with startling suddenness,” but that audiences expect a “set pace for plays.”  He claims that two volunteers rather than six would have been funnier.(4)  Edwin Bjorkman, reviewing the published version of the play in 1920, saw it as “a farce that cuts more deeply than many tragedies.  Its main significance to me is that it shows woman speaking out of her own nature and not in hypnotized conformation to man’s established view of her.”(5)  There is a wider range of views of the play among contemporary critics, Ozielbo writing that Glaspell “again tried to amuse her audience, but the deep import of her seemingly trivial plot overwhelmed her,” causing her to use “stock comedy figures” and to create a “slight sketch” that “chides women for adopting such man-desired poses—and men for believing in them—by portraying them as worthless projecting of the male imagination.”(6)  Gainor, on the other hand, considers that Woman’s Honor was “perhaps the most broadly comic of her plays,” feeling it “demonstrates not only Glaspell’s stylistic range as a one-act dramatist but also her ability to incorporate the thematic concerns with gender roles into forms as diverse as docudrama and farce.(7)  Noe sees it as a “flawed play, too much aware of its own importance and plagued by a tone that shifts from incisive humor to preachiness.”(8)  Makowsky call the play Glaspell’s “finest comedy because the humor and the message are mutually supportive, not detractive,” and that the play “hilariously explores competing definitions of that term [Woman’s Honor] while exploding the double standard.(9)  Ben-Zvi believes that the play “marks Glaspell’s emergence not only as one of the most significant new voices in American theatre, but also as one of the playwrights most directly associated with questions related to women’s experiences.”(10)

© Jeff Kennedy 2007

(1) Glaspell, Plays 139.

(2) Glaspell, Plays 144-145.

(3) Glaspell, Plays 156.

(4) Broun, New York Tribune, 29 April 1918, col 4: 9

(5) Bjorkman, Freeman, 11 August 1920.

(6) Ozieblo, Glaspell 115.

(7) Gainor 81-82.

(8) Noe 39.

(9) Veronica Makowsky, Susan Glaspell’s Century of American Women, A Critical Interpretation of Her Work (New York: Oxford U Press, 1993) 66-67.

(10) Ben-Zvi, Glaspell, 199.