Alison's House, by Susan Glaspell, was first produced off-Broadway at the Civic Repertory Theater in the fall and winter season of 1930. At the heart of this play is a poet, Alison Stanhope, who has been dead eighteen years. Although only a handful of her poems were published during her lifetime, they have captured the attention and affection of people all over the country. Alison's spirit lives on in the hearts of her family and her fans. Alison's House is about the poet's family, their relationships, and the discovery of a portfolio containing hundreds of previously unknown poems by Alison.
Glaspell wanted to write her play about enigmatic New England poet Emily Dickinson, but the Dickinson family refused to give her permission to use their name or to quote from Emily's poetry. Undaunted, Glaspell moved the setting to her home state of Iowa and recast the Dickinson family as the Stanhopes. Unable to quote Dickinson's poetry, Glaspell quoted from Ralph Waldo Emerson, whose work was beloved by Dickinson. Emerson's poem, "The House," inspired the title of Glaspell's play.
Glaspell was an established and well-regarded novelist and playwright as well as the cofounder, with her husband George Cram Cook, of the Provincetown Players. When Glaspell wrote Alison's House, Cook had died, and Glaspell had married writer Norman Matson. Alison's House won the Pulitzer Prize for Drama in 1931, which was a huge surprise to everyone because it had not been a favorite of critics and audiences. Production of
Alison's House was immediately moved to Broadway where lukewarm reception forced the play to close after two weeks.
Susan Keating Glaspell was born July 1, 1876, in Davenport, Iowa, to Alice and Elmer Glaspell. Her year of birth is sometimes given as 1882, which Glaspell herself perpetuated to make herself six years younger. She received her bachelor's degree from Drake University in 1899 and worked briefly as a reported in Des Moines, unconsciously gathering material for her later fiction and dramatic works. After successful sales of some of her short stories, Glaspell left journalism in 1901. She pursued full-time writing, publishing her first novel, The Glory of the Conquered, in 1909.
Glaspell was introduced to her husband, George Cram Cook, through a bohemian society, and they married in 1913. Glaspell and Cook soon moved to Greenwich Village in New York City. They spent their summers in Provincetown, Massachusetts, where, in 1915, they founded the experimental theater, Provincetown Players. Their work with the Provincetown Players was at the vanguard of the new theater movement in North America, which had slowly been picked up from its popular incarnations in Europe. Glaspell and Cook helped launch the careers of several aspiring playwrights, including Eugene O'Neill, whom they met in 1916. Glaspell's popular play Trifles (1916) was written to be performed along with O'Neill's Bound East for Cardiff (1916). Trifles was reworked a year later as the much-anthologized short story, "A Jury of Her Peers."
In 1922, Glaspell and Cook separated from the Provincetown Players after Cook experienced some failure and O'Neill left to do commercial theater. The couple went to Delphi, Greece, where Cook worked on his writing. He died two years later, in Greece, and Glaspell returned to Provincetown. She married writer Norman Matson in 1925, and they divorced in 1931. Alison's House was first produced in 1930 and won the Pulitzer Prize for Drama in 1931. People were surprised and disappointed by this honor because Alison's House was not widely regarded as a successful play. After its failure on Broadway, Glaspell left New York City. She worked briefly as director of the Federal Theater Project and then retired to Provincetown to write novels. Glaspell's work is notable for its pioneer spirit, regional Iowan flavor, and sexual tension between male and female characters. Her works often deal with questions about the meaning of life. In her lifetime, she published forty short stories, twenty plays, and ten novels. Glaspell died of pneumonia on July 27, 1948, in Provincetown, Massachusetts.
Alison's House begins in the library of the Stanhope house, with Ann, the family secretary, sorting through old papers in a trunk. The housekeeper, Jennie, shows Knowles, a young reporter, into the library. He is looking for information about the late Alison Stanhope before the family finishes clearing out the house and sells it. He also desperately wants to see Alison's room. Knowles shares his passion for Alison's poetry with Ann, even showing her a poem he wrote. Ted, the youngest Stanhope, comes into the library. Ann introduces Knowles to Ted, and Ted is persuaded to take Knowles up to Alison's room, against the rest of the family's wishes.
Shortly after they leave, Louise comes in and questions Ann sharply about the reporter. Ann Page 3 | Top of Article pretends not to know where Knowles has gone. Irritated, Louise calls for her father-in-law, Mr. Stanhope, to question Ann. She admits to him that Knowles is here because of Alison. Mr. Stanhope is not perturbed, but Louise is distraught at the talk that will be stirred up. She brings up Mr. Stanhope's daughter, Elsa, comparing her to Alison, which angers him. Louise and Mr. Stanhope find out from Ann that Knowles is with Ted and has gone to see Alison's room. Louise continues to complain about the gossip she is sure will come, and Mr. Stanhope tells her to go into the dining room and pack china. Louise pleads with him to take these matters seriously then leaves. Mr. Stanhope tells Ann he wishes he did not have family to worry about.
Ted and Knowles return to the library, and Knowles is formally introduced to Mr. Stanhope. Mr. Stanhope tries to be stern with Knowles, but Knowles's sincerity touches him. Agatha, Mr. Stanhope's sister, enters, suspicious of Knowles. Mr. Stanhope diverts her and tells Knowles to leave. Knowles asks one last question: "Have all the poems of Alison Stanhope been published?" Mr. Stanhope says yes, but Agatha is distressed that Knowles may have found or taken something. Knowles gives his copy of his published poem to Ann and leaves, followed by Ted.
Agatha is upset that people will not leave Alison alone. Their packing is not going quickly, and Mr. Stanhope is stressed. Ann helps Agatha pack her mother's tea set. Agatha feels she and Alison are being turned out of their home. Mr. Stanhope replies, "Alison was at home in the universe." When Ted returns, his father rebukes him, but Ted thinks they are all foolish for keeping Alison to themselves. "She belongs to the world," he says. Agatha declares that she will continue to protect Alison, even if it kills her. Ted sits down to write a letter about Alison to his Harvard English professor. Mr. Stanhope yells at him, but Ted continues his task. Mr. Stanhope and Ann work on cataloging books, while Agatha quietly unpacks the tea set and leaves the room with just a basket full of straw.
Louise enters to collect a table that is to be sent to Cousin Marion. Ted tells his father that he needs information about Alison so that he can get a good grade with his professor, who is very interested in Alison Stanhope. The abandoned tea set is discovered under the table, and the family thinks Agatha is going crazy. Ted persists in asking questions about Alison, which irritates Mr. Stanhope and Louise.
Eben arrives and greets his family. They talk about selling the house to Cousin Marion, but Mr. Stanhope says she does not have the money so the sale is going to Mr. Hodges. Mr. Stanhope tells Eben that Agatha is overly excited and not dealing well with the move. None of them really wants to give the house up, although they all live in town, and only Agatha and Jennie live in the house now. Eben fondly remembers his childhood with Elsa at this house, when Alison was alive. Ted asks if Alison was a virgin, which scandalizes Louise. Mr. Stanhope tells Ted to leave the room, and Eben grabs Ted and shakes him, cursing him. Eben is deeply stirred by his memories of Alison, "how can we help but think of her—and feel her—and wonder what's the matter with us—that something from her didn't—oh Lord, make us something!"
Elsa arrives in time to hear her brother's passionate outburst, and she agrees with him. The family is astonished to see her. She asks her father's permission to enter. Louise is hostile toward Elsa, and Mr. Stanhope is speechless. Elsa wants to stay the night in the house, for old time's sake. Jennie cries out from upstairs that a fire has been set. Eben, Ted, Louise, Ann, and Mr. Stanhope go to see what is happening. Elsa is shaken that the house is on fire just after she arrives. Agatha returns to the room, in a daze. The fire is put out, and Mr. Stanhope comes in looking for Agatha to reassure her that the fire was stopped. Agatha is distressed. Eben enters and tells his father that the fire was set—straw and kerosene. Stunned, Mr. Stanhope calls Jennie into the room and interrogates her. Louise blames the reporter, so Mr. Stanhope calls Ann and Ted in and asks them about Knowles. Eventually, Mr. Stanhope notices the tea set and realizes it was Agatha who set the fire. Distraught that her fire was put out, Agatha starts talking nonsense and nearly swoons.
In the library again, in the afternoon of the same day, Mr. Stanhope is sorting papers and dictating notes to Ann. They talk about Ann's mother, whom Mr. Stanhope was fond of. She has been dead for nine years. Eben brings in a box of old newspapers, and they reminisce. Eben and Mr. Stanhope talk about Agatha, and Eben says he thinks Agatha has something she wants to burn but could not do it so she tried to burn the whole house instead. They think it has something to do with Alison. Mr. Stanhope decides to save the old newspapers for their nostalgic value. They talk about the New Year's Eve dance this night, but Eben and Ann do not want to go because they would rather spend their time packing up the house. Ted Page 4 | Top of Article returns to the library and his letter to his professor. Mr. Stanhope is irritated with Ted and tells him to stop telling other people the family business.
Jennie tells Mr. Stanhope that Mr. and Mrs. Hodges have arrived. Mr. Stanhope is aggravated because they were to wait until the move was finished. He is worried about Agatha. The Hodges enter cheerfully, declaring that they are trying to decide between this house and another. Mrs. Hodges wants to turn it into a boarding house with significant upgrades, all of which breaks Mr. Stanhope's heart. Eben implies that they do not want to sell after all, but Mr. Stanhope assures them that he will stand by his original price. The Hodges want a price break, but Mr. Stanhope is firm. Mr. Hodges will not commit to buying but wants to look at the upstairs rooms. Mr. Stanhope says no because Agatha is abed, but they convince him, and Ann takes the Hodges to look upstairs. Eben despairs of what they are going to do to his family's old house. Mr. Stanhope says he is glad it will be radically changed, so that it will not be the same house with other people living in it.
Eben and Mr. Stanhope talk about Elsa. Mr. Stanhope is angry with her for what she did because he and Alison were able to stop themselves from running off with the people they fell in love with. Mr. Stanhope says Louise is the only one with sense even though she goes about things wrong. Ted tells his father he wants to go into the rubber wheel business. Mr. Stanhope tells him he is going to practice law like he and Eben do. Eben wants to take time off—he is a bit dreamy, especially in regards to old times with Alison. Mr. Stanhope reminds him of Louise and his children. Eben knows he is being foolish but feels a pull to do something else. Ted offers to run away with Louise if Eben will write a new essay about Alison for him. Eben used to write when he was young but gave it up when he and Louise married.
Louise returns to the library and tells Mr. Stanhope she refuses to stay the night in the same house as Elsa. She is outraged when Mr. Stanhope tells her to stay with friends for the evening, and Eben, her husband, sides with his sister instead of her, his wife. Ted propositions Louise to take a trip with him back to Cambridge. Mr. Stanhope cuts them off, and they talk about the Hodges and Ann. The Hodges return to the library and Louise chats with them about their boarding house plans, going along with Mrs. Hodges's ideas. Mr. Hodges finally says that they will buy the house and immediately writes out a check. Mr. Stanhope is stunned.
Knowles returns to talk to Ann. Mr. Stanhope interrogates Knowles as to his purpose, but the reporter is embarrassed to say. Ted understands that he likes her, but Mr. Stanhope is suspicious of the young man. Mr. Stanhope finally sends for Ann, and meanwhile Knowles wonders aloud that something of Alison remains in all her family members. When Ann arrives in the library, Knowles implores her to walk with him, so that they might get to know each other better. Mr. Stanhope finally encourages her, and she agrees to go. While Ann is off getting ready, Mr. Stanhope gives Knowles a book of Ralph Waldo Emerson's poetry—Alison's favorite book, marked with her notes. Knowles and Mr. Stanhope take turns reading each other poems from the book.
After Ann and Knowles leave, Mr. Stanhope remarks that Ann is in love. Elsa comes into the room and tells Mr. Stanhope that Aunt Agatha is up and about. He leaves to see to her health. Elsa and Eben talk about how she ran away with a married man, and Eben points out that Alison, when she was in love with a married man, did not run off with him. Elsa admits that her boyfriend misses his family and that they are not happy all the time. Agatha enters the library carrying a bag and arguing that she has a right to be in her library. She is fixated on the fire Eben is tossing old papers into. Agatha believes she is being made to live with her brother because Elsa left him when she ran off with her married boyfriend. Agatha and Elsa sit close together, and Eben leaves them alone together. Agatha takes a leather portfolio out of her bag. Elsa senses her aunt's distress and offers to help her in any way she can. Agatha is conflicted but she cries out: "For—Elsa!" just before she collapses. Elsa cries out and her brother and father return to the library. Agatha is dead.
Elsa is in Alison's room, preparing to look through the portfolio that Aunt Agatha gave her. Ann comes in to see Alison's room one last time. Elsa reminisces about Alison and Ann talks about falling in love. They look at the picture of the man, whom Alison loved. Elsa recounts how she fell in love with her boyfriend Bill all at once even though they knew each other since they were children. Ann asks Elsa for a picture of Aunt Agatha, for Knowles's story. They talk about Agatha, who was possessive of her sister Alison. Elsa is reluctant to give Ann her picture of Agatha or speak about her to Knowles because her father or Eben should approve first.
Eben joins Elsa and Ann in Alison's room. Ann admits she is going to marry Knowles. Eben is hesitant at first but gives Ann the picture of Agatha in her youth for Knowles to put in his story. Ann thanks them both profusely and leaves. Eben feels terrible for his father, who will be losing Ann, and so soon after losing his sister Agatha. Eben recalls beloved Aunt Alison aloud, what she looked like, and how she would sit and compose her now famous poetry. Elsa shows Eben the mysterious portfolio just as Mr. Stanhope joins his two grown children. Mr. Stanhope recognizes the portfolio as belonging to Alison, and Elsa recounts how Agatha bequeathed it to her with her dying breath.
Jennie enters, determined to carry out a wish of Agatha's. Mr. Stanhope figures out that Agatha made Jennie promise to burn the portfolio. Jennie does not know what it is, but she wants to do right by her employer and is distressed. Mr. Stanhope, Elsa, and Eben convince Jennie that she absolved of her promise because Agatha gave the case to Elsa at the last minute. Jennie is distraught that since Alison and Agatha are dead she has no one to look after. Mr. Stanhope says he needs her to look after him, and he sends her off to bed.
Elsa finally opens the contents of the portfolio and discovers packets of Alison's poetry—poems that no one has ever seen before. The three of them are absorbed with reading these poems, poems that are so revealing of the person they knew and loved, which is why she never published them. Ted arrives, apologizing for his tardiness. He was summonsed home after Aunt Agatha's death. Ted is astonished to see these new poems, but Eben sends him away so that Mr. Stanhope can have peace while he reads.
After they read for a while, Mr. Stanhope tells Elsa and Eben that he was instrumental in keeping Alison from running away with her beloved. She was in love with a professor at Harvard who was married with children. Ted returns, demanding to read the poems also. Mr. Stanhope becomes protective of Alison and says he will do what Agatha could not and burn Alison's poems. His children disagree, decrying that the poems belong to them as well. Ted is very passionate and even stuffs some of the poems in his pocket. Mr. Stanhope threatens to kill him and then is shocked by his own outcry. Elsa convinces Ted to leave, and Eben also goes out to get sherry. Elsa speaks a little with her father about the world of shame and happiness she lives in and how Alison would not disapprove of her. Eben returns, and they drink to Alison's memory. The poems are gathered, and Eben says of them, "They were too big for just us. They are for the world." Ann, Ted, and Knowles come to the bedroom to add their voices to Eben and Elsa. Ann implores Mr. Stanhope to let Alison's poems go out in the world, invoking his forbidden love of her mother. Mr. Stanhope is stricken. Ann, Ted, Knowles, and Eben leave once Mr. Stanhope has been convinced to leave the poems to Elsa, as Agatha bequeathed. Alone, Elsa and her father talk about his unhappy marriage to her mother. He is angry with her for running off with a married man after he lived the lie all of his life, denying himself his true love, Ann's mother. They feel Alison's poems were written for each of them and take this as a sign of their universal appeal. Mr. Stanhope builds up the fire, takes the portfolio, and appeals to Elsa one last time to join him in protecting Alison's good name. As the hour strikes the new year and new century, Mr. Stanhope finally turns over the poems to Elsa and father and daughter embrace and are reunited.
Aunt Agatha is the sister of Alison and of Mr. Stanhope. She lives alone in the historic family home in the Iowa countryside, near the Mississippi River, cared for by her maid, Jennie. Agatha is upset about being moved out of her home and repeatedly blames her brother for turning her out. She does not seem to regard his strained finances as any kind of justification for selling the house. All the talk about Alison that comes up from the move and from Knowles's arrival drives Agatha to worry about the unpublished poetry of Alison's, which she is hiding. Because of its scandalous content, Agatha knows she must destroy the poems, but she cannot bring herself to do it. Although Agatha never specifies, one might conclude from the other characters that Agatha is unable to destroy these poems because of their beauty. Agatha tries to burn the house down and later dies just after failing a second time to burn the portfolio. She leaves the poems to Elsa.
See Mr. Stanhope
Mr. Hodges buys the Stanhope family manor. He and his wife plan to drastically alter the building, Page 6 | Top of Article making it into a summer boarding house. Mr. Stanhope and Eben are unhappy when they learn of these plans, but Hodges is either oblivious to their emotions or does not care. Hodges tries to negotiate a lower price because he says the house is in poor repair, but Mr. Stanhope stands firm, half-hoping Hodges will back out of the deal.
Mrs. Hodges, wife to Mr. Hodges, looks forward to modernizing the Stanhope house. She wants to rent its rooms to summer boarders. Like her husband, Mrs. Hodges seems completely insensitive to the Stanhopes' grief about losing their family house and about the prospect that it will be completely changed in renovation.
Jennie, Aunt Agatha's servant, has been with the family for a long time; she once worked for Alison Stanhope as well. After Agatha dies, Jennie tries to carry out Agatha's wish to burn Alison's portfolio of poetry, but she is prevented by Mr. Stanhope, Eben, and Elsa. She is distressed at not being able to fulfill her promise to Agatha, but Mr. Stanhope reassures her that her earnest intent is fulfillment enough.
Richard Knowles, a young reporter from Chicago, comes to the Stanhope family house hoping to learn more about Alison before the house she lived in is sold and her century is past. A poet himself, Knowles loves Alison's poetry. He convinces Ted to show him Alison's room, something no outsider has ever seen. Later, he walks the banks of the Mississippi River, thinking about how Alison once did the same thing. When Mr. Stanhope realizes how much feeling Knowles has for Alison as a poet, he gives the young man Alison's marked copy of Emerson's Poems. Knowles and Ann fall in love soon after they meet, and they are engaged by the end of the play.
Ann Leslie, Mr. Stanhope's secretary, is no mere employee. She is very close to the family, having grown up with them. She is treated more like an extended family member. Ann falls in love with Knowles and his poetic soul, but she restrains herself from acting on her feelings until Mr. Stanhope, her surrogate father, gives his consent. In the third act, Ann speaks passionately to Mr. Stanhope in favor of publishing Alison's poetry because her words were meant to live on beyond them all and their mortal concerns. Knowing the power of what she asks, she pleads with Mr. Stanhope to do it for her mother.
Miss Agatha Stanhope
See Aunt Agatha
Alison Stanhope is the central character of Alison's House, although she is never seen on stage or heard from directly. She has been dead eighteen years at the time the play's action takes place. Through the dialogue of the other characters, it is revealed that Alison loved a married man and may have had an affair with him, but her brother, Mr. Stanhope, stopped her from leaving with him, behavior that would have been scandalous to the family in the mid-nineteenth century. Alison wrote beautiful, unique poetry. A few of her poems were published in her lifetime and just after, but those few earned her a fierce following. People such as Knowles are eager to discover and publish more of her writing. When Alison's secret stash of poems, which tell the story of her forbidden love, are discovered, Mr. Stanhope wants them destroyed so that Alison's honor and memory will not be tarnished.
Alison is modeled after American poet Emily Dickinson. Dickinson was a reclusive but witty woman, and the genius of her unique poetry was not discovered until after her death. Like the Stanhope family, the Dickinsons favored their privacy in the face of Emily Dickinson's fame and refused to let Glaspell use Dickinson's name or poetry in this play.
Eben Stanhope, Mr. Stanhope's son and husband to Louise, works as a lawyer in the family business. He and Louise are cold toward each other and clearly do not have a happy marriage, although it is mentioned that they have children. Eben is overall unhappy with his life, but he does not have a forbidden, secret love like several of the other characters do. He feels an urge to do something different with his life, and that something may be writing, the love of which he seems to have inherited from his aunt Alison. Eben confesses to Ted that he gave up writing when he got married. Eben, like Elsa and the others, argues with Mr. Stanhope for the preservation of Alison's private poems.
See Ted Stanhope
Elsa Stanhope, Mr. Stanhope's daughter, ran away with Bill who was married to Louise's best friend Margaret. Elsa and Bill live in exile from their families because of the scandal their relationship created. Elsa shyly returns home for a visit when she hears that her father is selling the family house. Louise is irate at Elsa's presence and will not stay in the house with her, but Mr. Stanhope permits Elsa to stay, despite the dishonor she has brought to the family. Elsa is given Alison's portfolio of unpublished poems by Aunt Agatha and fights with her father for their preservation. Elsa convinces him that they cannot destroy Alison's story and that it should be shared with the world. In his agreement, Mr. Stanhope also accepts Elsa. Elsa anticipates a new age when love is a more honorable foundation for a relationship than status or expectation. She completes the story of love and loneliness told through Alison's poetry. Elsa has her own, different loneliness, but now, with the acceptance of her family, it need not be as severe as it was for Alison.
Louise Stanhope, Eben's wife, is an example of a typical, upstanding late-nineteenth-century woman, but her rigid character clashes with the Stanhope family. Louise worries more than anyone else about what other people are saying about their family. She and Eben have children, but they are not happily married. Although Eben has not fallen in love with another woman, Eben may eventually find a reason to leave her. Louise seems unconcerned that this could actually happen, probably because breaking up a marriage is still a very serious social transgression.
Mr. Stanhope, the patriarch of the family and Alison Stanhope's brother, lives in the city and is being forced to sell the historic family home where his sister, Agatha, and her maid, Jennie, now live. Mr. Stanhope is saddened to see the home in which he was born and grew up go to the soulless Hodges but strained finances and concern for Agatha are forcing him to sell. Like Alison, Mr. Stanhope has suffered his own share of heartache, pining after Ann's mother even as he remained in an unhappy marriage to the mother of his children. Nonetheless, he is a good father and close to his children. Rigid Louise is a foil for Mr. Stanhope, showing him to be reserved and private but not uptight or overly concerned with gossip. When Elsa arrives at the house unexpectedly, Mr. Stanhope will not turn her away even though he is upset with her for bringing shame to the family name. He is reluctant to give up Ann, who is like a daughter to him and his only remaining connection to the woman he once loved, but he see that Knowles is a kind man. Mr. Stanhope does not want to reveal what may be seen as a scandal regarding Alison, but for the first time in his life, he chooses love. Thus, he is able to reconcile with Elsa and release Alison's poems.
Ted Stanhope, Mr. Stanhope's youngest son, is a student at Harvard University. Ted is too young to remember Alison and seems to lack the sensitivity toward life that Eben and Elsa exhibit, although he does not lack for passion and argues vehemently with his father for the preservation of Alison's lost poems. Throughout the play, Ted seeks new information about mysterious Aunt Alison in order to get better grades with his English professor, but his family refuses to cooperate with him. He does not understand what the big deal is—Ted is the only family member not touched by forbidden love. Ted also does not want to go into the family business and is more attracted to speculating in rubber.
Forbidden love is a theme that runs throughout the lives of the characters in Alison's House. The title character, Alison Stanhope, is known to have loved a married man. She would have run away with him except that her brother stopped her. Her loneliness and love inform much of her unpublished poetry, which her sister and brother try to suppress. Alison's brother, Mr. Stanhope, has also experienced forbidden love. He was in love with Ann's mother even though he was married with three children. He denied himself this love although Mr. Stanhope kept Ann and her mother in his household so that he could enjoy Ann's mother's company.
Elsa is the only character who has acted on her forbidden love. Although it was scandalous to her family, Elsa ran away with the man she fell in love with, and he left his wife and children to be with her. It is perceived as improper for her to come back home, but she is moved to see her childhood home before it is sold, and her father and brothers
do not really want to disown her even if society expects it of them. Elsa's brother Eben suffers from a nebulous need to do something other than be married with children and work in the family business. He is not sure what he wants to do instead, but it might be writing, the only conversation topic in the play that excites Eben.
Alison's House takes place at the end of the nineteenth century. Mores concerning marriage and family were strict and clearly defined. Although men and women could legally get divorced, doing so carried a much greater stigma then than it does in the early 2000s. People who left their families to run off with a lover were even more disgraceful than those who got divorced. Their behavior was considered to be immoral and selfish and reflected badly upon family members, who often disowned the person in an effort to distance themselves from the shame. What readers see in the context of Glaspell's play is that people who deny their love (Mr. Stanhope and Alison) are no worse or better off than the people who indulge their feelings at the expense of their family (Elsa). The playwright offers no simple answer.
Ownership of the Stanhope family house, of its furnishings, and, ultimately, Alison's unpublished poetry is the problem that the characters of this play struggle to solve. Mr. Stanhope must sell the house he and his children were born in because they have all moved away to the city except for his elderly sister, Agatha, and Mr. Stanhope cannot afford both homes any longer. Interestingly, none of the Stanhopes ever considers moving back to the country, although they are all deeply saddened to see the house sold. While they can have no control over what becomes of the house, Mr. Stanhope and Eben are upset to learn that the Hodges plan to dramatically overhaul the house: modernize it, partition the rooms, cut down very old trees, and, in general, transform the place into something that little resembles the old Stanhope home.
As part of the moving process, the family belongings are being divided up. Agatha is to take her mother's china tea set. Mr. Stanhope is sharing the library of books with Eben and Elsa. He even gives a volume of poetry to Knowles after the young reporter impresses Mr. Stanhope with the sincerity of his feelings for Alison's poetic works. Very few of her poems have been published. Her published work is small but dearly loved by her family and immensely popular with readers. Although she has been dead eighteen years, reporters and scholars still periodically probe the family for more information about the reclusive Alison and to learn if any more unpublished poems have been found. But the Stanhope family has been close-mouthed about their beloved Alison. When Alison's secret stash of poems is found in the third act, held by Agatha all these years, the question of ownership arises again. Mr. Stanhope, like Agatha, wants to destroy the poems because they reveal Alison's love for a married man, which threatens to bring scandal to her name and to the Stanhope family all over again. Elsa, to whom Agatha gave the poems before she died, sees her own experiences in forbidden love reflected in Alison's writing and determines that the poems must not be destroyed. Elsa, Eben, Ted, Ann, and Knowles argue for the universal truth and beauty in Alison's writing, which belongs to the whole world and not just one small family. Mr. Stanhope, seeing something of his own life's suffering in Alison's words, finally consents that the poems can be published and returns them to Elsa's care.
The play explores, then, the rights of ownership and privacy in a case in which relatives of a famous artist face the dilemma of either saving their privacy at the expense of the artwork or running the risk of having assumptions made about their relative and themselves if the artwork is published. The family members know readers ought to distinguish the writing from the life experience that generated it, but this distinction is often overlooked by those who seek sensational inferences regarding an artist's life in the work that artist produces. In the end, however, the Stanhopes affirm that the poetry is more important than any potential comfort they would gain by suppressing it.
Loneliness is a significant theme in Emily Dickinson's poetry, and Glaspell evokes this theme in her play. Although the major characters are related in some fashion, each is isolated from the others because of private miseries. Elsa has run off with a married man, effectively cutting herself off from her family and friends. Although she and Bill are happy with each other, they are also unhappy because they are estranged from others. Eben is in a loveless marriage and working in a job he dislikes, which happens to be the family business. He is cold toward his wife and only comes to life when he thinks about the past, especially the good times he had as a child around his aunt Alison. Although surrounded by family, he is close to no one and unable to express true emotion. Ann, although embraced by the Stanhopes as one of their own, seems Page 10 | Top of Article to have no immediate family of her own now that her mother is dead. Agatha lives alone in the Stanhope ancestral home. Her isolation is physical as well as emotional. With her sister Alison dead, Agatha has little companionship, refusing to move into the city with her brother until he forces her to by selling the house. Mr. Stanhope, as family patriarch, brings his loneliness upon himself by taking on the mantel of family leader. He denied himself true love with Ann's mother because he was already married and had children. He has carried the pain of this unfulfilled love with him much of his life, keeping Ann near as a reminder of her mother. Alison wrote her loneliness into her poetry, which becomes a balm to her family and seems to show them each a way to cope.
In Alison's House, Knowles arrives in act 1, asking about Alison and gently inquiring if there might be some of her poetry yet unpublished. His questions, on top of the move itself, stir up memories of Alison for all of the family, and the subject of a possible body of unpublished work lingers and repeats. This foreshadows the eventual discovery of the poems in act 3. Aunt Agatha appears in act 2 with a leather portfolio of unnamed contents, drawing heightened interest to this possibility. The Stanhopes' certainty that all of Alison's poetry has been found and published lends dramatic tension to the final discovery.
This play is set in Iowa, where Glaspell herself grew up. She chose Iowa as her setting in part because she knew and loved the area and in part because Emily Dickinson's family refused to allow her to directly use their name or likenesses in her dramatization of the discovery of Dickinson's body of work. The action of the play takes place in the library and in Alison's room of the Stanhope family house, a large country manor near the Mississippi River. The house is old-fashioned and a little run down and in this way reflects the family who loves it. Alison's House takes place at the turn of the century, on December 31, 1899. Even as the family members are ensconced in their familiar territory, they are preparing to enter the unknown: a new century and a life without their ancestral home.
Glaspell's play is a creative work that parallels in characters and events actual historical people and their experiences. While purporting to be about the Iowan family called Stanhope, Alison's House is actually about Emily Dickinson's family, who discovered her writings after she died. In Dickinson's lifetime, only a few of her poems were published. Her family found more than eight hundred poems in hand-bound volumes after she died. Dickinson's style is unique and compelling, but she and her family were very private people. Over forty years after Dickinson's death, her family would not permit Glaspell to use the Dickinson name or any of Emily Dickinson's poetry in her play. By fictionalizing the characters and the setting, Glaspell was able to explore the dilemma that faced Dickinson's family. The play shows characters grappling with whether creative work is a private thing, for one's family, or part of the culture in which it occurs and thus something that really belongs to everyone.
Climax and Denouement
The climax is the turning point of a story and is often the most exciting part. The denouement, which is a French word that means untying, follows the climax and resolves the plot. In Alison's House, the climax occurs at the end of act 2, when Agatha fails to destroy Alison's poetry and bequeaths it all to Elsa. This event is considered the turning point in the story partly because of its placement two-thirds of the way into the play and partly because Agatha's gift and subsequent death irrefutably change the outcome that was expected up to that point, which was the destruction of Alison's portfolio.
The denouement occurs in act 3 when Elsa and her family discover Alison's lost poetry. The question posed throughout the play of whether Alison wrote more poetry is finally answered. The family struggles over whether to share these revealing poems with the rest of the world, but sympathies expressed throughout the play suggest the eventual outcome that Mr. Stanhope relinquishes his grip on Alison's privacy and permits the poems to be known to the world.
The Roaring Twenties is a name for the decade of the 1920s. In the United States, it was a time of prosperity and social advances, especially for women Page 11 | Top of Article who were granted the right to vote in 1920 with the passing of the Nineteenth Amendment. World War I was over, and growing communication and transportation technologies made the world a smaller place. Mass production made automobiles less expensive and more readily available. Radio broadcasting production also became less costly, and thus radio was the main form of mass communication in this decade. Coal was being replaced by electricity and telephones were in more and more households. Jazz was the popular music, as was the flapper fashions, which emphasized an androgynous figure for women at a time when they sought equality of treatment with men. The Harlem Renaissance artistic movement was at its height in the 1920s and produced a wealth of literary, artistic, musical, and critical works. The Roaring Twenties were also marked by Prohibition: the Eighteenth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, passed in 1920, forbade the sale or manufacture of alcohol. Instead of alleviating social ills, Prohibition increased criminal activity as people sought illegal ways to make or buy alcohol. A repeal of Prohibition was not passed until 1933. Despite Prohibition, the Roaring Twenties was an exciting time when people looked forward optimistically. This joyful prosperity came to a halt in 1929 with the Black Tuesday crash of the New York Stock Exchange. The stock market crash was devastating to the U.S. economy and signaled the Great Depression of the 1930s. In all, the 1920s was a permissive decade, one particularly recognized for a more liberal view of women's roles and social options. Audiences for Glaspell's play would have tended to view the Stanhopes' concern for propriety as outdated and approve of those emotional choices the Stanhopes view as posing a threat to social conventions and family reputation.
Theater in the Early Twentieth Century
The realism movement of the nineteenth century continued without pause in the early twentieth century although experimental forms of theater became more and more prevalent. These experimental forms include absurdism and epic or Brechtian theater. Eugene O'Neill was a popular playwright Page 12 | Top of Article associated with twentieth century realism although he also experimented with his style during the 1920s. O'Neill was introduced professionally by the Provincetown Players, a small theater group dedicated to preserving the creative process, which its members saw disappearing from the very conventional shows that appeared on Broadway. Experimental forms continued to gain critical attention until the breakthrough text, Theater of the Absurd, was published in 1962 by British scholar and critic Martin Esslin. Esslin named Samuel Beckett as one of the first playwrights to address absurdism in his work. Bertolt Brecht was a creative German playwright whose fame was unfortunately overshadowed in his lifetime by World War II and the Nazis. His style is sometimes called epic theater and is shaped around argument and ideas. Brecht preferred to call it dialectic theater, but many have opted simply for the term Brechtian. Postmodern approaches from the end of the twentieth century drew significantly from experimental roots in the early part of the century. Postmodernism is anti-ideological, which means that it eschews exclusive bodies of belief in favor of a broader view.
Glaspell was an esteemed author and playwright in her own time and also well-known for cofounding the Provincetown Players and launching the career of Eugene O'Neill. In 1918, the New York Times hailed her as "one of the two or three foremost and most promising contemporaneous writers of the one-act play." Despite her popularity, however, Alison's House was never a resounding success. J. Brooks Atkinson, reporting for the New York Times on the off-Broadway production of Alison's House in December 1930, writes that it is "haunted by genius" but that it is "a disappointingly elusive play." John Chamberlain, as an aside while reviewing Glaspell's novel Ambrose Holt, comments that Alison's House "does its best before a badly sentimental close."
When it was announced in May 1931 that Glaspell had won the Pulitzer Prize for Drama with Alison's House, critics became more heated in their remarks. Atkinson devoted an entire column to belittling the judges' choice for the drama award. He acknowledges that Glaspell is "one of our most gifted writers," but her efforts in Alison's House are not her best. He argues that it is "a play of flat
statement—of assertions, of sentimentally literary flourishes and of perfunctory characterizations." The anonymous review, "Prize Play on Broadway," of the revived Broadway performance states that the audience "clapped its hands in a gentle approval which, however, never threatened to become an ovation." Interestingly, in response to Atkinson's commentary that Alison's House was a poor choice for the Pulitzer, two people wrote letters proclaiming their admiration and enjoyment of the play and their disagreement with Atkinson. Despite these proclamations, Glaspell's play closed on Broadway after two weeks and was not revived for more than sixty years. When it was restaged in 1999 at the Mint Theater in New York City, reviews were nostalgic but still lukewarm. Elyse Sommer for the online magazine CurtainUp writes that Alison's House is "old-fashioned and slow-paced" but still enjoyable. Victor Gluck, reviewing for Back Stage, summarizes the conflicting opinions with his simple description of Glaspell's play as "talky, old-fashioned, and dated" but also "dramatic, engrossing, and moving." Alison's House was and continued to be in the early 2000s viewed as a lesser, more conventional work in the oeuvre of a woman who did not shy away from radical social statement elsewhere in her work.
Ullmann is a freelance writer and editor. In the following essay, she explores the function and characterization of the unseen, unheard Alison Stanhope, who is the focus of Glaspell's Alison's House.
Alison's House, by Susan Glaspell, is a play in which the central character never appears on stage. Alison Stanhope has been dead for eighteen years when the play begins. Her sister, her brother, and his children are breaking up the house they all grew up in, and in this process, they stir up memories that have laid in waiting, unfaded and powerful. The house itself belongs to Alison's brother, Mr. Stanhope, who is the patriarch of the family, but many of the house's contents give references to Alison, famous for her poetry and particularly dear to each of her family members who remember her with fierce affection. Alison lived as a near-recluse, but despite her hermitic life, she was larger-than-life to the people close to her and full of whimsy and wisdom. Eben and Elsa's memories of Alison from their childhood are charged with wonder. They all feel that she was the greatest of them and in some way more alive, stronger, more authentic.
The play's title refers to Alison's metaphorical house: the world she built with words. Alison's poetry, although never recited during the course of the play, is understood to be a thing of great beauty, wisdom, and love. It is fitting, therefore, that the first two acts of the play take place in the library, a common area where everyone can come together and be surrounded by words—both hers and others—which may express secondhand thoughts and feelings readers do not know to say themselves.
The first person to bring up Alison in Glaspell's play is the young reporter from Chicago, Richard Knowles. Unlike other reporters the Stanhope family has encountered, Knowles is sensitive, a poet himself, and passionate about Alison's writings. Knowles is representative of Alison's earnest fans. The family is suspicious of him as they are of any outsider, but as romance blossoms between Knowles and Ann, they slowly accept him. Mr. Stanhope, warming to Knowles as he feels he must, seems to finally accept that Alison's spirit also lives on in those who truly love her poetry. He gives Knowles one of Alison's favorite books, marked by her own hand, Ralph Waldo Emerson's Poems. From this volume, Mr. Stanhope reads the poem, "The House," for Knowles, which evokes Alison's presence: "She lays her beams in music / In music every one." The end of the poem seems to describe Alison's family: "That so they shall not be displaced / By lapses or by wars / But for the love of happy souls / Outlive the newest stars." Knowles immediately understands what Mr. Stanhope is describing: "Alison's house," he says.
The poem Knowles reads to Mr. Stanhope from the Emerson volume is titled "Forbearance," which is a commentary by the playwright on how the Stanhope family has practiced self-control, even to its detriment: "And loved so well a high behavior / In man or maid, that thou from speech refrained." Alison, in her lifetime, was unable to cleave to the man she loved, and her brother stayed in an unhappy marriage while loving another woman. But Alison's niece, Elsa, born into a different time, had the bravery to do what they could not. She followed her love.
Act 3 takes the audience into the innermost chamber of the house, Alison's bedroom. It has been left untouched—partly because the room was not needed in the mostly empty house and partly in tribute to the beloved poet, aunt, and sister. Alison's room is the last one to be packed. The family seems reluctant to disturb this shrine. When Alison's secret stash of poems is discovered in act 3, the question quickly rises about whether it should be published because doing so would generate a scandal. Alison, although a recluse, was a passionate woman. She once fell in love with a married man and may have carried on an affair with him. Mr. Stanhope reveals near the end of the play to Eben and Elsa that he was instrumental in keeping Alison from running off with her lover. She stayed only because he requested it. Elsa, reading the new poems, says, "It's here—the story she never told. She has written it, as it was never written before. The love that never died—loneliness that never
died—anguish and beauty of her love!" Alison embraced her loneliness as none of the other characters are able to, which imbues her with strength. Agatha fails repeatedly to burn Alison's poetry, crying out that it was too lonely to do such a thing. Mr. Stanhope also cannot do away with Alison's private poems because to do so would be too lonely. With Alison's poetry, they need never feel alone because she is watching over them, guiding them with her words.
The character of Alison is modeled after Emily Dickinson (1830-1886) who has long been a figure of mystery because of her reclusive nature and her family's earnest wish for privacy. Glaspell's play is based on incomplete information about Dickinson's life but also draws from the stories her poems seem to tell. The playwright holds forth that the Dickinson family reticence may have had more to do with their tangled hearts than a quirk of personality. It was a time in history very different than one hundred years later. Cheating on a spouse was a kind of social death; people like the Dickinsons and the Stanhopes would sooner give up their own happiness than bring that kind of shame onto themselves and their families. Forty years after Dickinson's death, her poetry and something of the story of her life was well-known to Glaspell's theater-going audience. Although Glaspell was unable to use the Dickinson name or Emily's poetry, her audience knew who this play was about. This knowledge brings full circle the characterization of a woman who is central to the story but is never seen or heard.
Alison materializes in the play in other ways. She is the focus of conversation throughout the drama, from Ted's inquiries for his letter to his Harvard professor to Elsa and Eben's reminisces of their childhood. Knowles himself, a great fan of her work and hoping to write an article about her, seeks out her spirit and keeps her poetry alive and in the minds of people by writing about her. The book of Emerson's poetry speaks for Alison indirectly. The love that quickly springs up between Knowles and Ann is also a product of Alison's passion as is Elsa's less sanctioned romance with Bill. Agatha and Mr. Stanhope's pain over Alison's scandalous relationship being publicly revealed is a facet of their love for her. They want to protect her, but Alison, in writing and keeping these poems, does not seek protection. She did the right thing when she was alive, but the time has come when her love, her story, and her strength should be shared.
Alison's ephemeral presence is strongest in act 3, when her family gathers in her bedroom and reads her story through for the first time. Despite her isolation, Alison was a woman of high emotion and creative expression. Her story of love and loneliness has universal appeal—both Mr. Stanhope and Elsa say they feel as if her poems were written just for them. Elsa then points out that other people are sure to feel the same way, and thus Mr. Stanhope should release his hold on his dead sister and share her, her wisdom, and the beauty of her poetry with the world. It is a difficult decision for Mr. Stanhope, who has protected Alison's story for so many decades and even lived through the anguish of frustrated longing himself. But he made it clear earlier in the play that he did not care as much as he should about what outsiders will say or think. Ultimately, Mr. Stanhopes chooses life for Alison: "She loved to make her little gifts. If she can make one more, from her century to yours, then she isn't gone."
Glaspell's decision to focus on an historical figure that does not actually appear in the action of the play is unusual. Alison's unseen person acts as a lens to focus the emotions of the other characters as they circle around her and her story. She has been dead eighteen years, but her influence is strong. In modeling Alison after Dickinson, Glaspell lends plausibility to her tale as well as the drama of exploring the life of a mysterious woman. Alison's House has been criticized for being overly conventional compared to Glaspell's other works, but in fact the playwright is making a bold statement to the effect that no one needs to go through the anguish and loneliness that shaped Alison's or Dickinson's life because the new century heralds different times. Elsa has demonstrated this herself and tells her father that while some things are difficult, she does not regret choosing love above all else.
Source: Carol Ullmann, Critical Essay on Alison's House, in Drama for Students, Thomson Gale, 2007.
In the following essay, Laughlin explores the shaping of the female poet protagonist in Alison's House, "the ideological tensions at work in this construction" and the parallels in character to the poet Emily Dickinson.
One of the acknowledged hallmarks of Susan Glaspell's dramatic writing is the device of the "absent center," the structuring of the play around a female character who never appears but whose impact on the present characters and action is powerfully felt. In Alison's House, Glaspell's last play and the one that brought her the 1931 Pulitzer Prize, Page 16 | Top of Article the absent character is Alison Stanhope, a thinly veiled likeness of Emily Dickinson, whose house is being prepared for sale eighteen years after her death. While her presence is evoked in the play's earliest scenes, Alison's influence becomes pervasive upon the discovery of an unpublished packet of poems expressing her unfulfilled love for a married man.
As if anticipating recent critical theory's pronouncements of the "death of the author," this final absent heroine in Glaspell's theater is a writer, and one about whom, even by 1930, a considerable legend had been built up. Alison's House opened at Eva Le Gallienne's Civic Repertory Theatre on December 1, 1930, just nine days before the centenary of Emily Dickinson's birth, and it appears that Le Gallienne carefully promoted the play on the basis of the Alison-Dickinson link.
Contemporary reviews of the play were, at best, mixed, and the subsequent awarding of the Pulitzer Prize was generally seen as either an outright error or a misguided attempt to reward Glaspell and Le Gallienne for their "artistic integrity and high purpose" (Toohey 92). In 1944 one of the Pulitzer jurors justified the award in terms that hint at the play's conventional outlook:
The choice, really, was between a play [ Elizabeth the Queen ] acted with great acclaim … in the older fashion of romantic verse drama, and a play acted down on 14th Street by Miss Le Gallienne's struggling Civic Repertory Company which plumbed the deep American love of home and family still existing outside the confines of New York cubby hole apartments, and which also brought the strange story of Emily Dickinson to dramatic life. (Toohey 93; my emphasis)
More recently, critics have also been somewhat dismissive of the play, noting its "capitulation to commercialism and conventionality" (Adler 134). Even C. W. E. Bigsby, whose recent edition of four of Glaspell's earlier plays has done much to enhance the current revival of interest in Glaspell's drama, describes Alison's House as "perhaps, a rather slight affair." While noting the connection with Dickinson, Bigsby's critique emphasizes a different biographical connection, that between Alison's story and that of Glaspell herself, describing the play as "a piece of self-justification by a woman who had, in effect, run off with a married man and who in this play offers a justification of her violation of social taboo" (Drama 33).
Certainly Alison's House is not Glaspell's most experimental play. Its style is realistic, and its family-oriented three-act structure concludes with the expected reconciliation of Alison's brother, the current Stanhope patriarch, and his wayward daughter, Elsa. But whatever its literary or theatrical merits, Glaspell's dramatization of the absent poet offers a fascinating look at the construction of the female author and the ideological tensions at work in this construction. Far from being a straightforward "piece of self-justification," the shaping of Alison by both Glaspell and the play's characters reveals a number of ideological contradictions. As Bigsby's remarks suggest, a basic tension in the play exists between what women, in Glaspell's view and experience, are—that is to say, sexual beings, desiring subjects, as well as creative artists—and what they ought to be, as implied in Bigsby's reference to "social taboo." In Alison and her more modern counterpart, Elsa, Glaspell adds to her dramatic repertoire two assertive and expressive female characters who challenge patriarchal constraints on female behavior through their frank acknowledgment and expression of their own desire. Yet Glaspell's supposed defense of this rebellion not only acknowledges the power of the social ideals and institutions that limit and mediate their self-expression but also reinforces this power even as it purports to challenge it. "The women have their way with this drama," as one early reviewer puts it (Hutchens 100), but "their way" is itself contradictory, as the play explores the competing interests of propriety and property, or class and gender, as well as of different models of female sexuality.
In The Proper Lady and the Woman Writer Mary Poovey offers a broad definition of ideology as both "virtually inescapable"—since it governs not just political and economic relations but also social relations and even psychological stresses—and as "always developing. As ideology evolves, its internal dynamics may change, its implications for a particular group may alter, or its inherent Page 17 | Top of Article tensions may be exposed in what is generally perceived as a crisis of values" (xiv). Glaspell seems to be invoking just such a "crisis of values" when she sets her play on the last day of the nineteenth century, in the "old Stanhope homestead in Iowa." Setting the play eighteen years after Alison Stanhope's death (twenty years after that of Dickinson) enables Glaspell to establish the conflicting values at work in the Alison-Dickinson story in terms of a conflict of generations, essentially opposing the traditional, Victorian values of Alison's brother and her sister, Agatha, to the modern outlook of Father Stanhope's children, Eben, Ted, and Elsa, as well as his young secretary, Ann. Poised uncertainly between these two positions stands the figure of Alison, the poet.
The play's opening immediately gives prominence to the act of writing as the curtain rises on Ann sitting at a typewriter in the library, sorting papers she retrieves from a horsehair trunk. Glaspell quickly dispels the possibility that Ann might be the anticipated Dickinson figure with the entrance of an outsider, a reporter named Knowles, who shares the audience's curiosity about the papers on which Ann is at work and asks to see "the room that was used by Miss Alison Stanhope." Knowles's interest in Alison's house—he has been assigned to write a newspaper story about its closing—immediately foreground's Alison's position as author, about whom he wishes to collect relevant data. It appears, however, that at this point in the story there is a significant gap between Alison's person (or persona) and her poetry. The family, notes Ann, has "published her poems," but, according to Knowles, Alison herself "isn't dead. Anything about her is alive. She belongs to the world. But the family doesn't seem to know that." In a striking parallel to the workings of Foucault's author-function, we see that Knowles isn't satisfied with the mere existence of Alison's published work, though this provides him with a starting point. A published poet himself, he has come to retrieve the author he admires: "where—how—[the poems] were written. The desk she sat at. The window she looked from." For Knowles, at least, glimpsing the traces of Alison's life provides a way of "explaining events" or images in her work and of pinning down their meaning (see Foucault 984, 988).
Glaspell brings Alison's authorial persona into focus by relying, at least partly, on allusions to the Dickinson biography and legend. Knowles's sensitive search for information about Alison finds a crude parallel in the questions posed by Ted, a crass and rather dull-witted college student, who was only two when his Aunt Alison died. In a sharp jab at academia's involvement in authorial construction, Glaspell portrays Ted gathering information for his Harvard English professor, who is eager to hear about everything from Alison's eating habits to that central facet of the Dickinson legend, her unfulfilled (?) "love affair." What he can't supply by copying down his family's reminiscences, Ted makes up, in a desperate attempt to salvage a failing grade.
The fond reminiscences of Alison's nephew, Eben, capture Dickinson's legendary love for nature and kindness to children, linking them explicitly to Alison's poetry:
The fun we used to have down here as kids—Elsa and I. Especially when Alison was here. Remember how she was always making us presents? … An apple—pebbles from the river—little cakes she'd baked. And always her jolly little verses with them.
Eben's wife, Louise, on the other hand, is made uncomfortable by Knowles's probing, afraid that it will "revive the stories about Alison," stories that "she was different—a rebel." And while Stanhope accepts the fact that "you can't have a distinguished person in the family without running into a little public interest," he is visibly upset by Louise's suggestion that Alison's oddness might be somehow related to Elsa's more recent, and ongoing, affair with a married man. As the play progresses, both Stanhope and, more pointedly, Alison's sister, Agatha, increasingly take on the role of protectors of Alison's privacy, seeking to shield her personal life from the probing of either Knowles or Ted. "Why can't they let her rest in peace?" Agatha asks in exasperation when she first hears of the reporter's presence, and her desire to protect Alison from public scrutiny climaxes in her unsuccessful attempt to burn the mysterious envelope later revealed to contain Alison's unknown love poems. Act 2 ends with the rather melodramatic death of Agatha, who, unable to burn the envelope, entrusts it to Elsa. The play's final act, then, develops the consequences of this gesture, with the family arguing over whether these, Alison's most personal poems, should be burned as she, or at least Agatha, apparently wished, or else released to Elsa and, eventually to Alison's reading public.
The play's developing construction of the figure of Alison thus comes to revolve around the issue of privacy, as it relates to Alison's personal life and that of the Stanhope family in general. The legend of Emily Dickinson's reclusiveness, of course, makes this an apparently natural focal point for Glaspell. Dickinson scholars have long discussed Page 18 | Top of Article privacy as a factor in both Dickinson's personal life and her poetic language. Christopher Benfey's Emily Dickinson and the Problem of Others takes the privacy question a step further than most, however, when he links it with an increasingly acute concern for privacy in late-nineteenth-century society in general. Benfey cites three major sources to explain this renewed interest in privacy: (1) Hannah Arendt's contention that during this period "the older distinction between public and private, a distinction heavily dependent upon notions of private property, yields to the modern opposition of the social and the intimate" ; (2) Roland Barthes's tracing of the role of photography in creating "a new social value, which is the publicity of the private"; and (3) an 1890 Harvard Law Review article by Louis Brandeis and Samuel Warren that responded to the invasion of private life threatened by both photography and newspaper reporting by establishing the first legal definition of privacy in the United States (Benfey 56).
As Benfey notes, Brandeis and Warren are "at pains to indicate the extent to which privacy is constitutive of the person." Linking privacy explicitly with the issue of publication, they write, "The principle which protects personal writings and all other personal productions, not against theft and physical appropriation, but against publication in any form, is in reality not the principle of private property, but that of an inviolate personality" (qtd. in Benfey 57). Now legally defined as the "[license] to be still," privacy, according to this argument, separates from the question of private property and becomes linked, instead, with a concern for "the social and the intimate" (in Arendt's formulation) or with a notion of personal integrity and the right to refrain from sharing the secrets of one's inner life.
In Glaspell's exploration of privacy in Alison's House we see this restructuring at work. Knowles's characterization as a reporter indicates journalism's role in breaking down the barriers between private and public life. And the very fact that act 3 centers on the debate over whether the family should make the newly discovered (and highly revealing) love poems available for publication, on the one hand, demonstrates Glaspell's acceptance of the family's right to privacy. On the other hand, in the passionate arguments of Eben, Elsa, Ann, and Knowles in favor of publication, Glaspell suggests that it is the family's social responsibility to relinquish that right. Echoing Knowles's initial insistence that Alison "belongs to the world," Eben applies this argument to the newly discovered poems late in the third act: "No question about it," he concludes. "They were too big for just us. They are for the world."
In his critique of the play Thomas Adler describes the resolution of this debate as a foregone conclusion. Identifying the outsider/journalist Knowles as the play's raisonneur, Adler argues that Glaspell answers the question of whether Alison and her poems "belong to the family or to the world … at the onset [of the play], so even though the exact content of the poems remains hidden, the dramatist's stance is immediately clear, diluting audience interest." I do not think Glaspell's answer to this question is quite so simple. And I would argue that it is the fact of asking this question, or, more precisely, the process of answering it, that gives this play its interest. As the play's third act unfolds, the debate about privacy or publication suggests that the transition from a concern for private property to a link between privacy and identity (or between "the social and the intimate") may not be a smooth one, especially when that which is to be kept private involves a woman's sexuality and creative expression.
To begin with, Adler's formulation of the play's central question immediately invokes the question of property. To whom does Alison, and especially her poetry, belong? The answer to this question apparently was not difficult so long as Alison was seen as the author of "jolly little poems" about bees, flowers, and cookies (Adler 125). But now the poems also reveal Alison's explicitly sexual desire, which is all the more threatening to the social order Stanhope represents because the apparent object of her affection was a married man. Eben, Elsa, their father, and, eventually, Ted read the poems in the privacy of Alison's room, which, significantly, serves as the setting for the play's final act. Even before knowing the contents of the portfolio, Stanhope lays claim to it as family (i.e., his) property, suggesting that "Agatha didn't know what she was doing" when she gave it to Elsa. Once aware of its contents Stanhope again invokes his patriarchal privilege, announcing his plan to "burn them in [Alison's] own fireplace—before her century goes."
In explaining his motives, Glaspell's patriarch also makes clear the link between the poems, as family property, and the nineteenth-century ideal of feminine propriety. Chivalrously, he plans to "protect" his sister, arguing that she chose privacy by not publishing her poems, since "she was of an age when people did not tell their love." In planning, in effect, to censor the love poems, Stanhope Page 19 | Top of Article seemingly frames his actions in terms of Arendt's distinction between the social and the intimate. The poems, since they tell of a forbidden love Alison voluntarily renounced, are too personal for public circulation and should be destroyed, as Alison apparently wished. Already implicit in this argument, of course, is the role of chastity as a key ingredient in the nineteenth-century view of correct feminine behavior. Alison's dual renunciation (of her married lover and of making her love for him public by publishing her poetry) indicates the extent to which she apparently internalized this ideal, even at the cost of self-denial. In appealing to the principle of intimacy (as well as that of individual autonomy), Stanhope seeks to replicate Alison's renunciation, thereby maintaining the public image of Alison as the sexless, nineteenth-century "Angel of the House."
In contrast with Stanhope's chivalry, the opportunistic Ted apparently could care less about his aunt's intimate feelings or "inviolate personality." Also appealing to his family privilege and his desire to "protect" Alison, he argues in favor of the poems' publication because he sees them as a marketable commodity. While Glaspell leads us to sympathize with Ted's desire to see the poems published, she also appears to dismiss Ted's modern form of chivalry as simply masking another attempt to salvage his failing grade, or as another of his get-rich quick schemes. The contrast between Stanhope's appeal to the apparently modern conception of privacy and Ted's proprietary concerns is summed up in Stanhope's line, "I promise you my sister's intimate papers are not going into your vulgar world."
Between Stanhope's attempt to maintain Alison's "inviolate personality" and Ted's crass view of the author as producer of marketable goods stands the romantic or expressive view of authorship advanced by both Elsa and Ann. Breaking up the fight between Ted and his father and brother, Elsa claims to know the value of Alison's poetry "as no one else knows." Like Stanhope himself, Elsa recognizes the poems as expressive of Alison's passion, of a "love that never died—the loneliness that never died." But whereas Stanhope wants to keep that expression private and personal, Ann urges Stanhope to leave the matter of the poems' fate to Elsa:
STANHOPE: Elsa! Why should I leave it to Elsa?
ANN: To a woman. Because Alison said it—for
STANHOPE: Alison was not like Elsa. Alison
ANN: Then let her speak for Elsa, and Mother, and
me. Let her have that from it. [For her own
sake—let her have that from it!]
For Ann, at least, Alison's self-expression is explicitly gendered, an overt acknowledgment of female sexuality and the desires that the nineteenth-century code or propriety either controlled or denied. Though she may have written without personally seeking notice, as a writer Alison broke the code of female modesty to take on the position of speaking (or authorial) subject. In love themselves, Ann and Elsa insist that Alison's writing should not remain a self-enclosed act of personal expression. Rather, they argue, the poems are inherently "social" (to return to Arendt's formulation). Alison spoke "for women," and it is through publication of her poems that Alison's love will, albeit indirectly, be fulfilled.
For Stanhope, Ann's argument is compelling, especially when she evokes the now virtually complete convergence of Alison and her poetry by referring to Stanhope's plan to burn the manuscripts as tantamount to taking life. But Glaspell does not resolve the debate until there is one final exchange between Stanhope and Elsa, now left alone in Alison's room. Resorting to his final, most telling argument, Stanhope himself lays claim to direct affinity with Alison's self-expression, by affirming that he, too, renounced an illicit love, staying in an unhappy marriage with Elsa's mother for the sake of the children, and especially for Elsa. What comes into focus here is what Bigsby calls the "reiterated pattern of would-be and adulterous affairs," which Stanhope invokes as he attempts to lay the blame for the poems' destruction on Elsa. While, for the moment, only Elsa's ongoing affair with a married man is a matter of public record, publishing the passionate love poems would allow people to see all of the Stanhopes as potential adulterers.
With this argument we glimpse, with Glaspell, a further function of the ideal of feminine propriety and a basic conflict of interest at work in the play. What Stanhope seeks to protect is not Alison's personal privacy or even her choice to avoid public recognition of her poetic gift but, rather, the family name—in other words, the family's social standing and, by implication, the property to which that social standing is attached. Though much of Glaspell's dialogue (as spoken by characters on all sides of the debate) invokes the "modern" reformulation of privacy as intimacy and personal identity, these closing arguments suggest that even this reworked definition ultimately functions to protect "men's property and their peace of mind."
On the surface of things Glaspell appears to reject this view in the play's conclusion. As the village bells ring in the new century, Stanhope hands the poems over to Elsa, recalling Alison's love for making "little gifts," and embraces his wayward daughter, apparently convinced that he no longer needs to repudiate her for her violation of the social code. In a scene eerily reminiscent of the closing of Strindberg's The Father, Elsa and Stanhope mutually acknowledge each other: "Father! My Father?" Elsa cries, and Stanhope replies lovingly, "Little Elsa."
Within the context of the play there is something very satisfying both in Stanhope's act of handing over poems to their "rightful owner," Elsa, and in the reconciliation of father and daughter as the curtain falls. The powerful love poems are, we assume, to be published, as a "gift" from Alison's century to Elsa's, and Elsa's sins against the old social code are forgiven. But in this link between the poem's potential publication and the renewed bond between Stanhope and his daughter we can see further complexities of Glaspell's construction of authorship and of Glaspell's own position within ideology.
First, the presentation of the poems themselves as another of Alison's "little gifts" recalls Hélàne Cixous's discussion, in "The Laugh of the Medusa," of "the whole deceptive problematic of the gift." Responding to Derrida's discussion of Nietzsche, Cixous writes: "Woman is obviously not that woman Nietzsche dreamed of who gives only in order to. Who could ever think of the gift as gift-that-takes? Who else but man, precisely the one who would like to take everything?" Alison's poems, in the play, are in some senses a gift from one woman to another: in Alison's experience of love they speak to Elsa's, and, at the close of act 2, they were explicitly handed to Elsa by Alison's sister, Agatha. But now, as the play closes, they are given to Elsa by Stanhope, and his very act of giving them in Alison's name can be construed not as a "woman's gift" but, rather, as a "gift-that-takes." In effect, Alison's poems, like her house (which Stanhope sells to another couple in the play's second act), are still Stanhope's to dispose of. And this gesture also suggests the extent to which the publication of Alison's writing, and hence the expression of her desire, is mediated by her socially powerful brother, much as its subsequent interpretation may be mediated by the likes of Ted and his Harvard professor.
Glaspell herself further mediates Alison's sexuality by accepting the heterosexual myth that based Emily Dickinson's withdrawal from the world on her renunciation of a male lover. In contrast with Adrienne Rich's call for a lesbian feminist reading of Dickinson and her work, Glaspell's focus on the love poems in constructing her Dickinson figure does appear to assume "heterosexual romance as the key to a woman artist's life and work" (Rich 158). This is hardly surprising given the biographies available to Glaspell at the time she wrote the play and the critical fashion for tracing the masculine references in Dickinson's poems to a mysterious male lover. But in working out Alison's influence on her other female characters, Glaspell maintains a connection between the persistent myth of heterosexual romance and the Victorian code of propriety these women supposedly reject. Alison's love, we are repeatedly told, was both heterosexual and chaste, sublimated in her writing. While female sexual desire occasionally bubbles up (like the disruptions of language from Kristeva's semiotic) in the play's dialogue, as in Elsa's admission to Ann that "when you love you want to give your man—everything in the world," in general it is "love," not desire, that drives and wounds the characters in the play. Though Elsa has broken with propriety in her choice of a lover, she repeatedly idealizes her passion, internalizing her father's emphasis on propriety and redefining it in terms of romantic love, which, for Glaspell, has now become the "proper" way to contain female desire.
The reconciliation of Stanhope and Elsa, in all of its conventionality, is equally complex. While we can infer that, in forgiving Elsa, Stanhope may jeopardize his standing in his narrow-minded community, the father-daughter embrace visibly acknowledges Stanhope's standing within the family. This gesture suggests that Elsa, like Strindberg's little Bertha, has now acknowledged Stanhope as her true parent. While Elsa, now infantilized as "Little Elsa," may still be involved with her married lover, the image with which Glaspell leaves us is that of Elsa now assuming her "proper place" as her father's daughter. Like that of other women whose lives were ruled by the Victorian social code, Elsa's power, though not entirely negligible, is largely restricted to the power to influence her father. And while the balance of power does seem to be tipping in favor of the younger generation as the play closes, Glaspell cannot envision "a revision of the family unit so complete that patriarchy would be unacceptable." Nor can she completely dismantle the class privilege that Stanhope's patriarchal control continues to uphold.
This is hardly surprising given Glaspell's own position as a woman author whose literary career Page 21 | Top of Article began at about the time she portrays Elsa as receiving the poems from her father. Perhaps we see in these ideological conflicts the struggles of Glaspell herself to reconcile a middle-class family background and her own efforts to maintain a semblance of family life with the social and aesthetic rebellions in which she also played an active part. But rather than resorting to biographical detail to justify Glaspell's conventionality, by way of conclusion I want to return to Bigsby's criticism of Alison's House to consider how the ideology of authorship I have been exploring in the play functions in Bigsby's construction of Glaspell as author of Alison's House. After dismissing the play as exposing "the extent to which Glaspell still felt it necessary to engage in a debate with her own past and with a morality which, if scarcely irrelevant, had lost a great deal of its immediacy," Bigsby goes on in the introduction to his edition of Glaspell's plays to praise Glaspell for "having written some of the most original plays ever to have come out of America." These highly original plays, we assume, are the ones Bigsby has chosen to anthologize, and, not surprisingly, Alison's House is omitted. The latter play, Bigsby implies, is not forward looking enough, since its concerns about "morality" were not especially pressing in the 1930s and, by implication, are even less so today.
In this argument Bigsby is assuming a progress in social attitudes, presumably toward adultery and the "New Woman," which Glaspell questions in her play (and which we in turn might question given the decline suffered by feminism after women won the vote in 1920). In playing off against each other changing definitions of privacy and feminine propriety, Alison's House seems to suggest that the myth of progress may be a way of mystifying the relations, particularly relations of ownership, that are still being used to keep women from controlling their own property—be it personal or literary. Even if Glaspell has, to some extent, "sold out" to commercialism and convention in Alison's House (as critics like Bigsby contend), Glaspell and her own work may be subject to an expropriation similar to that experienced by Alison and Elsa, as they and their work end up, literally, in patriarchal hands. This expropriation occurs not only in the initial lack of recognition of Glaspell's contributions to American theater but also in a "recovery" of her work by critics whose appreciation of her contribution seems grudging at best and whose readings tend to overlook the ideological conflicts of interest that give a play like Alison's House its resonance and relevance even today.
Source: Karen Laughlin, "Conflict of Interest: The Ideology of Authorship in Alison's House," in Susan Glaspell: Essays on Her Theater and Fiction, edited by Linda Ben-Zvi, University of Michigan Press, 1995, pp. 219-32.
Atkinson, J. Brooks, "The Play," in New York Times, December 2, 1930, p. 35.
——, "Pulitzer Laurels," in New York Times, May 10, 1931, p. X1.
Chamberlain, John, "A Tragi-Comedy of Idealism in Miss Glaspell's Novel," in New York Times Book Review, April 12, 1931, p. BR3.
Glaspell, Susan, Alison's House, Samuel French, 1930.
Gluck, Victor, Review of Alison's House, in Back Stage, Vol. 40, No. 40, October 8, 1999, p. 80.
"Prize Play on Broadway," in New York Times, May 12, 1931, p. 33.
Sommer, Elyse, Review of Alison's House, in CurtainUp, 1999, http://www.curtainup.com/alisonshouse.html (accessed September 22, 2006).
"Who Is Susan Glaspell?" in New York Times, May 26, 1918, p. X7.
Ben-Zvi, Linda, Susan Glaspell: A Life, Oxford University Press, 2005.
Ben-Zvi presents a scholarly analysis of the life and work of Glaspell in this biography. She also gives a critical analysis of each of Glaspell's major works.
Dickinson, Emily, The Complete Poems of Emily Dickinson, edited by Thomas H. Johnson, Little, Brown, 1960.
This collection of Dickinson's poetry contains all 1,775 poems in chronological order, a layout that is unusual for Dickinson collections but presents a refreshing view of her development as a writer.
Emerson, Ralph Waldo, Poems, J. Munroe, 1847.
Emerson's poetry was beloved by Dickinson even though he was more popular as an essayist and philosopher. His poetry is in the public domain and easy to find in various editions, including online.
Sewall, Richard Benson, The Life of Emily Dickinson, 2 vols., Farrar, Straus, Giroux, 1974.
Sewall's extensive biography of Dickinson brings new information to light about the life and work of this reclusive poet. This book won the National Book Award in 1975.