Props in Trifles

The title of the play is Trifles, which is an obvious nod to the role that details play within the performance. Susan Glaspell’s one act play takes place in a farm house, where law enforcement officers are investigating a murder. As the male officers search for clues upstairs, the two women downstairs piece together the answer to the mystery using clues from the messy kitchen that the men overlooked. The play ends with the two women, Mrs. Peters and Mrs. Hale, hiding their discoveries from the men because they feel sympathy (and even empathy with) Mrs. Wright.

It is through their observations of the small details in the kitchen that the two women are able to decipher the motive for the crime. The mess that the men overlook because Mrs. Wright “didn’t have the homemaking instinct” turns out to be important because “women are used to worrying over trifles” (1.1.47, 1.1.35). Therefore, the role of details in the play is a central one. Because details, or rather, trifles, are so important to the plot, the stage directions of Trifles list an extensive number of props. For instance, the play requires a rocking chair, a small chair, and any number of small kitchen items. The beginning stage directions specifically list that there should be “unwashed pans under the sink, a loaf of bread outside the bread-box, a dish-towel on the table”, and hint that the director of the play might add more visual indicators of the kitchen’s disarray. Later on, the quilting scraps and basket, as well as the damaged birdcage, are important objects in the revelation of motive and the emotional climax of the scene.

What this short play lacks in length and cast, the specific list of props makes up for. This underscores the theme of the play, as supported by the title – Trifles. The line “women are used to worrying over trifles” ties into the conclusion that the women who worry over these trifles will be the ones who discover the motive for the crime and ultimately make the choice to keep silent in order to possibly save Mrs. Wright (1.1.35). Thus, props as details not only act as technical elements of the play, but they also reinforce the ultimate theme of Trifles: the importance of details and the ones who truly observe them.

A Reflection of Dialogue and Setting in Trifles by Susan Glaspell

The dialogue in Trifles by Susan Glaspell is perfectly natural and colloquial. Through the use of dialogue in Trifles the reader is able to discover the setting, season, and even learn details about the circumstances of the characters within the play. The dialogue in Trifles also transports the reader to a time period where there were only workingmen and housewives, to where gender roles played a big role in society. This is specifically noticed as Mrs. Hale and the County Attorney exchange words:

COUNTY ATTORNEY: […] Not much of a housekeeper, would you say, ladies?

MRS. HALE: [Stiffly] There’s a great deal of work to be done on a farm

COUNTY ATTORNEY: To be sure. And yet [With a little bow to her] I know there are some Dickson county farmhouses which do not have such roller towels.

In this area of the play the County Attorney has become disgusted with the conditions of the Wright farmhouse and questions how a housewife, could let the house be in the shape it was. The effortlessness of the dialogue emphasizes the ease of the characters; they are not concerned with anything else other than the matter at hand, to put together the murder case of Mr. Wright.Through dialogue the reader is also able to illustrate the characters. Mrs. Hale described Mr. Wright as a good man but a bit tough.

MRS. HALE: Yes – good; he didn’t drink, and kept his word as well as most, I guess, and paid his debts. But he was a hard man […]

She also described Mrs. Wright in delightful ways.

MRS. HALE: She – come to think of it, she was kind of like a bird herself – real sweet and pretty, but kind of timid and – fluttery. […]

Through dialogue between Mrs. Peters and Mrs. Hale we also learn that Mr. and Mrs. Wright were married but did not have children.

Photo Credit: Flickr, photograph by Justin Smiley

*Photo Credit: Flickr Photograph by Justin Smiley

One of the features of setting in Trifles is the time of year. The first line of the play is the County Attorney speaking:

COUNTY ATTORNEY: [Rubbing hands] This feels good. Come up to the fire ladies.

This first line cues a season for the reader, winter. The play begins with the County Attorney rubbing his hands together, gesturing a creation of friction to create heat, and two women approaching a fire to keep warm. The season is further confirmed when the sheriff comments that “it dropped below zero last night”. Susan Glaspell skillfully incorporates the weather into the setting of the play using it as an element to characterize the attitude of the farmhouse murder case of Mr. Wright. A cold place, no children, and a question among the characters of whether or not there was ever joy in that house. The physical setting is at Mr. Wright’s farmhouse, the scene of the crime. Glaspell creatively placed the play during the winter season and in conjunction set the “lifeless” farmhouse in a hollow that as Mrs. Hale confirms can’t be seen from the road. The setting also conveys meaning in characterizing Mr. and Mrs. Wright’s relationship.

MRS. HALE: Not having children makes less work – but it makes a quiet house, and Wright out to work all day, and no company when he did come in. Did you know John Wright, Mrs. Peters?

Mr. and Mrs. Wright did not have children and yet they didn’t seem to have time for each other. In comparison to the farmhouse their marriage relationship was also lifeless and cold. Glaspell also uniquely crafts a setting within the physical setting. The play begins with all the characters in the kitchen of the farmhouse. The kitchen is significant because as discussed, through the dialogue the reader distinguishes this play to take place during the time period where only the men would work and women stayed home taking care of the upkeep of the house. The use of the setting within the physical setting ties back to the system of gender roles, strategically this is the only place women of the play are placed.

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