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A History of the Provincetown Playhouse


The Provincetown Players began when a group of writers and artists who were vacationing in Provincetown, MA presented their plays July 15, 1915 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 a few weeks prior and this caused Cook and Glaspell to add their play to create a social event for their friends. Two makeshift sets, one facing the ocean and one facing the living room, were quickly organized by Robert Edmond Jones, already the most prominent American practicing the "New Stagecraft," who was also vacationing in Provincetown.  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 made from the fishhouse on a wharf owned by Mary Heaton Vorse. Their popularity was such that, led by George Cram Cook, two more plays were presented that sumWharf Playhousemer, which included amateur acting by visual artists Charles Demuth and B. J. O. Nordfeldt. Back in Greenwich Village, New York City, 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 of 1916. These new participants included journalist and poet John Reed, writer Louise Bryant, painter Marsden Hartley, artists William and Marguerite Zorach, the famed "Hobo Poet" Harry Kemp, editor of The Masses Max Eastman, his wife Ida Rauh, Floyd Dell, and Eugene O'Neill.

Charles Demuth and Eugene O'Neill in Provincetown 1916Despite a legend 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.  In fact, he was directly invited by John Reed, though Reed seems to have had no idea (or didn't let on he knew) that O’Neill was having an affair with his girlfriend Bryant, another reason for O’Neill to travel to Cape Cod. Though the group initially rejected some of O’Neill’s earliest written plays, which had been self-published with the 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." 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 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 novelist, Glaspell began her career as a playwright that summer after her husband announced she was writing a Susan Glaspellplay, though he had done so without informing 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 the murder of a farmer by his quiet prairie wife.  The play is unique in that the main character is never present, and also because the wives of the male investigators, who are dismissed and ignored in the process, begin to recognize clues and signs of abuse within the woman’s home and figure out why she has murdered her husband. In the end they choose, in solidarity with her plight, to keep these facts to themselves.reed

By the end of the summer, after some minor recognition in the Boston papers, the group decided to form an official organization with a constitution and an 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 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 first floor parlor 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, a block south of 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 were said to be the most uncomfortable in the world. They opened their first bill in New York City on November 3, 1916, presenting FloBound East for Cardiffyd Dell’s satire King Arthur’s Socks; Bryant’s The Game, equally significant for its set 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 of the company was decidedly amateur and they were somewhat saved in this by the directorial leadership of Nina Moise, who had studied acting and who began to give shape and clarity to the staging of the plays after she joined them in the beginning 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 role 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 their 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 playwrights and to move the group forward with the strength of his personality, keeping them focused on their original goals. By 1919, most of the original group that had set those goals were no longer participants, many having moved more deeply into producing their own individual work and others having physically moved away from the Village.  

BerniceIn those first two years, O'Neill had six new plays presented: Before Breakfast, Fog, The Sniper, 'Ile, 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 as an Mary Eleanor Fitzgerald emerging poet, 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, a frequent visitor 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. 

Interior of PlayhouseAt the end of the Provincetown's second New York season, subscriptions were up to 635 and the company felt they needed a larger space in which to operate; about the same time the NYC Building Commission insisted they stop using the space at 139 as a theatre. Just three doors down MacDougal Street, owned by their same landlord Mrs. Jenny Belardi, was an old stable that had recently been used as a wine 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 attached to 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 133 Macdougal Street, though many times since refurbished, that is known today as the Provincetown Playhouse.

Moon of the CarribbeesThe first performance in the new theatre took place on November 22, 1918, just eleven 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. When in 1919 the tensions between the young and the old guard of the company reached an all-time high, Cook decided to Aria da Capo rehearsaltake 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 the second in New York 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)

The Emperor JonesCook returned to the helm for the season of 1920-21, which quickly became significant for their 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 began to be considered for their potential to transfer to professional theatres and this caused The Hairy Apeideological clashes among the company. These differences of opinion deepened and a contentious rehearsal period of O’Neill’s The Hairy Ape took place during the 1921-1922 season. Cook was relieved of his duties as director by O’Neill, and the sting of this caused Cook to realize that no new playwrights of the quality of O’Neill or Glaspell had come along to develop in a way that justified the Players’ to continue in their mission. At the close their sixth New York season in 1922, a one-year period of inactivity was called for by the members. Cook and Glaspell left even before that season was finished to live in Greece where, less than two years later, Cook died and was buried in Delphi.

Charles GilpinBy 1922, under "Jig" Cook's leadership, the Provincetown Players could boast of having produced ninety-three new American plays by forty-seven playwrights. After their presentation of O'Neill's expressionistic The Emperor Jones, featuring the critically praised 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." (3)  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 often potent 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 pulpit-thumping approach, became important as a feminist playwright that bridged 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 theatre building, however, was from then on known as the Provincetown Playhouse. This new group’s first season began in November 1923 with a production of The Spook Sonata by Swedish playwright (who was deeply studied and admired by O'Neill) August Strindberg. This was 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 down the street across 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 All God's Chillun Got Wingsactor Paul Robeson and his kiss on the hand of white actress Mary Blair. The play’s opening and this unheard of scene was reported on the front page of many national newspapers. In response, New York City’s mayor John 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 continue to explore 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 for a short time to focus their efforts on experimentation at the Greenwich Village Theatre alone and soon to focus on their own individual work.
James Light
This led to James Light being named the new director of a revitalized group of Players, called again the Provincetown Players, who continued to work in the Provincetown Playhouse. The group staged fifteen productions over the next four seasons, including the Bette Davis-The Earth Betweenpremiere of Paul Green's Pulitzer Prize-winning folk drama In Abraham's Bosom, operas by Gluck and Mozart, e.e. cummings unique play Him, and they presented new actors like the young Bette Davis. However, it became apparent to the group that 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 could relocate 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.
Playhouse exterior 1950s
Since that time, the Provincetown Playhouse has been the home of many independently produced plays and often continued its legacy of experiment in art. It was for a time the home base for the Community Theatre division of the Federal Theatre Project (1936-39), 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. It was rented in 1946 by Maya Duren to present some of the first experimental films seen in America. In 1960, the Provincetown The Zoo Storywas 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. It continued to be used to premiere plays by playwrights that included Lanford Wilson, David Mamet, Sam Shepherd 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 Exterior of Playhouse for Vampire Lesbians of Sodom given by New York University, who has owned the theatre since the 1980s. From 1998 until the present, the Playhouse has primarily been used by New York University's Educational Theatre department, who since that time yearly host an award-winning reading series of new plays for young audiences by significant American playwrights. In the Fall of 2008, however, the original Playhouse structure was torn down by New York University to make way for office space for the university's law school, citing that the original building's foundation (built in the 1840s) was structurally unsound to build upon. The university promised a new theatre in the same air space as the original and construction was completed by the fall of 2010. The space was then returned for use by the university's Educational Theatre program. The Eugene O'Neill Society held their 8th International Conference in Greenwich Village there in 2011 and meetings and presentations took place in the Playhouse. Thankfully, the spirit in which the Provincetown Playhouse was originally created has continued as a driving force to enable Present exterior of Playhousefuture dramatists, theatre practitioners and teachers to flourish and grow. 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."(4)

Copyright Jeff Kennedy 2014

(1) Susan Glaspell. The Road to the Temple, 254.

(2) Alexander Woollcott. New York Times, 14 December 1919: XX2.

(3) James Weldon Johnson. Program of the Provincetown Players 1929 fund-raising gala.

(4) William Archer. “Great Contribution of ‘Little Theatres’ to Our Drama’s Future,” New York Evening Post, February 24, 1921: 9.

    1) Wharf Theatre, Provincetown, MA (courtesy Leona Egan)
    2) Charles Demuth and Eugene O'Neill in Provincetown, 1916
    3) Susan Glaspell at typewriter (Berg Collection, New York Public Library)
    4) John Reed at desk in front of Provincetown Players poster (Culver Pictures)
    5) George Cram Cook at typewriter (Berg Collection, New York Public Library)
    6) Setting up in 139 Macdougal for Bound East for Cardiff - O'Neill on far left
    7) Ida Rauh and Susan Glaspell in Glaspell's full-length play Bernice
    8) Mary Eleanor Fitzgerald
    9) Interior of Provincetown Playhouse
    10) The cast and set of O'Neill's The Moon of the Carribees
    11) Norma Millay and Henderson Forseyth rehearsing Aria da Capo (1919)
    12) Charles Gilpin in the witch doctor and crocodile scene from The Emperor Jones
    13) Louis Wolheim and the cast of O'Neill's The Hairy Ape
    14) Charles Gilpin as Brutus Jones in The Emperor Jones
    15) The Experimental Theatre company's triumvirate: Jones, Macgowan and O'Neill
    16) Paul Robeson and Mary Blair in O'Neill's All God's Chillun Got Wings
    17) James Light
    18) Bette Davis in The Earth Between
    19) The Provincetown Playhouse exterior, circa 1955
    20) Edward Albee's The Zoo Story
    21) Exterior of the Playhouse during the run of Charles Busch's Vampire Lesbians of Sodom (courtesy Charles Busch)
    22) Exterior of the Provincetown Playhouse in 2008 prior to its demolition

    23-25) Current Playhouse Exterior and Interior (photos by Win Goodbody)