Susan Glaspell’s one-act play, Trifles, is based on actual events that occurred in Iowa at the turn of the century. From 1899-1901 Glaspell worked as a reporter for the Des Moines News, where she covered the murder trial of a farmer’s wife, Margaret Hossack, in Indianola, Iowa. Hossack was accused of killing her husband, John, by striking him twice in the head with an ax while he slept.
Initially it was assumed that burglars had murdered the farmer, but a subsequent sheriff’s investigation turned up evidence suggesting Mrs. Hossack was unhappy in her marriage. Ultimately, she was charged with and found guilty of the crime and sentenced to life in prison.
Over the course of sixteen months, Glaspell wrote twenty-six articles covering the case, from the announcement of the murder until Hossack’s conviction. The author found herself feeling more and more sympathy for the accused, in spite of the grisly nature of the crime.
Years later, Glaspell and her husband, George Cook, along with some friends, founded the Provincetown Players, an amateur theatrical company on Cape Cod, Massachusetts. In 1916 the group presented a summertime series of plays that included Eugene O'Neill's Bound East for Cardiff. In need of a new play to end the season, Cook suggested Glaspell should write a one-act for the company. Her memory of the Hossack trial inspired Trifles.
Trifles is a murder mystery that explores gender relationships, power between the sexes, and the nature of truth. In the play, the farmer and his wife never actually appear; instead, the story focuses on the prosecutor, George Henderson, who has been called in to investigate the murder; Henry Peters, the local sheriff; Lewis Hale, a neighboring farmer who discovered Wright’s body; and Mrs. Peters and Mrs. Hale, wives to the two local men.
While the men bluster and tramp around the farmhouse searching for clues, the women discover bits of evidence in the ‘‘trifles’’ of a farmer’s wife—her baking, cleaning and sewing. Because the men virtually ignore the women’s world, they remain blind to the truth before their eyes.
The setting for Trifles, a bleak, untidy kitchen in an abandoned rural farmhouse, quickly establishes the claustrophobic mood of the play. While a cold winter wind blows outside, the characters file in one at a time to investigate a violent murder: the farm’s owner, John Wright, was apparently strangled to death while he slept, and his wife, Minnie, has been taken into custody as a suspect in the crime.
The sheriff, Henry Peters, is the first to enter the farmhouse, followed by George Henderson, the attorney prosecuting the case. Lewis Hale, a neighbor, is next to enter. The men cluster around a stove to get warm while they prepare for their investigation.
Mrs. Peters and Mrs. Hale follow the men into the kitchen; yet, they hesitate just inside the door. They are obviously quite disturbed by what has happened in the house and proceed with more care than their husbands.
In a play filled with minor details (trifles) that take on major significance, the entrance of the characters is very revealing. There is an obvious divide—social, psychological, and physical—separating the men from the women, a fact that takes on a larger significance as the play progresses.
The investigation begins with Henderson questioning Lewis, who discovered the murder the day before. Lewis explains that he was on his way into town with a load of potatoes and stopped at the Wright farmhouse to see if John and Minnie wanted to share a telephone line with him, since they were neighbors. The farmer admits that he didn’t think John would be interested, since he didn’t like to talk much and didn’t seem to care about what his wife might want.
When he appeared at the Wright’s door early in the morning, he found Minnie rocking nervously in a chair, pleating her apron. When he asked to see her husband, she quietly told Lewis that he was lying upstairs with a rope around his neck, dead.
Lewis summoned his partner, Harry, to check the grisly scene. The two men found John just as his wife described him. Minnie claimed someone strangled him in the middle of the night without disturbing her. ‘‘I sleep sound,’’ she explained to her shocked neighbor.
Henderson suggests the men should look around the house for clues, beginning with the bedroom upstairs and the barn outside. Henry casually dismisses the room where Minnie sat, suggesting there is ‘‘nothing here but kitchen things.’’
It is those very kitchen things, however, which prove to be the most telling clues about what really happened in the Wright farmhouse. Climbing up on a chair to view the top shelf of a cupboard closet, Henderson finds some broken jars of fruit preserves. Mrs. Peters asserts that Minnie was afraid those jars would freeze and break while she was away. ‘‘Well, can you beat the woman!’’ Henry scoffs, ‘‘Held for murder and worryin’ about her preserves.’’ Lewis chimes in, ‘‘Well, women are used to worrying over trifles.’’
This callous exchange highlights one of Glaspell’s most important themes in the play— differences between the sexes—and propels the plot forward into its next stage, the real detective work accomplished by Mrs. Peters and Mrs. Hale.
The men go upstairs to continue their investigation, giving the two women a chance to talk privately for the first time. As they gather things to take to Minnie—a change of clothes, her shawl, and her familiar apron—Mrs. Hale remembers her friend from years ago, before she married John. ‘‘She used to wear pretty clothes and be lively, when she was Minnie Foster, one of the town girls singing in the choir,’’ Mrs. Hale recalls.
Minnie married John, who moved her to a lonesome farmhouse at the bottom of a hill. John was, by all accounts, a taciturn man with a violent temper. Under his roof, Minnie no longer socialized, and her gay party attire turned to drab, functional house clothes.
What the men are seeking, Mrs. Peters notes, is evidence of a specific incident that must have sparked the murder. What the women are finding, however, are small signs of detachment and frustration everywhere—a loaf of bread left outside a breadbox, a table partly cleaned, and a piece of quilt with frantic, uneven stitching.
The men return and pass through the kitchen in time to hear the women discussing whether Minnie was going to quilt or knot the sewing project. To them, the question is frivolous, just the sort of thing women use to occupy their time.
While their husbands search for evidence outside the house, Mrs. Peters and Mrs. Hale discover the final, essential clues to the mystery in the kitchen. While looking for some paper and string to wrap Minnie’s things, Mrs. Peters discovers an empty birdcage with a broken door in a cupboard.
Neither woman can recall whether she actually had a bird, but Mrs. Hale remembers that Minnie did have a beautiful singing voice when she was younger. Their find takes on tragic significance, however, when Mrs. Hale opens Minnie’s sewing box and discovers a small canary wrapped in a piece of silk—with a broken neck.
Suddenly, the men return. Instinctively, Mrs. Hale hides the sewing box under the pieces of quilt. When Henderson notices the cage and asks about the bird, Mrs. Peters joins Mrs. Hale in hiding evidence. ‘‘We think the—cat got it,’’ she lies.
The men decide to take one final look around upstairs, leaving the women alone to decide their course of action. Neither will say what is on their minds out loud, but both show understanding and sympathy for the plight of Mrs. Wright.
As a girl, Mrs. Peters remembers a boy killing her kitten with a hatchet, which brings back her feelings of rage and helplessness. She also recalls years of loneliness and desolation, when she and her husband were homesteading in the Dakota plains, and her baby died, leaving her alone in the house.
For her part, Mrs. Hale has vivid memories of Minnie Foster when she was happy and outgoing, before she became Mrs. Wright, imprisoned in this bleak farmhouse, cut off from the world.
The women consider their alternatives: disclose what they know, or cover up the clues that suggest a motive to the crime. Mrs. Peters finds the answer in the men’s patronizing treatment. ‘‘My, it’s a good thing the men couldn’t hear us,’’ she says half-jokingly. ‘‘Wouldn’t they just laugh! Getting all stirred up over a little thing like a—dead canary.’’ Without admitting it aloud, this is the only excuse the women need to keep Minnie’s private agony a secret.
The men return once again. Henderson glances quickly at the items Mrs. Peters has collected to take to Minnie, not noticing the sewing box with the dead bird.
While the men take one last look around to examine the windows of the house, Mrs. Peters frantically tries to hide the box in her handbag. It won’t fit and she begins to panic. Just as the doorknob turns and the men start back into the room Mrs. Hale finds room for the box in her coat. The trifles are safely hidden.