Alice Gerstenbergwer’s ‘Overtones’ Susan Glaspell’s " Trifles" and "Tender Offer" by Wendy Wasserstein reflects resentment towards cultural and traditionaTril gender roles. It can safely be that the issue of gender role is the central theme of these plays. These modern plays questioned the existing gender roles defiantly. Every play produced on the American stage, with perhaps a few insignificant exceptions, has had something to say on the feminist question.(Florence, 921)
Gender roles in Overtones:
In Overtones, the theme of feminism with major reference to gender roles runs throughout the play though in a very unwittingly manner. Gersternbergwer is said to be the first modern dramatist to have used two women as one character representing the conflict between id and ego. The two characters, Margaret and Harriet being one in essence, do not explicitly broach the suppression of women and their limitations, or lack of opportunities in professional context. Gersternbergwer does it by having them bogged down in the mire of discontent arising due to their sheer dependence on husbands.
They both expect their men to provide them a prosperous life but to their chagrin what comes out is enough to shatter their dreams and expectations. Sadly enough, their dependence on their husbands further compounds their quandary. More so, neither woman has enough resources at her command to lessen their predicament and improve their lives. Consequently, they grope to establish a relationship with a prosperous man to mitigate such situation and to look forward to a self-satisfying life. Harriet reminds her that John's wish to become a painter made for too uncertain a future and that, "It was much safer to accept Charles's money and position."(Newlin, 2000)
Harriet hankers after John due to Charles’ inability to shower love on her. Margaret yearns for Harriet’s money and influence because this is what John cannot sufficiently offer her. However, there never comes a distant likelihood of their dreams and wishes coming all true largely due to the societal conventions and bindings of traditional gender roles. During the period Gersternbergwer wrote this play, women were confined to carrying out their limited domestic roles and submitting to will of their husbands.
Gender roles in Trifles:
Susan Glaspell’s play, Trifles, reflects the same resentment toward culturally influenced gender and sex roles. As is evident from the title of the play, the concerns and problems of women are downplayed with the belittling label of “trifles.” Presumably, all the important tasks in the society are carried out by men. Glaspell defies traditional limitation placed on women engaging her readers in the process of questioning the superiority of man. Her play narrates an angst-filled perspective of female characters against the omnipotent male patriarchy.
Glaspell wrote Trifles against the backdrop of a society that continued to deny women enfranchisement and rendered them voiceless in offices, industries, legislatures, and the marketplace. Women who worked outside the home more often than not held jobs as secretaries, clerks, waitresses, nannies, housekeepers, washerwomen, and manual laborers in factories. Rare was the female physician, lawyer, archeologist, business executive, or professional athlete. Glaspell's play brings into play one radical and rebellious soul, Mrs. Wright, who comes out to defy gender role by attempting to free her of male domination. The play also presents two silent rebels, Mrs. Hale and Mrs. Peters, who stand by Mrs. Wright and refuse to give evidence that the sheriff and the county attorney need to establish a motive for Mrs. Wright's alleged transgression. The most powerful piece of evidence in this regard is that Mrs. Peters initially argues that the law is the law (Ben-Zvi, 44)
Mrs. Hale comments about Mrs. Wright being infertile: “Not having children makes less work – but it makes a quiet house.”(Glaspell,2007) This statement evinces the inner ponderings of a desperate housewife and her gnawing discontent over male-dominated society.
Gender Roles in Tender Offer:
The New York Times described Wasserstein as a "chronicler of women's identity crises." As the paper's obituary of the playwright set down, "Her heroines -- intelligent and successful but also riddled with self-doubt -- sought enduring love a little ambivalently, but they did not always find it, and their hard-earned sense of self-worth was often shadowed by the frustrating knowledge that American women's lives continued to be measured by their success at capturing the right man." (The New York Times,) Though admiring the critical praise for her comedic vein, she described her work as "a political act", wherein impish dialogue and farcical situations masquerade unfathomable, reverberating truths about smart, independent women living in a world still embedded with traditional gender roles and expectations.
Tender Offer, a one-act play, discusses the role of genders in a materialistic and capitalistic society. Lisa, the major character in the play, is agitated following the late arrival of her father at dancing school. Due to which, she has missed her class. But her father comes up with a lame excuse of being detained at the office. Little action takes place but still characters bring about changes within themselves. The underlying theme of the play reflects shortcomings in the American lifestyle. Wasserstein uses such a trivial incident to highlight the widening gulf between father and daughter due to uncompromising nature of capitalistic society.
“Daria Feldman’s parents refuse to talk to Daria, so they bought a computer to keep Daria busy so they won’t have to speak in Yiddish. Daria will probably grow up to be a homicidal maniac lesbian prostitute.”(Helpern, 1999) Paul’s reference to Daria reveals the limitations of a female’s role in the patriarchal society.
All in all, these plays serve to highlight the burning issue of gender roles quite defiantly and refuse to accept the confined traditional role of women. They raise feminist question of gender roles and women’s limited opportunities in the workplace. During the nineteenth century women’s function was to serve as only supportive wives and nurturing mothers against which these three writers express their resentment.
Florence Kiper,(1914) "Some American Plays from the Feminist Viewpoint." Forum 51
Ben-Zvi, Linda.(1992) "'Murder, She Wrote': The Genesis of Susan Glaspell's Trifles." Theatre Journal
The New York Times, www.nytimes.com
Helpern, Daniel, (1999) “Plays in One Act”, HarperCollins, p.512
Glaspell, Susan,(2007) “Trifles” Players Press, University of Virginia, p.16
Newlin, Keith (2000) “American Plays of the New Woman” University of Michigan, p.294
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