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Change Your Style

by George Cram Cook


After the initial experience of performing their plays in the Wharf Theatre in Provincetown that summer of 1915, Glaspell says that “Jig became so interested he wrote another comedy, Change Your Style, having to do with Provincetown art schools, a jolly little play.”(1)  Wilbur Daniel Steele wrote a play called Contemporaries and another performance in the wharf theater was scheduled for September 9.  It’s not known whether the two new plays were given inspiration for their creation by the first wharf performance on August 28 and were written in the ten days in between or if they were already in progress, though Glaspell’s comment implies the former with Cook’s play.  The stage directions for Change Your Style clearly show that it was written for the Wharf Theatre, describing a “wharf studio” with its back wall an “outer door,” and even the cushions are the colors of those used at the Hapgoods for Constancy.  As with Suppressed Desires and, in some senses, Constancy, the play pokes fun at a local situation with which the audience was familiar and in which some of those who acted in the play were actually involved.  Charles Hawthorne opened the Cape Cod School of Art in 1899 in Provincetown, where he taught the Impressionistic style he learned from his teacher William Merritt Chase.  While his teaching and the artists he attracted clearly established Provincetown as an art colony, his techniques and the academic style of teaching fundamentals were rejected by the “modernists” (sometimes called the “futurists”), much as The Eight and others who created the Armory Show had rejected the Academy.(2) The tension between these approaches, fueled by artists from both camps wanting to exhibit in the Provincetown Art Association’s show of the summer artists, was real enough in Provincetown in 1915 for Cook to write his play.  Bror (B. J. O.) Nordfeldt represented the modernists with his post-impressionistic style and actually played a character fashioned on his name: Bordfeldt, who is the head of a modernist art school.  A character fashioned after both Hawthorne and Kenyon Cox, a “strident critic of Post-impressionist art,”(3) is named Kenyon Crabtree and was possibly played by Max Eastman.(4)  The central plot revolves around a young artist from a rich family, Marmaduke Marvin Jr, played by artist Charles Demuth, who was sent to Provincetown to study with Crabtree.  He is given just three months by his father, Marvin Sr., played by Cook, to change his style from his modern, post-impressionist style to the more traditional style, believing this would at least allow his son to earn a living.  Marvin Sr. surprises his son by arriving in Provincetown, but first the landlord of Marvin Jr’s wharf studio, Mr. Josephs, possibly played by Louis Ell, comes to collect the rent and to tell Jr. that he must rent it to someone who is ready to pay.(5) 

The woman wanting to rent the place is named Myrtle Dart, who possibly was played by Ida Rauh, and is fashioned after Mabel Dodge, complete with an East Indian robe and turban in which Dodge had been famously photographed.  While looking for Josephs at the studio, she sees a painting by Jr. and purchases it, having been told it was inspired by Yogi philosophy.  However, just moments before, Jr. has tried to get Josephs to accept it as payment, telling him it was the eye of God and would make people pay their bills if he hung it in his store.  The sale allows Jr. to pay Josephs the rent.  Once his father arrives, Crabtree arrives as well, and when the father learns that Crabtree hasn’t sold a painting all year and that his son has just sold a painting to Dart, he reconsiders Jr’s need to change styles.  The ending is full of contrivances: Dart wants her money back after hearing from Josephs he’s been told it’s the eye of God; her return allows Jr. to feel relieved that he hadn’t officially sold out as an artist, which he’d started feeling guilty about; Josephs feels bad that he’s spoiled the sale by telling Dart about Jr’s “eye of God” description and he again accepts the painting as rent; and Jr’s father storms out declaring he “owes it to society to support him—as a defective!”(6)

Murphy observes that Cook “chose to focus on the issues of economics” and the “conflict between commercial and creative values in the production of art,” ironically the central conflict the Provincetown Players would cope with during much of their existence.(7)  Casting Nordfeldt and Demuth in roles as artists similar to themselves most likely made the play feel even more like an inside joke to the audience and the two must have relished being in a play that satirized Hawthorne.  Demuth, already a recognized artist in the new modern style like his character strives to be, was also a published writer of stories and plays, very often in a Symbolist style, and for many years had an “ambivalence about whether to follow a literary career or pursue the visual arts,” similar to the dilemma of his close friend poet William Carlos Williams.(8)  In fact, Demuth had written a play, Filling a Page: a Pantomime of Words, which had been published in Rogue just that past spring.  One wonders if any of Demuth’s paintings were used in Constancy as props, particularly the cubist painting of three nude figures referred to first in the play, similar in description to his Three Figures in a Landscape painted that same year.  For Demuth and fellow-artist Nordfeldt, it was the first time that either are recorded to have acted on stage in a play.  Vorse called it a “hilarious play” and noted that the fight between the two schools of art “has never abated since.”(9)  Deutsch and Hanau echo Vorse’s assessment of the play and that its topic was “moot,” given that in Provincetown “every second cottage housed an institute of art.”(10)

© Jeff Kennedy 2007.

(1) Glaspell, Road to the Temple 251.

(2) It is widely rumored in all biographies about Hawthorne that he was rejected by Henri and The Eight.

(3) Lois Rudnick and Adele Heller, “The First Provincetown Plays,” 1915, the Cultural Moment, ed. Adele Heller and Lois Rudnick (New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers U Press, 1991) 273.

(4) The only reference to Eastman, Rauh and Ell is a script of the play in the University of Virginia’s O’Neill archives that has their names typed in after the characters, but crossed out with the names of three others penciled in.  Sarlos (Jig 18-19) believes this is because they actually played the characters in 1915 but in the 1916 revival they were replaced by the newly listed actors.

(5) This character was clearly fashioned after John Francis, who had a grocery store and was a real estate agent in Provincetown.  He consistently was depended on to help the Villagers find their rentals and supplies needed each summer, often time subsidizing many members in the group as he does Jr. in the play (see Egan 134). 

(6) Cook, Change Your Style 299.

(7) Murphy, Provincetown2/25.

(8) Barbara Haskell, Charles Demuth (New York: Whitney Museum of American Art, 1987) 36.  “Plot to Demuth was secondary to mood and to the creation of pictorial tableaux” (37).  This style was experimented with later by Eugene O’Neill, particularly in The Moon of the Carribbees. Demuth and O’Neill became friends in Provincetown in 1916 and one wonders if Demuth influenced O’Neill in any way. 

(9) Vorse, Time 118.

(10) Deutsch 10.