Trifles is a one-act play by Susan Glaspell. It was first performed by the Provincetown Players at the Wharf Theatre in Provincetown, Massachusetts, on August 8, 1916. In the original performance, Glaspell played the role of Mrs. Hale. The play is frequently anthologized in American literature textbooks. The play was soon followed by the short story, "A Jury of Her Peers", also written by Glaspell, which carries the same characters and plotline.
- George Henderson – The county attorney (originally played by Michael Hulgan)
- Henry Peters – Local sheriff and husband of Mrs. Peters (originally played by Robert Conville)
- Lewis Hale – Neighbor of the Wrights (originally played by George Cram Cook)
- Mrs. Peters – Wife of the sheriff (originally played by Alice Hall)
- Mrs. Hale – Neighbor to the Wrights and wife of Lewis Hale (originally played by Susan Glaspell, and later by Kim Base)
- John Wright – The murdered man and owner of the house
- Mrs. Minnie Wright – John Wright's wife and his murderer
The play begins as the men, followed by the women, enter the Wright's empty farm house. On command from the county attorney, Mr. Hale recounts his visit to the house the previous day, when he found Mrs. Wright behaving strangely and her husband upstairs with a rope around his neck, dead. Mr. Hale notes that when he questioned her, Mrs. Wright claimed that she was asleep when someone strangled her husband. While the county attorney, Mr. Hale, and Mr. Peters are searching the house for evidence, Mrs. Hale and Mrs. Peters find clues in the kitchen and hallway to this unsolved mystery. The men find no clues upstairs in the Wright house that would prove Mrs. Wright guilty, but the women find a dead canary that cracks the case wide open. The wives realize Mr. Wright killed the bird, and that led to Mrs. Wright killing her husband. The wives piece together that Minnie was being abused by her husband, and they understand how it feels to be oppressed by men. Because they feel bad for Minnie, they hide the evidence against her and she is spared the punishment for killing her husband.
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. The two female characters, Mrs. Peters and Mrs. Hale, are able to sympathize with Minnie, the victim's wife, and understand her possible motive, which leads them to the evidence against her. The men, meanwhile, are blinded by their cold, emotionless investigation of material facts. The female characters find the body of a canary, with its neck wrung, killed in the same way as John Wright, thus leading them to the conclusion that Minnie was the murderer. Clearly, the wife is represented 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 most of her time. Their minds are clouded by prejudice and they disregard important clues as being mere "trifles" that women concern themselves with. They search 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 a woman's life and the male reluctance to enter the "women'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.
One of the constant themes and focuses of the story is the divide between the psychology of men and women. Their respective social roles allow them to perceive very different aspects of Minnie's life. One of the differences in psychology shown in the play is that women need a sense of community and do not fare well with loneliness, while men seem to be able to cope with loneliness.
There is also a theme of justice within the play, as the wives of the men recognize that Minnie was abused by her husband, and hide the evidence against her so that she will not be found guilty. The women side with Minnie and understand why she chose to kill her husband.
As the women note, Minnie used to sing before she married John Wright. Martha theorizes that after Minnie's marriage, she was prevented, by her husband, from singing or doing anything else which would have yielded her pleasure. 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— which opens up the possibility that Martha's reading of the evidence is skewed by her own feelings that she should have helped Minnie.
The use of Minnie's name is also symbolic. When the women talk about her, they use the name Minnie only when talking about her past. When she was a free-spirited, single woman her name was Minnie. This represents her happiness. The Women refer to her as Mrs. Wright when talking about her more recently. They talk as if Minnie died when she was married and Mrs. Wright took her place. The free-spirit died and was replaced by an isolated wife. The use of her names varies to demonstrate this metaphorical death.
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 cold weather can also symbolize how Mr. Wright treated Minnie.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.
Mrs. Wright also acts as the "invisible" heroine for women's rights as the play was written and set during the suffragette movement.
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 derived from Lewis Hale's line "Well, women are used to worrying over trifles." The title also suggests that women's actions and concerns are considered by the men as mere "trifles".
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
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