Trifles is a one-act play by Susan Glaspell. Her short story, "A Jury of Her Peers", was adapted from the play a year after its debut. It was first performed by the Provincetown Players at the Wharf Theatre in Provincetown, Massachusetts on August 8, 1916. In the original play, Glaspell played the role of one of the characters, Mrs. Hale. It is frequently anthologized in American literature textbooks.
The play is loosely based on the murder of John Hossack, which Glaspell reported on while working as a news journalist for the Des Moines Daily News. Hossack's wife, Margaret, was accused of killing her husband. However, Margaret argued that an intruder had killed John with an axe. She was convicted but it was overturned on appeal.
"...years later ... the haunting image of Margaret Hossack's kitchen came rushing back to Glaspell. In a span of ten days, Glaspell composed a one-act play, Trifles ... A year later, Glaspell reworked the material into a short story titled "A Jury of Her Peers."
Trifles is seen as an example of early feminist drama, because it is two female characters', Mrs. Peters and Mrs. Hale's, ability to sympathize with the victim's wife, Minnie, and so understand her motives, that leads them to the evidence against her, while the men are blinded by their cold, emotionless investigation of material facts. The female characters find the body of a canary, which had its neck wrung, killed in the same way as the deceased (John Wright), thus leading them to the conclusion that Minnie was the murderer, and they appear to empathize with her situation. Clearly, the wife is symbolized by the caged bird, a common symbol of women's roles in society. The plot concludes with the two women hiding the evidence against Minnie.
The male characters are prejudiced in believing that nothing important can be discovered in areas of the house where Minnie spent the majority of her time. Their minds are clouded by the prejudice and disregard important clues as being mere "trifles" that women concern themselves with, searching the barn and the bedroom, places where men have dominance, rather than the kitchen, the only place where a woman would be in charge. One important line, spoken by the sheriff, says of the kitchen "Nothing here but kitchen things." This dismissal of the importance of the woman's life and the male reluctance to enter the "woman's sphere" is key in the men's failure to discover the crucial evidence for the case. The most important evidence, the dead canary that the two women find, was hidden in Minnie's sewing basket. The men scorn the domestic sphere, even kicking some of the items in contempt.
The two women, having pieced together the murder, face the moral dilemma of telling the men about the motive or protecting Minnie, whom they see as a victim. Their choice raises questions about solidarity among women, the meaning of justice, and the role of women in society as a source of justice.
As the women note, Minnie used to sing before she married John Wright. Martha theorizes that after Minnie's marriage, she was prevented from singing, or doing anything else which would have yielded her pleasure, by her husband. Minnie's plight is represented by Martha as a spiritual death, symbolized in the strangling of her songbird companion.
Another point worth noting is that both Martha and Mrs. Peters express guilt over not having visited Minnie more often--a reading which opens up the possibility that Martha's reading of the evidence is skewed by her own feelings that she should have helped Minnie.
Minnie is embodied in her kitchen and sewing things. The cold weather freezes and breaks her preserve jars, symbolizing the cold environment of her home breaking her spirit, as well as the coldness which causes the characters to fail in human empathy towards each other. The bare kitchen can be seen as symbol of the lives of the former inhabitants.
The male characters are clear symbols of "law" and cold rationality, while the women display an intuitiveness representative of the psychoanalytic movement, evoking an interrogation of the value of superficial rational thought.
One aspect of the play which makes it unique is that the main "players" in the murder, Minnie (the murderer) and John Wright (the murdered) are never seen on stage. Their lives and personalities are fleshed out in the dialogue of other characters. The small cast and understated scenery both serve to turn the audience to the inward lives of the characters,
The title is connected to Louis Hale's line "Well, women are used to worrying over trifles."
- George Henderson, the County Attorney (originally played by Michael Hulgan)
- Henry Peters, Sheriff (originally played by Robert Conville)
- Lewis Hale, A neighboring farmer (originally played by George Cram Cook)
- Mrs. Peters, the Sheriff's wife (originally played by Alice Hall)
- Mrs. Hale (originally played by Susan Glaspell, and later by Kim Base)
- John Wright, the murdered Husband in the beginning of the Play
- Minnie Wright, main focus of the play and suspect of her husband's murder
Trifles, a chamber opera in one act, premiered in Berkeley, California at the Live Oak Theatre on June 17 and 19, 2010. It was composed by John G. Bilotta, and its libretto was written by John F. McGrew. The chamber opera is scored for five singers and six instruments, including a piano, and it requires some basic stage props. As in the play, the central figures (Mr. and Mrs. Wright) are absent from the cast of characters. Instead, through the libretto, Lewis Hale reenacts the events surrounding the discovery of Mr. Wright's murder, where he was present.
- Belasco & Johnson, The Bedford Anthology of American Literature, Volume II: 1865-Present, Bedford-St.Martin's Press, Boston, 2008, p.782
- Bryan, Patricia L. and Thomas Wolf. Midnight Assassin: A Murder in America's Heartland. Chapel Hill, NC: Algonquin Books of Chapel Hill, 2005. xii-xiii