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Theatre / Alison's House

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Alison's House is a 1931 play written by Susan Glaspell.

It is a thinly veiled account of the life of Emily Dickinson. In the play, set on December 31, 1899, she is "Alison Stanhope", and she has been dead for 18 years. The wealthy Stanhope family has finally decided to sell off the family home where Alison lived and wrote her poetry. Alison's sister, Aunt Agatha, is fiercely protective of Alison's memory. Alison's brother and family patriarch John Stanhope is selling the house in order to break free from the past and in order to take care of Agatha, who is not well. John's son Eben Stanhope is stuck in an unhappy marriage to Louise, while daughter Elsa has embarrassed the family by running off with a married man. Only son Ted, a cheerful young college student who was only two when Alison died, seems unaffected by her memory and the sale of the house.



  • As You Know: A ton of this in the early going to establish the family relationships. "Your daughter is my husband's sister."
  • Big, Screwed-Up Family: Alison fell in love with a married man. John was in a loveless marriage despite loving another woman, Ann's mother. Eben and Louise don't even seem to like each other. Elsa has gone away with a married man. Only Ted seems untroubled, and his banality is a dramatic contrast to the rest of the family. Ted, the youngest child, is symbolic of the new age.
  • Extremely Short Timespan: Covers a single afternoon and evening on December 31, 1899.
  • Fourth-Date Marriage: Ann falls in love with Knowles after one afternoon and decides to go away with him.
  • Maiden Aunt: Agatha never married, and the only interest in her life was safeguarding her sister's reputation and legacy.
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  • Moral Guardians: Eben's mean, bitchy wife Louise, who seems to regret marrying into the Stanhope family after the rumors about Alison's personal life and the facts about Elsa's. She is enraged when John lets his daughter back in the house.
  • New Year Has Come: The play takes place on December 31, 1899. Much thought is given to the changing times that are symbolized by the dawn of a new century.
  • No Celebrities Were Harmed: Glaspell actually sought to write a play about Dickinson, for the centenary of her birth in 1930. But Dickinson's works and the rights to her story were still under control of the estate at the time, and the surviving Dickinsons refused Glaspell permission to use Emily Dickinson's name or her poetry. Alison and her Real Life counterpart were both shut-ins for years. Both had an easy rapport with the children of the family despite being socially reclusive. Both wrote reams of poetry that weren't published until after they died. Both had sisters that also never married (Dickinson's sister was named Lavinia) and both asked that sister to destroy her unpublished works after her death. And while it is unknown if Emily Dickinson had a forbidden love of the sort that Alison Stanhope had in the backstory, the "Master letters" have often been interpreted in that way.
  • The Place: "Alison's House."
  • Posthumous Character: Alison Stanhope has been in the ground for 18 years but she is still the chief concern of the whole Stanhope family. John's children remember how tender Alison was to them. John and Agatha remember how Alison fell in love with a married professor but denied her feelings in order to spare the family social embarrassment.
  • Title Drop: John gives Knowles the reporter a book of Emerson's poetry that belonged to Alison and reads a poem called "The House". After he's finished Knowles says "Alison's house" and John agrees.