Of all the rescue missions over the years by Richmond’s Orange Tree Theatre for the reputations of dead playwrights, few have brought back more lively returns than its pursuit of the American author and journalist Susan Glaspell, who died three years after the Second War.
This is the theatre’s fifth Glaspell, directed by its founder Sam Walters in his forty-second and final year here. Remarkably, it is also a world premiere. Somehow her own last play, Springs Eternal, never got staged until now, seventy years after it was written.
The possible reasons for this are so many that they form an engaging sub-plot in their own right. First, there was the small matter of the war. A play giving ample speech-time to the horrors awaiting US soldiers captured by the Japanese, and to the rationale of conscientious objection was perhaps too topical for its own commercial good.
Second, though Glaspell and her work in prose and drama were fearless and even strident in their embrace of social justice and feminism, she was by all accounts a diffident individual, loath to push herself at an indifferent audience. Third, her nation was entering a period of re-evaluation, in which national unity and domestic harmony (bracingly absent from Springs Eternal) were centre-stage, and for whom the anthems were soon to be found in shows like Oklahoma!
That is a very different America from the one Glaspell addresses here. The play is set in the year of its writing. Here is an eccentric and far from happy New York State household which today would probably be declared dysfunctional. Its notional head is the beleaguered intellectual Owen Higgenbothem, impaled on a daily basis by events that confound the prognosis of his Major Work, “World of Tomorrow.” His first wife is still around, with her new husband, Stuey, who seems dumbed by more fury than he can own; someone’s been using his car’s rationed gas and it’s just too much to bear.
The second wife is here too, as is, eventually, the Higgenbothems’ Conchy son Joe, all artistic sensibility and enraging naivity. Into this menage comes the unstable and largely unexplained Dottie, a young woman in mid-elopement. All faintly Chekhovian – the family at war, the world beyond refusing to stand still, the faithful and stoic retainer Mrs. Soames coming up with timeless truths in choric mode.
Chekhovian yes, but also O’Neillian. Susan Glaspell, with her husband George Cram Cook, was one of the founders of the influential Provincetown Players in 1916. In that year the company staged both O’Neill’s one-act play Bound East For Cardiff and Glaspell’s similarly brief classic Trifles, based on her coverage of a murder investigation and since then widely regarded in America as a milestone in feminist drama. Glaspell was twelve years older than O’Neill; she had been a formidable journalist and acclaimed novelist. It has been said that one of her under-acknowledged achievements was the discovery of the young O’Neill. Yet it is surely also true that O’Neill discovered her, in the sense of being influenced by her constructive entanglement of the domestic with the political. If you accept the potency of her influence, as many latterday Glaspellites insist we should, then she can be seen as a kind of missing (or rather re-found) link in the chain that led to the Arthur Miller of All My Sons in 1947, and beyond.
If you want to hear Glaspell’s time and influence evaluated at length, the Orange Tree is holding a special seminar on October 12, with authors and academics from Europe and The States.
Meanwhile, in the Higgenbothem household, Owen is held together with painstaking patience by Stuart Fox, bludgeoned into a kind of acceptance of current affairs and filial devotion; Jeremy Lloyd blows in as Conchy Jumbo like a sweet thought in a dirty world, and Lydia Larson gives us rather more clues to the nature of the well-named Dottie’s malaise than does the author. You’d love to ask Glaspell what she was up to.
Fortunately, and thanks in part to the Orange Tree, there are many with a view on this. What no-one knows is the outcome of the theatre’s in-house suspense drama: Who Takes Over From Sam Walters? It’s been running a while.
Review by Alan Franks @alanfranks
Springs Eternal is at the Orange Tree Theatre Richmond from 11th September – 19th October 2013
Friday 20th September 2013