The Provincetown Players are an acting troupe that started on July 15, 1915.
They began when a group of writers and artists who were vacationing in Provincetown, Massachusetts
presented their plays on July 15
on the veranda of Hutchins Hapgood
and Neith Boyce
's rented ocean-view cottage. The two plays were Constancy
by Neith Boyce
and Suppressed Desires
by husband and wife George Cram Cook
and Susan Glaspell
. Boyce had previously had a reading of her play in her home and this caused Cook and Glaspell to add their play as a social event for their friends. These playwrights had experienced rejection of their plays by the recently formed Washington Square Players
and this was a way for them to present their plays to an audience.
Two makeshift sets were quickly organized by Robert Edmond Jones, already the most prominent American practicing the "New Stagecraft," who was also vacationing in Provincetown, Massachusetts that summer. Many friends and neighbors not in attendance that night heard about the plays and wanted to see them, so they were presented in a makeshift theatre on a wharf owned by Mary Heaton Vorse. Led by George Cram Cook, two more plays were presented that summer, with amateur acting by artists Charles Demuth, Bror Julius Olsson Nordfeldt, and Cook. Back in Greenwich Village, New York, where most of the group lived, Cook stirred up enthusiasm that fall and winter such that an even greater number of writers and artists made their way to Provincetown the next summer. These new participants included journalist and poet John Reed, writer Louise Bryant, painter Marsden Hartley, artists William and Marguerite Zorach, the "Hobo Poet" Harry Kemp, editor of The Masses Max Eastman, Floyd Dell, and Eugene O'Neill.
Cook, who already had pursued a number of careers, including a professor of English, farmer, author, and editor of the Friday Literary Review in Chicago, saw in the newly organized group the potential to create a Platonic community of artists who could organically and collectively create new plays that could establish an American identity in theatre.
Despite a mythology that presents O'Neill just happening to show up in Provincetown with a trunk full of plays, recent research proves that O'Neill knew of the Players and came to Cape Cod specifically to participate with them (John Reed had invited him). Though the group initially rejected some of O’Neill’s earliest written plays, which had been self-published with help of his father, prominent American actor James O’Neill, he finally read for them his play Bound East for Cardiff, a play set at sea. Glaspell wrote that when they heard this play, the group "knew what they were for."(1) The play’s plot is simple, a sailor lies dying and talks to his long-time mate as the continued regimen of sailing a ship in a storm goes on around them. The play’s dialogue featured crude yet poetic sailor talk, possessing a new reality that had yet to be part of the theatre’s new realism. Added to the play’s presentation was the highly effective sense of reality given by the Wharf Theatre over the sea, with fog and the sound of waves surrounding the audience. Though already a recognized author, Glaspell began her career as a playwright that summer after her husband announced she was writing a play, though he had yet to inform her. The result was Trifles, still one of the most celebrated one-act plays in the American canon, based on a journalistic investigation that Glaspell made as a newspaperwoman in Iowa of a murder by a quiet prairie woman of her husband. The play is unique in that the main character is never present, and because the wives of the investigators, who are dismissed and ignored in the process, begin to recognize clues within the woman’s home and figure out why the woman has murdered her husband, choosing in the end to, in solidarity, keep these facts to themselves.
New York City
By the end of the summer, after some minor recognition in the Boston papers, the group decided to form an official organization, and a constitution and initial process for working was agreed upon. The group's primary purpose was to give venue to American playwrights and new American plays, purposefully encouraging plays that would be in contrast to the melodramas and triangle-relationship plays they observed producers were primarily presenting on Broadway. In doing so, the group quickly gave larger voice to the burgeoning "Little Theatre" movement taking place across the country. Initially led by George Cram Cook and John Reed, the Provincetown Players moved to New York City that fall of 1916 and turned the parlor first floor of an apartment at 139 Macdougal Street, an 1840 brownstone row house, into a theatre. The building was located in the heart of the Village, next door to the Liberal Club and Polly Holladay's restaurant, just off the southwest corner of Washington Square. The group constructed a ten-and-one-half-by-fourteen-foot stage and added wooden benches to seat an audience of about 140, the benches said to be the most uncomfortable in the world. They opened their first bill in New York City on November 3, 1916, presenting Floyd Dell’s satire King Arthur’s Socks
; Bryant’s The Game
, significant more for its sets designed by the Zorachs; and O’Neill’s Bound East for Cardiff
. The next bill featured more plays originally presented in Provincetown, including Reed’s Freedom
and Cook and Glaspell’s Suppressed Desires
. The third bill featured a unique and experimental verse drama by Imagist poet and editor Alfred Kreymborg titled Lima Beans
, as well as O’Neill’s monologue play Before Breakfast
. Though these new plays were fulfilling the experimental nature of their stated mission, the group almost folded by Christmas when they ran out of quality new plays and found the interest waning of their larger membership in company decisions. The acting was decidedly amateur and they were somewhat saved in this by the directorial leadership of Nina Moise, who had studied directing and who began to give shape and clarity to the staging of the plays after she joined them in the spring of 1917. This, along with the good fortune of having the Stage Society of New York purchase almost half of the company's available subscriptions, allowed them to prosper in their first year. Reed soon deferred his leadership when he needed serious kidney surgery and had journalistic responsibilities; Cook became the main leader of the Players. Early arguments in the new company centered on whether to allow critics to attend, whether to seek publicity for the productions and actors, and a constant tension between Cook and the younger members about the importance of the group remaining amateur to fulfill its mission. Cook’s greatest asset was his ability to inspire and move the group forward with the strength of this personality, keeping them focused on their original goals. By 1919, most of the original group who set those goals were no longer participants, most having moved more deeply into producing their own individual work and many having physically moved away from the Village.
In those first two years, O'Neill had six new plays presented: Before Breakfast
, The Sniper
, The Long Voyage Home
, and The Rope
. Glaspell had four plays produced: Trifles
, The People
, Close the Book
, and Woman's Honor
. Edna St. Vincent Millay
, fresh from Vassar and with notoriety for her poetry, auditioned as an actress for the company and was cast. A few years later, her role would change to promising young playwright after her anti-war allegory, Aria da Capo
, was produced. The Provincetown's first full-length play was given in April 1918: The Athenian Women
by George Cram Cook. In the audience on opening night was political activist Emma Goldman, whose niece and nephew-in-law were involved in the group. Goldman brought with her that evening her friend and colleague in political activities, Mary Eleanor Fitzgerald. Fitzgerald eventually became the business manager of the Provincetown and one of the company's few paid employees, who remained at the helm until 1929.
At the end of the Provincetown's second New York season, subscriptions were up to 635 and the company felt they needed a larger space to operate in. Just three doors down MacDougal Street, owned by their same landlord, was an old stable that had recently been used as a bottling plant. The Players rented it for $400 a month, putting a scenery shop and dressing rooms in the basement and offices upstairs. Benches that could seat up to 200 were installed facing a "real" stage. To remind themselves that the space was once a stable, a hitching post was left hanging from one of the walls, with the inscription painted above it: "Here Pegasus Was Hitched." A plaster dome cyclorama, a pet project of Cook's and fashioned after those used by European art theatres of the time, was installed in 1920 for their production of O'Neill's The Emperor Jones. This is the theatre at 139 Macdougal Street, though many times since refurbished, that is known today as the Provincetown Playhouse.
The first performance in the new theatre took place on November 22, 1918, just three days after the end of World War I was declared, with a bill of one-act plays by Millay, O'Neill, and Florence Kiper Frank. The second bill of the season featured O'Neill's “mood” play, the lyrical The Moon of the Carribees,
another of his sea plays. When the tensions between the young and the old guard of the company reached an all-time high, Cook decided to take a year sabbatical as their leader, abdicating to James Light, a young actor and director whose strong personality clashed at times with Cook’s. Cook left with the assurance that Ida Rauh, perhaps the company’s most revered actress, was co-director with Light and would look after his priorities. However, after her direction of O’Neill’s The Dreamy Kid
, in which she made the company only the second to cast all black actors in a play produced by a “white” theatre company, she also abdicated to Light. The most significant play that season was Millay's Aria da Capo
, called by New York Times
critic Alexander Woollcott
“the most beautiful and most interesting play in the English language now to be seen in New York.” (2)
Cook returned to the helm for the season of 1920-21, which quickly became significant for the production of O'Neill's The Emperor Jones, the first of the Provincetown plays to be a bona fide "hit," and, eventually, the production was moved uptown to the Princess Theatre. Before the move, however, the Provincetown was flooded with ticket requests, bringing the number of subscribers to over 1600. The mostly amateur company with the highest of ideals for American playwrights was challenged with the perils of success. New plays soon were often selected for their potential to transfer to professional theatres and this caused ideological clashes among the company. These differences of opinion deepened and, following a contentious rehearsal period of O’Neill’s The Hairy Ape during the 1921-1922 season, in which Cook was relieved of his duties as director by O’Neill, Cook realized that he had no playwrights of the quality of O’Neill or Glaspell to develop that justified the Players’ to continue in their mission. After their sixth New York season in 1922, a one-year period of inactivity was called for by the members. Cook and Glaspell left to spend at least a year in Greece where, less than two years later, Cook died and was buried in Delphi.
By 1922, under "Jig" Cook's leadership, the Provincetown Players could boast of having produced ninety-three new American plays by forty-seven playwrights; these included plays by Wilbur Daniel Steele, Edna Ferber, Bosworth Crocker, Djuna Barnes, Mike Gold, Harry Kemp, James Oppenheim, Maxwell Bodenheim, Rita Wellman, Lawrence Langner, Theodore Dreiser, and Evelyn Scott. After their presentation of O'Neill's expressionistic The Emperor Jones, featuring a critically praised performance by African-American actor Charles Gilpin, James Weldon Johnson claimed that the Provincetown "was the initial and greatest force in opening up the way for the Negro on the dramatic stage." A remarkable feature of the group was the unusually large quantity and quality of participation of women, both in artistic and management functions. In their six short years in New York, they had presented the first truly experimental American plays, expressionistic, futuristic, and surrealistic plays, plays with highly political themes, poetic and verse plays, allegory plays, plays that showed the plight of lower and middle class Americans and immigrants, and the group had launched the careers of O’Neill and Glaspell, both of whom would win numerous awards, including Pulitzer Prizes for Drama. Glaspell presented subtle yet powerfully complex women as lead characters and, without a thumping-pulpit approach, became important as a feminist playwright bridging the Victorian era with the modern. In short, the Provincetown Players launched American playwriting into the modern era and made a pathway for serious American playwrights to begin writing artistic plays about serious issues.
The company had withstood controversy and fought objections to the ideas they felt were most important. Now as they faced the future without Cook, an obvious reorganization was deemed necessary and, with it, new leadership. A "triumvirate" leadership was formed between O'Neill, stage designer Robert Edmond Jones
, and author and critic Kenneth Macgowan
, with Macgowan named as the director of the Playhouse. After months of bitter fighting, particularly with Glaspell, about the name of this new organization, it was decided to drop the title "The Provincetown Players" and the company was called "The Experimental Theatre, Inc." The playhouse, however, was still known as the Provincetown. This new group’s first season began in November 1923[CORREX: January 5-26, 1924] with a production of The Spook Sonata
by August Strindberg
, followed by a very successful revival of Anna Cora Mowatt
's 1850 comedy Fashion
. During the next season (1924-25), three of the group's larger plays, including O'Neill's tragedy Desire Under the Elms
, were staged at the Greenwich Village Theatre, which was across the street on Seventh Avenue from Sheridan Square (now the site of a pharmacy and a bank). One significant play was All God’s Chillun’ Got Wings
, featuring African-American actor Paul Robeson
and his kiss of white actress Mary Blair. The play’s opening was reported on the front page of many national newspapers, New York City’s mayor Hylan did not allow the children actors originally scheduled for the first scene to perform, and the playhouse was surrounded by police on opening night because of threats. The experimental nature of these productions allowed Jones the freedom to try many elements of "new stagecraft." Keeping two theatres running, however, proved to be too much of a challenge, so after only two years at the helm, the triumvirate left to focus their efforts on experimentation at the Greenwich Village Theatre alone and eventually to focus on their own separate work.
This led to James Light being named as the new director of a revitalized group of players, still called the Experimental Theatre Company, who continued to work in the Provincetown Playhouse. Though they staged fifteen productions over the next four seasons, including Paul Green's Pulitzer Prize-winning folk drama, In Abraham's Bosom, operas by Gluck and Mozart, and presented new actors like the young Bette Davis, no great reason remained to keep the company at the Provincetown Playhouse. In an effort to start anew, money was raised so that, by the early fall of 1929, the group relocated to the Garrick Theatre uptown. Unfortunately, the stock market crash on October 29 of that year caused their financial collapse and the company ceased to exist.
Since that time, the Provincetown Playhouse
has been the home of many independently produced plays. It was also the home base for the Community Theatre division of the Federal Theatre Project (1936-1939), used as a training center to send directors, actors, teachers and designers out to the five boroughs of New York City to create theatre projects. The lease was held for many years by a group that specialized in presenting Gilbert and Sullivan comic operas and who rented the playhouse to other theatre companies and productions. In 1960, the Provincetown was used to produce the long-running double bill of Samuel Beckett
's Krapp's Last Tape
and Edward Albee
's The Zoo Story
, Albee's first play produced in New York City. Marty Martin's monologue Gertrude Stein Gertrude Stein
, performed by Pat Carroll, was transferred to the Provincetown for an extended run in October 1979. The Playhouse continued to be used to premiere plays by playwrights that included Lanford Wilson
and John Guare
. The playhouse’s longest running play was the five-year run of Vampire Lesbians of Sodom
(1985-1990) by Charles Busch
, which was also its last major production before being shut down for many years, needing building code upgrades. In 1998, a major refurbishment was given by New York University, who has owned the theatre since the early 1980s. This historic Playhouse is now primarily used by New York University's Educational Theatre department, who yearly hosts an award-winning reading series of new plays for young audiences by significant American playwrights. The theatre is also currently used regularly by a group committed to the producing of the O’Neill canon. The spirit in which the Provincetown Playhouse was originally created continues as a driving force to enable future dramatists, theatre practitioners and teachers to flourish and grow.
THE PLAYERS' SIGNIFICANCE
Many theatre historians and critics have verified the importance of the Provincetown Players. Kenneth Macgowan wrote in the forward of The Provincetown, the first published history of the Players, that "It records the only fully creative moment in that movement of men and women below and beyond Broadway which has made over our professional theatre."(3) Cordell and Matson write in their introduction to The Off-Broadway Theatre: Seven Plays that "No other organization, including the Washington Square Players, the Group Theatre, and the University Players, has had a more permanent influence on the new American theatre than the Provincetown Playhouse, by way of the plays and talented workers it funneled into the commercial theatre."(4) Arlene Heller in "The New Theatre," part of 1915: The Cultural Moment, writes that "The Provincetown Players created one of the most valuable of the early experimental theatres that helped to establish American drama as a serious art form. The plays its members wrote reflected the ferment of the times and gave rise to a theatre with a deistinctly American voice."(5) It’s in this "hallowed ground in the region of Washington Square," in the words of theatre critic William Archer, "that we must look for the real birthplace of the American drama."(6)
(1) Susan Glaspell. The Road to the Temple
, New York: Frederick A. Stokes, 1927: 254.
(2) Alexander Woollcott, New York Times
, 14 December 1919: XX2.
(3) Deutsch, Helen, and Stella Hanau. The Provincetown: A Story of the Theatre. New York: Farrar and Rinehart, 1931: xi.
(4) Richard A. Cordell, and Matson,, Lowell, eds. The Off-Broadway Theatre: Seven Plays.
New York: Random House, 1959: xi.
(5) Lois Rudnick and Adele Heller, eds. 1915, the Cultural Moment
. New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers U Press, 1991: 229.
(6) William Archer, “Great Contribution of ‘Little Theatres’ to Our Drama’s Future,” New York Evening Post
, February 24, 1921: 9.
- Sarlos, Robert Karoly. Jig Cook and the Provincetown Players, Theatre in Ferment. Amherst, MA: University of Massachusetts Press, 1982.
- Black, Cheryl. The Women of Provincetown, 1915-1922. Tuscaloosa: U of Alabama Press, 2002.
- Egan, Leona Rust. Provincetown As a Stage: Provincetown, The Provincetown Players, and the Discovery of Eugene O’Neill. Orleans: Parnassus Imprints, 1994.
- Murphy, Brenda. The Provincetown Players and the Culture of Modernity. New York: Cambridge U Press, 2005.
- Kennedy, Jeffery. The Artistic Life of the Provincetown Playhouse, 1918-1922, Vols. 1 and 2. Diss. New York University, 2007. Ann Arbor: UMI, 2007.
- Deutsch, Helen, and Stella Hanau. The Provincetown: A Story of the Theatre. New York: Farrar and Rinehart, 1931.
- Ben-Zvi, Linda. Susan Glaspell, Her Life and Times. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2005.
- Ozieblo, Barbara. Susan Glaspell, a Critical Biography. Chapel Hill, NC: University of North Carolina Press, 2000.
- Gelb, Arthur and Barbara. O’Neill. New York: Harper and Row, 1987.
- Gelb, Arthur and Barbara. O’Neill, Life with Monte Cristo. New York: Applause Books, 2000.
- Sheaffer, Louis. O’Neill, Son and Playwright, Volume I. 1968. New York: Copper Square Press, 2002.
- Sheaffer, Louis. O’Neill, Son and Artist, Volume II. 1973. New York: Copper Square Press, 2002.
- Rudnick, Lois and Adele Heller, eds. 1915, the Cultural Moment. New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers U Press, 1991.
- Ozieblo, Barbara, ed. The Provincetown Players, A Choice of the Shorter Works. Sheffield, England: Sheffield Academic Press, 1994.