The Provincetown Players

The Provincetown Players was one of the most influential of the small, subscription theater groups that sprang up across America during the first two decades of the 20th century (see Little Theater Movement). Founded in Provincetown, Massachusetts, and later transplanted to Greenwich Village, it was the only such organization exclusively devoted to producing American plays. The Players’ success in developing new American playwrights, most notably Eugene O’Neill and Susan Glaspell, has earned Provincetown its special place in American theater history as the “birthplace of American drama.”

The company’s singular achievements may be attributed to the visionary zeal of its founders, led by the charismatic George Cram “Jig” Cook and including Glaspell, John Reed, Hutchins Hapgood, and Neith Boyce. Cook and company yearned for a communally created drama. They began by staging their personal conflicts (Boyce’s Constancy [1915], which satirized a love affair between Reed and Mabel Dodge) and current cultural obsessions (Cook and Glaspell’s Suppressed Desires [1915], which lampooned Freudian fanaticism). In the summer of 1916, the group welcomed into their midst an unknown Eugene O’Neill, whose sea plays were ideally suited for their newly converted Wharf Theatre. In September, they organized formally as “The Provincetown Players: The Playwrights’ Theatre” and rented a space at 139 Macdougal Street in New York City. They remained in Greenwich Village for the next six years, producing nearly 100 plays by 50 American writers. Besides Boyce, Cook, Reed, Glaspell, and O’Neill, the company’s roster of playwrights included Djuna Barnes, Theodore Dreiser, Wilbur Daniel Steele, Rita Wellman, Wallace Stevens, Edna St. Vincent Millay, Alfred Kreymborg, Mike Gold, Lawrence Langner, and Edna Ferber.

The group encouraged experimentation in their theatrical laboratory, resulting in a richly diverse repertory. Provincetown playwrights, inspired by the new European writers (Henrik Ibsen, George Bernard Shaw, August Strindberg, Maurice Maeterlinck, Anton Chekhov, John Millington Synge) but recognizing no single aesthetic authority, worked in all genres and styles, pioneering structural and stylistic features for which there was not yet a suitable critical vocabulary.

Lewis Wharf, the first home of the Provincetown Players (1915)/Wikimedia

O’Neill and Glaspell, who contributed 15 and 11 plays, respectively, led the way in creativity as well as productivity. O’Neill poured human pain and poetry onto the stage in multifarious forms, from macabre melodrama (Thirst [1916]) to gritty naturalism (The Dreamy Kid [1919]) to expressionistic nightmare (The Emperor Jones [1920] and The Hairy Ape [1922]). He composed Before Breakfast (1916) in one long scene, The Hairy Ape in eight short ones. The Emperor Jones, a Jungian journey to racial roots, provoked controversy for its perpetuation of racist stereotypes but became the group’s major critical and commercial success; African-American actor Charles Gilpin won tremendous acclaim in the leading role. The Hairy Ape, another of the group’s outstanding successes, depicts an alienated protagonist’s struggle to “belong.” Both journeys end in death, and both protagonists achieve, if not nobility of character, an indisputable theatrical stature. Glaspell’s notable contributions include Trifles (1916), an investigation of sexual oppression and gendered perceptions of justice, and Bernice (1919), an exploration of the psychological motivations behind a dying woman’s wish to present her death as suicide. In both Trifles and Bernice, the action revolves around characters that are not represented onstage. In these plays and others, Glaspell introduces symbolic, expressionist, and surrealist undercurrents in otherwise naturalistic works. One of Glaspell’s most innovative works, The Verge (1921), combined an expressionistic visualization with linguistic inventions that prefigure écriture féminine.

Committed to social as well as artistic revolution, Provincetown playwrights typically combined aesthetic innovation with radical social critique. Reed’s The Eternal Quadrangle (1916), Steele’s Not Smart (1916), O’Neill’s Before Breakfast, Kreymborg’s Lima Beans (1917), Langner’s Matinata (1920), Floyd Dell’s King Arthur’s Socks (1916), Winthrop Parkhurst’s Getting Unmarried (1919), and almost all the Provincetown plays by women critique conventional morality, especially as it relates to sexual relations. Glaspell’s Trifles, Woman’s Honor (1918), Chains of Dew (1922), and The Verge critique conventional gender ideology; her Inheritors (1921) attacks compromised democracy in postwar America. Other artistically and ideologically representative offerings include Millay’s protoabsurdist antiwar fable, Aria da Capo (1919), Reed’s postwar political cartoon, The Peace That Passeth Understanding (1919), Barnes’s genre- and genderdefying Three from the Earth (1919), Florence Kiper Frank’s satirical examination of feminism, eugenics, and anti-Semitism, Gee-Rusalem (1918), and Steele’s allegorical indictment of New York’s religious establishment, Contemporaries (1916).

The Players developed a loyal audience and garnered considerable critical attention. Due largely to the achievements of Glaspell and O’Neill, but also because of the inconsistently satisfying, yet compelling efforts of their colleagues, the company’s significant influence on developing American drama was generally recognized. Excepting O’Neill, few Provincetown playwrights enjoyed commercial careers, but most of the plays were published, many became Little Theater staples, and those of O’Neill and Glaspell found international audiences. As Provincetown historian Robert Sarlós has affirmed, the impact of Provincetown playwrights is too pervasive to be conclusively charted.

Black, Cheryl. The Women of Provincetown: 1915–1922. Tuscaloosa: University of Alabama Press, 2001. Cook, George Cram. Greek Coins. New York: George H. Doran, 1925. ———, and Frank Shay, eds. The Provincetown Plays. Cincinnati: Stewart Kidd, 1921. Deutsch, Helen, and Stella Hanau. The Provincetown: A Story of the Theatre. New York: Farrar and Rinehart, 1931. Egan, Leona Rust. Provincetown as a Stage: Provincetown, The Provincetown Players, and the Discovery of Eugene O’Neill. Orleans, Mass.: Parnassus, 1994. Glaspell, Susan. The Road to the Temple. New York: Frederick A. Stokes, 1927. Kenton, Edna. The Provincetown Players and the Playwrights’ Theatre, 1915–1922. Edited by Travis Bogard and Jackson R. Bryer. Jefferson, N.C.: McFarland, 2004. Murphy, Brenda. The Provincetown Players and the Culture of Modernity. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2005. Ozieblo, Barbara, ed. The Provincetown Players: A Choice of the Shorter Works. Sheffield, England: Sheffield Academic Press, 1994. Sarlós, Robert Károly. Jig Cook and the Provincetown Players: Theatre in Ferment. Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press, 1982.
Source: Publishing, I., 2010. The Facts On File Companion to American Drama. New York: Infobase Pub.

Categories: Drama Criticism, Literature

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