Sunday, April 22, 2018


Inheritors was Susan Glaspell’s (1882-1948) first full-length play. Its premiere performance was on March 21, 1921 at the Provincetown Playhouse in New York City. Glaspell and her husband, George Cram Cook (1873-1924) founded the Provincetown Players in 1915.  They are credited with launching the little theatre movement in the United States, introducing the works of new American playwrights including Eugene O’Neill (1888-1953) and producing plays with social significance.
                                                                      Susan Glaspell
Inheritors reflects the effects World War One had on life in America after the war. Once the United States entered the war during the Spring of 1917, President Wilson quickly signed a series of executive orders that became known as the Espionage and Sedition Acts of 1917-18. These new laws were passed to censor the circulation of any opposition to the official war effort.  The war and its aftermath raised questions about national identity. There was division in the population about continuing to follow the founding principles set forth in the Bill of Rights and the Constitution of the United States.

This division of political thought relating to the foundational principles of democracy compelled Glaspell to make her statements regarding freedom of speech.  The Espionage and Sedition Acts had just been revoked when Inheritors was produced in 1921.

Act One is set in the sitting-room of the Morton’s farmhouse in the American mid-west. The time is afternoon of July 4th1879. Silas Morton and Felix Fejevary are in town celebrating the anniversary of America’s independence. Felix, who was driven from Hungary, his homeland, is Silas’s aristocratic neighbor and friend.

Grandmother Morton, Silas’s mother, is awaiting their return. Grandmother Morton and her husband were two of the original pioneers to settle in this area. This act reviews passed histories, establishes friendships and reveals Silas’s dream of establishing a co-educational college on his hill that overlooks the town.

Act Two, Scene 1. The time is October,1920. (The play shifts into what was present day when it was originally preformed.) The setting is in the library of Morton College. A celebration is in in progress for this institution’s fortieth anniversary marking its founding.

The two major characters are the descendants of Silas Morton and Felix Fejevary. Felix, Jr. is a banker and president of the board of trustees for Morton College. Madeline Fejevary Morton is Silas’s granddaughter and Felix Jr’s niece.  She is a student at Morton College. On this specific day Felix is trying to convince Senator Lewis that the college is neither involved with political issues involving foreign countries nor any other radical behavior. He wants the Senator to support the college’s request for a state grant. The senator is concerned about one of the professors who supported a former student who was a conscientious objector.   As Felix explains the resolution of that situation, a protest erupts outside of the library’s window. The college’s two Hindu students shout their opposition to British rule in India. A policeman gets involved and the situation grows as Madeline interferes. She strikes the policeman with her tennis racket. She is arrested along with the two Hindu students.

Act Two, Scene 2. The setting is in the reading area of the library. It is three hours later. Professor Holden, the faculty member identified as being reactionary, is seated at a library table reading. Felix returns to the library and joins Holden. They discuss Holden’s need to be more discreet about his opinions. Their differences emerge before Madeline returns. (Felix had gotten her out of jail prior to the opening of this scene.) Holden leaves as Felix turns his attention to Madeline.  They debate about their beliefs for the rest of the scene. Madeline is not swayed to Felix’s point of view and she escapes the situation when Holden allows her to slip past him at the doorway.  She is intent on being a proactive member of the growing crowd gathering outside the library window.

Act Three. The setting is the sitting room seen in Act One, but with several changes in décor. The time is early afternoon, a week after the events of Act Two. Madeline is sitting at the table as her father, Ira Morton enters.  This act is devoted to Madeline deciding how she wants to shape her future. Does she follow Felix’s political ideas and stay at Morton College/home or does she follow her own developing sense of what is appropriate behavior and leave?

Debate is the heart of this play. It identifies the idealized dreams of an American forefather in Act One. Acts Two and Three illustrate the diverse thinking of the American people following World War One. In 1920 some of the older ideals relating to the sacred freedoms that were crucial points to the early Americans were being trampled upon which Glaspell’s play clearly exposes.
Following the Provincetown Playhouse production of Inheritors, there were reviews both positive and negative.  Alexander Woollcott, critic for the New York Times stated on March 27, 1921: “painfully dull, pulseless and desultory.” But many others did not agree.  Ludwig Lewisohn, the critic for the Nation (April 6, 1921) wrote: “No competent critic, whatever his attitude to the play’s tendency, will be able to deny the power and brilliance of Miss Glaspell’s characterization. . . .  She has recorded the tragic disintegration of American idealism.”

The play continued to gather admirers both as audiences and readers of the script. Inheritors was published in 1921 by Small, Maynard & Company of Boston. It continued to spark discussions throughout the United States.  Jasper Deeter (1893-1972) who directed the original production of the play, gave readings of Inheritors.  In February,1923 the Harrisburg, Pennsylvania Telegraph reported Deeter would appear at The College Club to give his reading. He was committed to this play since he believed it to be one of the most political plays written in the United States up to that time.

The next major production of this play in the United Sates was presented by the Civic Repertory Theatre, the New York City theatre company under the leadership of Eva Le Gallienne (1899-1991). It opened on March 15, 1927 and was scheduled for seventeen performances. Le Gallienne became interested in the play and had been impressed with the excellent British newspaper articles about the playwright as well as the positive reviews it had received in England during its 1925 run.

The first English production of this play was presented by the Liverpool Repertory Theatre. The London Guardian (September 28, 1925) praised this theatre for producing Inheritors since “it takes rank among the most sincere and moving plays of our time.” This company transferred its production to the Everyman Theatre in London in December. Linda Ben-Zvi reports in her 2005 book titled Susan Glaspell: Her Life and Times that “all the major (London) newspapers and literary magazines ran extensive reviews, most unanimous in their appreciation of the work.” *

Inheritors continued to be presented in the United States regularly throughout the 1930s. It received at least one annual performance a year at the Hedgerow Theatre based in Rose Valley, Pennsylvania located near Philadelphia. This tradition started in 1923 and special American holidays were celebrated by this theatre with a presentation of Inheritors. I do not know when this tradition changed, but current theatre personnel told me that Inheritors was revived during the 1973 season and again in 1982.

This drama received a New York revival in December,1983. It was presented by the Mirror Theater during its first season with Geraldine Page (1924-1987) playing the role of Aunt Isabel. This was an off-Broadway Company that included many recognized British and American actors.

The warnings relating to American ideals and practices are as relevant today as they were in 1921. Inheritors is worth reading for its debate as well as to contemplate how this early modern drama presents a historical perspective.

    1.   Ben-Zvi, Linda.  Susan Glaspell Her Life and Times. Oxford: University Press, 2005.
    2.  Drawing appears on back cover: Waterman, Arthur E. Susan Glaspell. New York: Twayne
           Publishers, Inc. 1966. The original is in the New York Public Library Picture Collection.
   3.  Photo of Provincetown Theatre production (1921) from Gainor, J. Ellen. Susan Glaspell in 
          Context. Ann Arbor: The University of Michigan Press, 2001.

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