is a family drama by American novelist and playwright Susan Glaspell. The three-act play premiered at an off-Broadway theater in 1930. After winning the Pulitzer Prize for Drama in 1931, Alison’s House
briefly moved to the Ritz Theater on Broadway but closed two weeks later. The play follows the Stanhope family as they pack up their ancestral home and reminisce about their famous relative, Alison, a beloved poet who has been dead for eighteen years. Glaspell had wanted the play to center around real-life poet Emily Dickinson, but she did not receive permission from the Dickinson family to use Emily’s name or to quote her poetry. Instead, Glaspell created the fictional Stanhope family and utilized poetry from Ralph Waldo Emerson, whom Dickinson admired. The play’s title, Alison’s House
, is inspired by Emerson’s poem “The House.”
Act I opens in the library of the Stanhope home, which is located in Iowa. It is near noon on December 31, 1899. John Stanhope, the family patriarch, and Ann Leslie, the family secretary, are cataloging and packing books. Stanhope is 63 and still “vigorous.” He is sad to be selling his childhood home, but he worries about his failing sister, Agatha, who lives in the house alone with the housekeeper, Jennie. Alison is John and Agatha’s sister. Ann is around 23, “fair” and “sensitive looking.” She is more of a family member than a secretary, and Stanhope was once in love with Ann’s mother, even though he never acted on his love, being married and a father at the time.
Richard Knowles, a reporter with the Chicago Record-Herald
and a poet himself, arrives at the home. A passionate fan of Alison’s poetry, he wants to write a story for his paper about Alison’s house. Knowles wishes to see Alison’s room, which the family has kept unchanged since Alison died. Ann isn’t sure if the family would want a reporter to see the room, but Stanhope’s youngest son, Ted, arrives and takes Knowles upstairs. Ted was only two when Alison died and didn’t know her well. He believes that Alison and her work “belongs to the world.” Ted is writing a letter about Alison to his Harvard English professor—also a big fan of Alison’s work—hoping to get a good grade in class.
Louise, the wife of Stanhope’s other son, Eben, doesn’t like a reporter in the house. She worries that he will stir up gossip and stories about Alison’s past. Louise compares Alison to Stanhope’s daughter, Elsa. Elsa scandalously ran away with Bill, the husband of Louise’s best friend. Alison had also fallen in love with a married man, but Stanhope stopped her from running off with him.
Agatha feels that she and Alison are being kicked out of their home. Agatha has protectively “guarded” Alison’s home, memory, and reputation for the last 18 years. Knowles wonders if the family found any other papers left by Alison. Stanhope assures him that all of Alison’s poems were published. Before he leaves, Knowles gives Ann a poem he wrote. Agatha begins to pack their mother’s tea set, then abruptly unpacks it and leaves the room with a basket of straw.
Eben arrives. A lawyer, he has always had dreams of being a writer. His marriage to Louise is unhappy. Elsa appears and, because she has been ostracized from the family, hesitantly asks her father permission to enter. Elsa persuades her father to let her spend one more night in the old house by saying that Alison would have agreed. From upstairs, Jennie the maid calls for help: the house is on fire. The family rushes to extinguish the fire, discovering that it was set with kerosene and straw. Agatha is the culprit.
Act 2 begins in the library later that afternoon. Stanhope exchanges memories with Ann about her mother, and they reminisce about some old newspapers Eben found. They wonder what Agatha wanted to burn.
Mr. and Mrs. Hodges, potential home buyers, arrive to look around the house. They announce that they plan to paint it bright yellow, cut up the big rooms to make smaller ones, and make it a home for summer boarders. Stanhope is saddened but knows only radical change will keep Agatha from returning. The Hodges buy the home. Stanhope reveals to Eben that he is angry with Elsa because, unlike her, he and Alison were responsible and didn’t run off with the people they fell in love with.
Ted announces he doesn’t want to go into law, but into the rubber tire business, while Eben says he would like to take a year off from law. Stanhope dismisses these ideas as ill-considered. Louise declares she will not stay in the house if Elsa is there, but Eben takes Elsa’s side. Knowles returns, this time to ask if Ann will take a walk with him. Stanhope approves, and while they wait for Ann, they read from Emerson’s poems. Agatha returns downstairs carrying a silk bag. She extracts a leather portfolio from the bag, gaspingly bequeaths it to Elsa, and then dies.
The final act takes place in Alison’s room, around ten-o-clock that night. Elsa and Ann chat about Alison, and Elsa describes her love for Bill. Ann, meanwhile, has fallen for Knowles. Eben and Elsa share childhood memories of Alison. Elsa, at last, opens the portfolio and finds a pile of unpublished poems. Ted wants to read them, but Stanhope plans to burn them in Alison’s fireplace, “before her century goes.” This upsets everyone, and Ted and Stanhope get into a fight. Eben, Elsa, and Stanhope read the poems and they drink to Alison’s memory. They each feel that Alison’s poems speak uniquely to them. Stanhope agrees to let Elsa keep the poems: a gift from Alison’s century to people in Elsa’s century. The clock strikes midnight, a new year begins, and Stanhope forgivingly embraces Elsa.