×

‘Trifles’

Mulberry Center Church's next presentation is a slice of Iowa, via Provincetown

Susan Glaspell

One of the best short stories ever written is, in my opinion, “A Jury of Her Peers.”

“Oh, I wish I’d come over here once in a while!” she cried. “That was a crime! Who’s going to punish that?”

The story, written in 1917, is an adaptation of a Susan Glaspell’s first play, “Trifles,” which was written in 1916.

Glaspell was an Iowan, born near the Mississippi River in Davenport in 1876. She attended Drake University and worked as a reporter for the Des Moines Daily News, a forerunner to the Des Moines Register.

It was during those days as a reporter that the seed for the play and short story was planted.

On Saturday, Rachel Anderson will talk about Glaspell and “Trifles” during the second Mulberry Center Church event of the season. Anderson is a professor of English at Grand Valley State University, Allendale, Michigan. Her parents are Dick and Sue Anderson, of Webster City.

This event begins at 1 p.m. at the church in Wilson Brewer Historic Park, 220 Ohio Street, Webster City. It is free, but donations are welcome.

Glaspell was a founder of the Provincetown Players, a renowned theatre troupe created somewhat organically in Provincetown, Massachusetts, which is just about as far as you can go north on Cape Cod from the rest of the mainland. The troupe created and acted in its own material.

It was at Provincetown that “Trifles” was first written and staged. Eventually, it was produced more broadly, including in New York City. It is considered amongst the finest of one-act plays in American theatre.

But before there was “Trifles,” there was:

PROMINENT FARMER ROBBED

AND KILLED.

INDIANOLA, Dec. 3. — (Special.) — A foul murder was committed Saturday night near Medford, fifteen miles southwest of Indianola. A farmer named Hossack was struck over the head and killed by unknown parties, at his home a few miles out from Medford.

The assault was probably committed by burglars, though of this the officers are not yet sure. Sheriff Lew Hodson and Dr. Harry Dale, coroner, went to the place Sunday, and subpoenaed a jury which was called to meet this morning for an inquest. Mr. Hossack was an early settler, a prominent farmer, highly respected. He was about 60 years of age and leaves a wife and large family.

In “A Jury of Her Peers,” Glaspell gives life to two women who go with their men to the scene of the death in the farmhouse. While the men are upstairs where the murdered man’s body was found, the women are in the kitchen, at first critiquing its poor condition and drab appearance. Then noticing the little things – the trifles – that are more likely to be noticed as amiss by a woman than a man.

One of them remembers the wife when she was young and happy. By this time, however, she is a suspect in the murder.

From “A Jury of Her Peers”:

“Here’s a bird-cage,” she said. “Did she have a bird, Mrs. Hale?”

“Why, I don’t know whether she did or not.” She turned to look at the cage Mrs. Peters was holding up. “I’ve not been here in so long.” She sighed. “There was a man round last year selling canaries cheap–but I don’t know as she took one. Maybe she did. She used to sing real pretty herself.”

Mrs. Peters looked around the kitchen.

“Seems kind of funny to think of a bird here.” She half laughed – an attempt to put up a barrier. “But she must have had one–or why would she have a cage? I wonder what happened to it.”

“I suppose maybe the cat got it,” suggested Mrs. Hale, resuming her sewing.

“No; she didn’t have a cat. She’s got that feeling some people have about cats – being afraid of them. When they brought her to our house yesterday, my cat got in the room, and she was real upset and asked me to take it out.”

“My sister Bessie was like that,” laughed Mrs. Hale.

The sheriff’s wife did not reply. The silence made Mrs. Hale turn round. Mrs. Peters was examining the bird-cage.

“Look at this door,” she said slowly. “It’s broke. One hinge has been pulled apart.”

Mrs. Hale came nearer.

“Looks as if someone must have been – rough with it.”

Again their eyes met – startled, questioning, apprehensive. For a moment neither spoke nor stirred. Then Mrs. Hale, turning away, said brusquely:

“If they’re going to find any evidence, I wish they’d be about it. I don’t like this place.”

“But I’m awful glad you came with me, Mrs. Hale.” Mrs. Peters put the bird-cage on the table and sat down. “It would be lonesome for me – sitting here alone.”

“Yes, it would, wouldn’t it?” agreed Mrs. Hale, a certain determined naturalness in her voice. She had picked up the sewing, but now it dropped in her lap, and she murmured in a different voice: “But I tell you what I do wish, Mrs. Peters. I wish I had come over sometimes when she was here. I wish – I had.”

“But of course you were awful busy, Mrs. Hale. Your house – and your children.”

“I could’ve come,” retorted Mrs. Hale shortly. “I stayed away because it weren’t cheerful – and that’s why I ought to have come. I” – she looked around – “I’ve never liked this place. Maybe because it’s down in a hollow and you don’t see the road. I don’t know what it is, but it’s a lonesome place, and always was. I wish I had come over to see Minnie Foster sometimes. I can see now -“ She did not put it into words.

“Well, you mustn’t reproach yourself,” counseled Mrs. Peters. “Somehow, we just don’t see how it is with other folks till – something comes up.”

“Not having children makes less work,” mused Mrs. Hale, after a silence, “but it makes a quiet house – and Wright out to work all day – and no company when he did come in. Did you know John Wright, Mrs. Peters?”

“Not to know him. I’ve seen him in town. They say he was a good man.”

“Yes – good,” conceded John Wright’s neighbor grimly. “He didn’t drink, and kept his word as well as most, I guess, and paid his debts. But he was a hard man, Mrs. Peters. Just to pass the time of day with him -.” She stopped, shivered a little. “Like a raw wind that gets to the bone.” Her eye fell upon the cage on the table before her, and she added, almost bitterly: “I should think she would’ve wanted a bird!”

Suddenly she leaned forward, looking intently at the cage. “But what do you s’pose went wrong with it?”

“I don’t know,” returned Mrs. Peters; “unless it got sick and died.”

But after she said it she reached over and swung the broken door. Both women watched it as if somehow held by it.

“You didn’t know – her?” Mrs. Hale asked, a gentler note in her voice.

“Not till they brought her yesterday,” said the sheriff’s wife.

“She – come to think of it, she was kind of like a bird herself. Real sweet and pretty, but kind of timid and – fluttery. How – she – did – change.”

That held her for a long time. Finally, as if struck with a happy thought and relieved to get back to everyday things, she exclaimed:

“Tell you what, Mrs. Peters, why don’t you take the quilt in with you? It might take up her mind.”

“Why, I think that’s a real nice idea, Mrs. Hale,” agreed the sheriff’s wife, as if she too were glad to come into the atmosphere of a simple kindness. “There couldn’t possibly be any objection to that, could there? Now, just what will I take? I wonder if her patches are in here–and her things?”

They turned to the sewing basket.

“Here’s some red,” said Mrs. Hale, bringing out a roll of cloth. Underneath that was a box. “Here, maybe her scissors are in here – and her things.” She held it up. “What a pretty box! I’ll warrant that was something she had a long time ago–when she was a girl.”

She held it in her hand a moment; then, with a little sigh, opened it.

Instantly her hand went to her nose.

“Why -!”

Mrs. Peters drew nearer – then turned away.

“There’s something wrapped up in this piece of silk,” faltered Mrs. Hale.

“This isn’t her scissors,” said Mrs. Peters, in a shrinking voice.

Her hand not steady, Mrs. Hale raised the piece of silk. “Oh, Mrs. Peters!” she cried. “It’s -“

Mrs. Peters bent closer.

“It’s the bird,” she whispered.

Newsletter

Today's breaking news and more in your inbox

I'm interested in (please check all that apply)
Are you a paying subscriber to the newspaper? *
   

Starting at $3.46/week.

Subscribe Today