Susan Glaspell at the Orange Tree

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The Orange Tree Theatre in Richmond does the job that the National usually can’t be bothered with these days – hunting out forgotten plays from the past and seeing if they still have theatrical legs.

Yesterday I saw an American play that has not been performed or published since its first production , Chains of Dew by Susan Glaspell. I’ve been an admirer of Glaspell’s since reading one of her stories in a 1919 Vanity Fair. In that hero comes home to find his girl about to marry the coward – a typical post-war story situation. Glaspell twists it unexpectedly, and the girl chooses the coward because he needs her more.

Chains of Dew is set at the time when birth control was a controversial subject in America. The Comstock act against sending obscene material through the post was implemented against birth control propagandists who wanted to spread the word (The same act had been used against the Little Review, when they published Wyndham Lewis’s Cantleman’s Spring Mate). This only increased the missionary fervour of the birth-controllers.

Previous treatments of the theme that I’ve come across are mostly satirical. Edith Wharton in Twilight Sleep and Wodehouse in The Coming of Bill satirise bossy family-planning ladies who want to run other people’s lives for them. Rose Macaulay in What Not imagines a dystopian future in which the Ministry of Brains regulates everyone’s breeding on eugenic principles. Glaspell is more sympathetic to the movement, but not gushingly so, like Robert Keable in his novel Recompence.

Glaspell is less interested in the ideas of the eugenics movement than in the social comedy of the contrast between Greenwich Village bohemian birth-controllers and the staid respectables of the Middle West. The character who links the two is a poet who comes to New York to complain about the stuffiness of his life as a bank manager (Was she thinking of Eliot? Or Wallace Stevens?) in a small town. When the birth-controllers are given a donation, Nora Powers, their bobbed-hair leading-light, decides that the poet’s town is the place that they should start campaigning.

We see the poet in his small-town home, with his doll-wife, “Little Dotty Dimple” and tedious local worthies. Then Nora appears in this setting, and the play takes off. New York values collide with Middle-Western ones, and Glaspell enjoys herself enormously. The poet’s wife and mother become enthusiastic converts to the new movement, and reveal that they too have felt limited and stultified by the small town. The poet gets more and more confused, and it becomes increasingly clear that he needs small-town stuffiness as much as he needs bouts of Greenwich Village liberation. He needs something to react against (His mother, a lovely character, points out how much he has always enjoyed being unhappy) and when his wife bobs her hair it confuses all his assumptions.

Glaspell gives a bitter twist to the ending – reminding us that one person’s happiness generally has to come at the cost of others’.

This is probably the most intelligent play running in London at the moment. Highly recommended.

The Orange Tree (whose threatened grant cut has not happened) will be presenting a programme of three Glaspell one-acters soon. I’ll try to get to them. Two of her novels are published by Persephone Books.

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