One of just two Pulitzer Prize winners from the Quad Cities is the inspiration for a new local theater troupe, the New Athens Players, which will give its premiere performances late this month.
A 90-minute program will be presented Feb. 24-26 and March 3-5 at Village Theatre, Davenport, of three short pieces connected to the famous and yet still frequently neglected Pulitzer-winning Davenport writer Susan Glaspell (1876-1948).
Glaspell and her husband, George Cram Cook, were active in the arts and literary scene in the Quad Cities in the early 20th century; together they moved to the East Coast and founded the Provincetown Players, a groundbreaking theater company in which Eugene O’Neill (a more famous American playwright) got his start.
“It’s a little bit of an experiment,” Mischa Hooker — founder of New Athens Players and director of the first production — said recently. “I don’t know necessarily for sure that it will continue. I would like to continue if possible. The idea is that there’s not a theater company around that has an ongoing sort of commitment to remember Susan Glaspell and be inspired by her.”
Hooker also has been editing the 1921 Glaspell play “The Verge,” to be released as an audio drama. The former QC Theatre Workshop in Davenport had a Susan Glaspell Playwriting Festival, that started in February 2017, and the troupe’s director, Aaron Randolph adapted her “Inheritors” (1921), which was performed in summer 2016.
“One of the great things about the Workshop show for ‘Inheritors’ is that Aaron had cut it and sort of revised it,” Hooker said. “I think he was doing that with an eye to presentation for a modern audience and it really worked well.”
“In her works, Glaspell often challenged gender roles and featured strong, well-written female characters that drove the action of the play – a rarity in her own time as much as it is now,” the QCTW said. Due to the immense contributions she made to the American theatre tradition during her lifetime, she has often been called “The First Lady of American Drama.”
“People who study American theater in general are definitely familiar with her as a name, if not with all of her works,” Hooker said. “The name recognition is there, but probably not a great appreciation for all of her works, in a lot of cases.”
Glaspell was recognized in her time for not only being an outspoken feminist, but a writer in theater, short stories and novels, who pushed the envelope for creativity, he said.
“One of the things that I’m trying to bring forward is a very straightforward expression of rebellion against conventional norms and the rules of the institution,” Hooker said. “She felt held down by the expectations of being a woman in society in the early 20th century.”
Glaspell’s writing “goes to a very experimental place and I feel like that is maybe a side of her that’s also not well known,” he said. “ ‘The Verge’ is this thing that’s sometimes described as expressionistic. It’s really a great piece. I think it goes further than anything else in pushing the boundaries of expression.
“What she is doing is basically just pushing the boundaries and trying to make new things and trying to follow her creativity and her genius,” Hooker said of that play.
The name of the new company is based on a comment her husband George Cram Cook made to Floyd Dell while they were in Greece, that they should return to Davenport and start a “New Athens,” he said. But Cook died in Greece on Jan. 14, 1924.
Glaspell returned to Provincetown (on the northern tip of Cape Cod) and later New York City.
The Provincetown Players weren’t meant to simply be entertainment, but “socially vital and spoke to people,” Hooker said. “It was like food for the soul, basically. That’s what I think they were trying to replicate from ancient Greece.”
Writer in many fields
Glaspell began as a newspaper reporter, then wrote over 50 short stories, nine novels, 15 plays, and one biography, according to the Intenational Susan Glaspell Society. Many of her novels reached the best-seller lists, and one, Brook Evans (1928), was made into a movie.
Her plays received excellent reviews and in 1931 she was awarded the Pulitzer Prize for her play Alison’s House. Her novels were positively reviewed through the 1930s and her 1939 novel, The Morning is Near Us, was the Literary Guild Book of the Month choice for April 1940, selling more than 100,000 copies.
Glaspell was the co-founder with her husband George Cram Cook of the Provincetown Players (1916-1922), the company that did most to promote American playwrights, and her diplomacy and energy held the group together for seven years, the society website says. It was largely thanks to Glaspell’s intervention that O’Neill’s first plays were performed, and she played a major role in stimulating and encouraging his writing in the following years, the site says.
By 1922, once Eugene O’Neill’s The Emperor Jones had given some of the Provincetowners a taste for Broadway, Glaspell and Cook became so disappointed by the back-fighting and ambitious scheming that was dividing the Players, they decided to leave the theatre and go to Greece. Cook’s dream had always been to explore the sites of antiquity, and Glaspell was convinced that they needed time together, away from theatrical squabbles.
They settled in Delphi, where they attempted to live the simple life of the shepherds, and became engrossed in an archaic lifestyle that fired Glaspell’s imagination and inspired what many consider to be her greatest novel, Fugitive’s Return (1929).
Glaspell returned to the U.S. in 1924 after Cook’s death in Greece, and settled in Provincetown, where she wrote two of her best novels, Brook Evans (1928) and Fugitive’s Return.
“Glaspell’s oeuvre is unparalleled in American letters in its major achievements in three genres: drama, novel, and short story,” according to the society. “Writing for the theatre made Glaspell more aware of innovations in structure and style, and her later novels benefited from her intense involvement in the development of the American drama.
“Glaspell’s plays and fiction portray feminist issues such as women’s struggle for expression in a patriarchal culture, the loving yet fraught relationships between daughters and mothers, and female friendship as an essential part of women’s growth toward autonomy and selfhood.”
Get deets on New Athens
The works on the New Athens Players bill are:
• Susan Glaspell’s most famous one-act play, “Trifles” — a 1916 play that demonstrates the quiet solidarity between women in the context of a murder trial (based on a crime and investigation Glaspell reported on in Des Moines).
• A dramatization of Glaspell’s short story, “The Rules of the Institution” — a piece that showcases a young woman’s rebellion against arbitrarily imposed traditions of behavior.
• A memorial of Glaspell’s husband Jig Cook and his untimely death in Greece, made up of excerpts from the poetry of Cook, along with the reminiscences of Glaspell and fellow QC writer Floyd Dell: “An Iowa Seer Comes Home to Greece: Memories of Jig Cook.”
The cast of “Trifles” features Alaina Pascarella, Kate Farence, Michael Carron, John R. Turner and Jay Ruefer.
“The Rules of the Institution” features Olivia Hoft, Kate Farence, Patti Flaherty, Kitty Israel, Christina Sanders-Ring, Alaina Pascarella, Dee Canfield and John R. Turner.
“An Iowa Seer Comes Home to Greece” features Dee Canfield as Glaspell, Dave Bonde as Cook, and Michael Carron as Floyd Dell.
Performances will be at 7:30 p.m. Friday, Feb. 24 and Saturday, Feb. 25 (plus March 3 and 4), and 2 p.m. Sunday, Feb. 26 (plus March 5), at The Village Theatre (2113 E. 11 St., Davenport). Tickets are $12 each ($10 for seniors/students/military), or two for $20 cash.
Make reservations by emailing NewAthensPlayers@gmail.com (be sure to request reservations at least 24 hours before showtime); reservations are official when you receive confirmation email; any unclaimed reservations will be released for general purchase 10 minutes before showtime).