“Well ladies, have you decided whether she was going to quilt it or knot it?” the County Attorney remarks about an unfinished quilt “(as one turning from serious things to little pleasantries)” after Mrs. Peters discovers that someone has wrung the neck of Minnie Foster-Wright’s poor little pet canary. “Trifles,” a one-act play written in 1916 by Susan Glaspell, documents the investigation of the murder of John Wright, a Nebraska farmer and Minnie’s husband. The play reads like an episode of CSI: Crime Scene Investigation, with George Henderson, the County Attorney, playing a similar role as Dr. Gil Grissom, the night shift supervisor (played by William Petersen) and Henry Peters, the Sheriff, acting out the part of Captain Jim Brass (played by Paul Guilfoyle).
The ladies present, Mrs. Peters, the sheriff’s wife, and Mrs. Hale, a neighboring farmer’s wife, are looking for the requested items that Minnie Wright wants from home while being detained in jail, and the ladies aim to assist by noticing idiosyncrasies that may help identify a motive for Mr. Wright’s strangulation. If “Trifles” were set in Las Vegas between the years 2000-2015, you could imagine Mrs. Peters as Catherine Willows (played by Marg Helgenberger), and Mrs. Hale as Sara Sidle (played by Jorja Fox). The ladies would be chided for their attention to Minnie’s reputation while the men make comments about Minnie’s “lack of a homemaking instinct” and sticky, messy cupboards due to exploding fruit jars and low winter temperatures.
The one-act play begins with the afore-mentioned characters entering the disheveled kitchen of the Wright couple’s abandoned farmhouse and moving straight towards the fireplace to warm up. The County Attorney comments that the fire feels good and that the ladies should come up and warm themselves. Mrs. Peters responds, “I’m not–cold.” One of the most striking realizations about a play like “Trifles” is the obvious sexism and lack of awareness of female consciousness and emotional temperament. Set in rural Nebraska in the early 20th Century, “Trifles” demonstrates that Susan Glaspell understands that the Wrights’ isolation stems from extreme jealousy on the part of John Wright and that their life without children, cheer, and friendships cause Mrs. Hale to emote great remorse for not having visited her neighbors more often.
Similarly, in the pilot episode of CSI: Crime Scene Investigation, the male employees seem to lack empathy and knowledge of the female mentality and methods necessary for effective communication. A new hire, Holly Gribbs is sent on rookie missions without safety measures taken into consideration (a partner would have received disciplinary action if they would have abandoned a trainee, an action taken by Grissom during a partner mission in the pilot episode of the series resulting in Gribbs’ eventual murder) and it seems like the catty male ego works over-time to lack chauvinism when appropriate and powers-up sleazy come-ons when modern corporate America would classify the interaction as sexual harassment. In 1916, the men were certainly more aware of male and female proprieties in an investigative setting. However, behavioral chill can set off an adverse reaction between humans that ultimately results in social distancing and communication barriers based on gender identities.
Going backwards, the claim isn’t being made that the County Attorney was being chauvinistic and insensitive to Mrs. Peter’s femininity by suggesting she “come up to the fire,” however, collective consciousness has the opportunity to determine interpretation based on her response. Later in the story, County Attorney George Henderson washes and attempts to dry his hands when he can’t find a clean spot to do so on a fancy roller-towel mechanism. “Not much of a housekeeper, would you say, ladies?” Mrs. Hale responds stiffly by defending Minnie and explains, “There’s a great deal of work to be done on a farm.” She goes on to say, “Those towels get dirty awful quick. Men’s hands aren’t always as clean as they might be.” Immediately, Henderson accuses Mrs. Hale of being loyal to her sex and most likely friends, which wasn’t necessarily the case due to the Wrights’ isolation. The banter between Henderson and Mrs. Hale suggests that the County Attorney is focused on the upkeep of the homestead and bases his opinions of Minnie Foster-Wright on his own personal expectations and lacked insight or consideration for her probable responsibilities to her husband as a wife.
Obviously Mrs. Hale and Mrs. Peters contaminate the crime scene in their efforts to retrieve an apron and shoulder shawl for Minnie, but you can’t blame them for their insight and compassion, as they understand more intimately than the men the complications that Mrs. Wright must have encountered in her role as a wife to John Wright. Their capabilities as crime scene investigators ought to be praised, however, for without their discovery of the empty birdcage and dead canary, along with their close attention to detail and other slight oddities within their environment, the case would have never been solved for the readers. One must wonder if Mrs. Peters will be able to keep the secret from her husband, the Sheriff, for long, though… not like it would be surprising as Mr. Hale once commented, “Women are used to worrying about trifles.”
Zuiker, Anthony E. CSI: Crime Scene Investigation. Season One, episode One, CBS, 6 Oct. 2000.
Glaspell, Susan. “Trifles.” One-Act-Plays.com, 1916, www.one-act-plays.com/dramas/trifles.html.