ATHE Summary & Response Series: “Playing with Feminism: Susan Glaspell’s “Woman’s Honor” as Social Satire of the Sexual Double Standard”

This week, we are continuing our ATDS at ATHE 2013 Summary Response series. If you would like to write up a post, please email me, Lauren Beck, at L-Beck@u.northwestern.edu.

I am happy to introduce our second guest blogger, Megan Geigner (Northwestern University). 

Session: “Playing with Feminism: Susan Glaspell’s “Woman’s Honor” as Social Satire of the Sexual Double Standard”
Friday, 2 August 2013

glaspell

Bright and early on Friday morning August 2nd—with coffee cups in hand—an enthusiastic group of us gathered in the Regency Room 1 to consider Susan Glaspell’s one-act play, Woman’s Honor.  A select group of ATDS performers readied to perform, but first, J. Ellen Gainor, Barbara Ozieblo, and Heidi Schmidt gave us context for playwright, play, and pedagogy.

Glaspell, a co-founder of the Provincetown Players, wrote several plays that questioned women’s role in early 20th-century society.  As Gainor and Ozieblo reminded us, Glaspell was considered a playwright on the level of Strindberg and Chekhov at the height of her popularity.  As in her most popular play, Trifles, Woman’s Honor uses an absent female protagonist and agentive males to trouble conventional gender roles, assumptions of victimization, and the acuteness of the law.  Gainor and Ozieblo contextualized this play within Glaspell’s knowledge of the John Hossack murder trials in 1900-1.  A reporter for the Des Moines Daily News at the time, Glaspell reported on Hossack, an Iowa farmer, and his accused murderess wife.  When Glaspell wrote Woman’s Honor nearly two decades later in 1918, the country was rocked by World War One, IWW (Wobblies) protests, and the U.S. government’s Espionage Act of 1917.  Within this atmosphere, accusations of being un-American silenced witnesses of injustice.  (Murder, War, and Communism, oh my!)

In the same period, Yellow Journalism, with salacious stories of fallen women and criminal men, filled the papers.  Gainor and Ozieblo reminded us that in this time men had honor and the softer sex had virtue.  Women were primarily (sexual) property and their behavior, as judged by men, labeled them as virtuous or wicked.  Once wicked, the woman could not redeem herself.  In contrast, men’s honor was a fixed construct.  In extreme circumstances, a man could lose his honor, but it would be lost through matters of business not sexuality.  To title the play Woman’s Honor rejected the idea of the virtuous, passive woman and untethered the idea of honor from contemporary gender constructs.

After the biographical sketch and social context, Heidi Schmidt discussed how she taught the play in theatre classes.  She asked her students, “Did your opinion of the characters change as the play went on,” and “Why do you think this play is on the syllabus and do you think it should be?”  She explained that when teaching the play in the future, she would spend more time on its social context since her students struggled to understand the gender stakes.  One way that she got at the heart of the matter with them, and for us in the room, was by asking us to identify the difference between individual choices versus systems that limit individual choices.

Following this introduction, the players performed Woman’s Honor.  The plot revolves around a man’s arrest for murder and questions about his female alibi.  The scene opened with a frustrated Lawyer, played by Mark Cosdon, entreating the man to reveal the name of the woman who was with him from “midnight until eight o’clock in the morning.” A stoic Prisoner, played by Brett D. Johnson, refuses to name her.  Touched by his desire to leave the absent protagonist unnamed for her honor, a parade of women come to “confess” to being the alibi.  Once in the jailhouse, The Shielded One (Ozieblo), The Motherly One (Cheryl Black), The Scornful One (Gainor), The Silly One (Adrienne Macki Braconi), The Mercenary One (Schmidt), and The Cheated One (Emily Rollie) compete with one another to be “The One.”  (The exasperated Office Boy, played by Bryan Vandevender, escorts the women into the room.)  Each character is somewhat one-dimensional because each represents one facet of women’s internal struggle.  The play functions like allegory in that the characters represent internal states but because they are separate characters they can have an outward debate.  In the course of the conversation the women reveal that woman’s honor is a male construct.  The play does not propose on fix to the problem, and the fate of the prisoner is inconsequential.  What matter is the women’s discussion.

Our discussion after the performance highlighted several aspects of the play.  A playwright in the audience noted that the play is constructed as textbook farce.  The conference room chairs recreated the classical farce setting: a door at left, a door at right, and a door up center.  In the course of the play, the doors allow some characters to hide and others to enter to humorous effect.  We discussed how the style of the play (farce) comments of social constructions and furthers the discussion of serious issues of the nature of gender and crime.  We also discussed the role of the Mercenary One.  Glaspell leads the audience to think she wants to be paid to testify as the alibi but then comically reveals she is actually there in response to an ad for a stenographer. Some of us felt the character reveals the contempt the older generation felt toward young, working women (ala Kathy Peiss Cheap Entertainments) but others felt the play presents her as the most logical and clearheaded.

We then turned to addressing how to best to use this play in the classroom.  We invited Schmidt to further share her experience and advice.  After hearing and seeing the play, many of us agreed it would be a welcome addition to lower or upper-division theater classes.  It would provide an opportunity for students to learn about farce, the history of women’s rights, and a major American female playwright.  Besides the strength of the text itself, nothing recommends a play for a syllabus more than its ability to kill multiple birds with one stone.

We all also agreed that all 8:30 AM sessions should include a performance.

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