Friday, March 8, 2024

Provincetown Players

I was supposed to see Jeffery Kennedy speak on the Provincetown Players earlier this week, but circumstances intervened, and I missed his talk.

Fortunately, Kennedy's talk is now available on YouTube. He spoke about material in his new book, Staging America: The Artistic Legacy of the Provincetown Players.

On the cover of the book is a recently rediscovered painting by Charles Ellis showing  a number of the original players, including Christine Ell, George Cram Cook, James Light, Eugene O'Neill, and O'Neill's childhood friend, Hutchinson Collins.

It was Cook who founded the Provincetown Players and led a group of people that included Edna St. Vincent Millay, Louise Bryant, John Reed, Djuna Barnes, and others. He had been at a theatre in Chicago in 1913 that performed The Playboy of the Western World, barely escaping a riot due to the piece's controversial subject matter. He immediately knew he wanted to create an American theatre that had the same energy as that exciting performance.

After marrying the writer Susan Glaspell, Cook put his ambitions into action, starting the Players in 1915. The first plays they produced were Neith Boyce's Constancy and Suppressed Desire by Glaspell and Cook, both presented at a vacation house in Provincetown, Massachusetts with sets designed by Robert Edmond Jones.

The performance was so popular, that the plays were staged again at a wharf, and two more plays were done that summer. Over the following year, the participants drummed up interest in Greenwich Village where they lived. The next year, a whole slew of artists vacationed in Provincetown, including O'Neill. At the wharf that summer, O'Neill's play The Moon of the Caribbees was performed for the first time. Other plays by O'Neill followed, including Bound East for Cardiff and Thirst.

In 1916, the group decided to produce a season in New York City as well. They converted the first floor of a brownstone into a very small theatre with extremely uncomfortable benches for seating. The stage was only 10 feet by 14 feet, but it played host to some of the great plays of the early American theatre.

The Provincetown Players' first full-length play was Cook's The Athenian Women, inspired by Aristophanes' old comedy Lysistrata. The play premiered on March 1, 1918, with a full 33 people packed onto the tiny stage in Greenwich Village. Eventually, the company moved into a larger space, an old stable that had recently been used for bottling wine.

On November 22nd, 1918, the new theatre opened, only days after the Armistice that ended World War I. It was here that the company premiered such break-through plays as Millay's Aria da Capo and O'Neill's The Emperor Jones.

By 1922, the company had premiered nearly a hundred new American plays and opened new opportunities for African Americans on stage. While short lived, it had a permanent impact on the American stage.