When theatre, literature, and the law meet

Teresa Taylor — Staff Writer 

On Nov. 18 and 19, the Dordt University Theatre Club will pair with One Book, One Sioux County to present a staged reading of the one-act play Trifles by Susan Glaspell, directed by senior theatre major Dakota Klein. 

The play features the investigation of farmer John Wright’s murder. His wife Minnie was accused of strangling him with a rope while he slept. While the male characters search the house’s upstairs for evidence, their wives explore downstairs and learn more about the Wrights’ relationship. 

Glaspell wrote the play fifteen years after she reported on the murder of John Hossack in Warren County, Iowa. His wife Margaret was accused of murdering him with an axe while he slept. The prosecutors used her errors as a mother to condemn her, and the jury found her guilty, sentencing her to life in prison. A year later, a retrial jury released Hossack after failing to come to a unanimous decision. Nine voted guilty; three voted not guilty. 

Glaspell adapted the case into Trifles and then a short story, A Jury of Her Peers. In addition to changing the names and the method of murder, she wrote Wright as childless, omitting Hossack’s nine children. She also moved the house from atop a hill into a hollow. Both alterations represent the isolation the women felt. Glaspell gave Wright a bird as a voice to sing the songs she could not, to draw out the themes of the Hossack case. Wright’s husband strangled the bird shortly before he died. 

In their nonfiction book, Midnight Assassin, Patricia L. Bryan and Thomas Wolf investigated the Hossack case further. Bryan began the research for a law review article, visiting the courthouse, historical societies, and museums. Wolf suggested the information would better suit a book, for much of the story resided in the footnotes. 

“This should be accessible to more people than just those who read the Stanford Law Review,” Wolf said. 

Bryan and Wolf placed a toll-free number in the newspaper with the question: “Who killed John Hossack?” Over one hundred years after the crime, they received phone calls with stories from the community. Some people offered information but insisted Bryan and Wolf not use their real names. Others warned them to stop. 

“[It was] as if there were people in the community who still felt so strongly about it, that this would be seen as something dangerous to them and their family and their family reputation,” Wolf said. “The way I take that is there are people in the community who believe Margaret Hossack didn’t do it, but they know somebody who did do it. They know a story at least…that might be uncovered.” 

When One Book, One Sioux County chose Midnight Assassin as this year’s book, Dordt University Director of Library Services Jenni Breems approached theatre arts professor Teresa Ter Haar and suggested the theatre department perform Trifles. The department had already planned the season’s plays, so Ter Haar pitched the idea to the Theatre Club. 

“The more ways we can connect theatre into the community and the community into what we do in theatre, the better,” Ter Haar said. 

Klein held auditions on Sept. 21 to give the cast time to plan and read the script but did not start rehearsals until the week of the reading. The cast holds various levels of theatre experience. 

“That’s why Theatre Club was created: to bring more students into theatre, to offer opportunities, to create a community that’s exciting and vital,” Ter Haar said. 

The Nov. 18 reading will start at 7 p.m. at Children’s Park. The Nov. 19 reading will start at 2 p.m. at the Orange City Iowa State Bank basement. 

On Nov. 3, Bryan and Wolf spoke at Northwest Iowa Community College to an audience of 86. On Nov. 4, they held a smaller discussion in Hulst Library’s Kuyper Honors Room. Five people attended. They described the case and their investigative process, as well as Glaspell’s career and how she adapted her Des Moines Daily News reports into a fictional piece. 

“As a nonfiction writer, you have to be selective of the facts from a set of facts that are knowable and believable,” Wolf said. “A fiction writer is writing to an audience that knows the work is fiction, and you have a different set of rules to use.” 

Glaspell chose and amplified elements from the Hossack case to write a message in Trifles. Audiences may perceive the fears and struggles Hossack faced without experiencing the chill cold cases bring. With purposeful dialogue and intentional silences, theatre, literature, and law students learn the necessity of empathy and voice in both the justice system and life. 

“[Empathy] is so important for lawyers and for judges, and juries who are making decisions about the fate of people who have lived and behaved so differently. You can’t really judge people fairly unless you, as they say, try to walk in their shoes,” Bryan said. “In Susan Glaspell’s work, it’s the women who feel the empathy, and they act as the jury of Minnie’s peers.” 

Glaspell criticizes the legal system for its lack of empathy toward those who break the law as well as its unawareness of certain moral issues leading to crime. 

In their research, Bryan and Wolf interviewed the only child of the youngest Hossack son. They visited her home, and she showed them a quilt her grandmother had made. When they asked her what she knew of the crime, she admitted she had not known of the case until she was a teenager. Her mother advised her never to ask her father about it. 

“She did ask him once, ‘What did my grandfather die of?’” Wolf said. “And Ivan Hossack said, ‘He died of meanness.’” 

Photo credit: Zach Bivens

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