by Suzanne Labry
Quilts have often appeared as props in literature, film, and theatre. But perhaps never as crucial to the plot as in a well-regarded play by Susan Glaspell. And even though it is more than a century old, it touches on an aspect of women’s place in society that still resonates today.
Susan Glaspell (1876-1948) was a Pulitzer Prize-winning dramatist, who also wrote bestselling novels and award-winning short fiction.
She was a founding member of the Provincetown Players, which is known as the first modern American theater company, and is remembered for discovering playwright Eugene O’Neill.
She is regarded by feminists as one of the earliest writers who dealt with subjects from a woman’s perspective. When Glaspell was a young newspaper reporter working in her native Iowa, she covered the sensational 1901 trial of a farmwoman who was accused of murdering her husband as he slept next to her.
In 1916, Glaspell drew on that story to write a one-act play called Trifles. The title comes from a line in the play in which a male character says, "Well, women are used to worrying over trifles," indicating that women's actions and concerns are considered by the men as having little importance.
In the play, two women accompany the sheriff and county attorney to a farmhouse where a man has been murdered. The women are there in order to gather some clothing to take to the dead man’s wife, who has been arrested as the prime suspect.
The men are trying to discover evidence to support the murder charge, but can find nothing. The women, however, quickly figure out that the wife is indeed guilty, and they do so partially by looking at the quilt that she was making prior to her husband’s death.
They can tell from the Log Cabin blocks she was working on that something caused her to snap—the workmanship that had been consistently neat and precise suddenly had become wildly irregular in the block where the wife’s needle remained.
The women then go on to discover other clues that lead to their conclusion. They do not reveal what they know to the men, however, out of compassion for the wife, and the terrible life they knew she had endured with her abusive husband.
In 1917, Glaspell reworked Trifles into a short story called A Jury of Her Peers. Trifles is considered to be among the best short works of American theatre, and A Jury of Her Peers is frequently found in short fiction anthologies.
The story continues to resonate with audiences. In the 1950s it was adapted into an episode of the Alfred Hitchcock Presents television series, and in 1980, director Sally Heckel made it into a 30-minute film that was nominated for an Academy Award.
The use of a quilt as a secret code that is recognized and understood only by women is crucial to the resolution of Glaspell’s story. It represents something distinctly female: both an item and an activity flying under the radar of male detection or interest.
That Glaspell would select a quilt for such a pivotal role in the story speaks to the role that quilts themselves would have played in rural life in the United States in the early part of the 20th century. While social mores have changed more than a century on, the tale still has the power to make us think about the way society views women’s work. It also reminds us that quilts tell stories—if we only take time to read them!