Provincetown Players: A Moon For Movers & Shakers
FEATURE by Alan Bodian
On an incoming tide a shroud of mist wrapped around the old fishhouse, water flapping against mouldering pilings; beyond the horizon a foghorn moaned funereally as if the elements conspired with an invisible scene designer to transform Lewis' Wharf on Provincetown's East End that July night in 1916 for the debut of a new play, BOUND EAST FOR CARDIFF--the first time a work by Eugene O'Neill was ever produced.
Inspired by playwrights of ancient Greece, George Cram ("Jig") Cook was determined to make his life-long passion for theater a living reality in Provincetown. Together with his wife Susan Glaspell and a group of theatrelovers, The Provincetown Players was formed in 1915 to present original one-act plays. First accomplished in members' homes, they went on to Lewis' Wharf in an old fishhouse loaned to the fledgling "collective" by Mary Heaton Vorse O'Brien, who was in the process of purchasing the decrepit property at 571 Commercial Street.
Largely because of O'Brien, this unlikely collection of writers, journalists, poets and soon-to-be playwrights was invited to come to Provincetown--already home to a flourishing art community. Painting vivid pictures, she described spectacular seascapes and Sahara dunes, lots of affordable rentals and a permissive climate which seemed at odds with its Puritan origins but was nonetheless a perfect fit for these Bohemians from Greenwich Village, who embraced poetry, promiscuity, peyote and the liberating insights of the new Freudianism. Even more suprising, they found themselves welcome on the East End of town by the generosity of John Francis, realtor, grocer and staunch patron of the creative spirit, whose own expansive dwelling offered cheap space to artists and writers affectionately christened "Garbage Gables."
For O'Brien, bidding for the Wharf was more a dream than having the money to make a down payment. She had to negotiate with the estate of Isaac Lewis, care for three children and a chronically indisposed husband, earn enough from her journalistic skills and popular fiction to support a family and deal with a mountain of debt. A daunting set of circumstances, but how to pull it off?
Nowadays, it probably would be called creative financing or using the magic of leverage when she approached Seamen's Bank with a proposal which they initially turned down. Using her only collateral, a captain's house she had bought in 1907, she sought refinancing--an intensely grueling ordeal for a widow with three children (and soon to be widowed again). But she persisted and finally gained title to Lewis' Wharf in 1916, only a couple of weeks before the beginning of the second and historic season of The Provincetown Players.
Who were these immigrants who began to descend on the East End and rent "cottages" as many of these houses were called? Serendipitously, John Francis seemed to go out of his way to be more than a realtor solely interested in commissions. Perhaps due to an ecumenical set of genes--his mother was Irish, father Portuguese--his openness contrasted starkly with the Yankee snobbisms and judgmental barriers; and besides, John found the newcomers damned interesting and full of surprises.
Highly cultured, they had families with children and at least half a dozen of them--Hutchins Hapgood, Jig Cook, John Reed and Robert Edmund Jones among them--had Harvard pedigrees. For whatever reasons, Francis repeatedly offered his services and know-how, as in the purchase from the government of the Life Saving Station out at Peaked Hills Bar, especially when Mabel Dodge decided to have it elaborately furnished in 1915, and when Eugene O'Neill moved in with his third wife, Agnes Boulton, in 1919. The East End crowd shared a mutual admiration with him which lasted until Francis died in 1937.
Max Eastman, editor of The Masses, a radical and influential publication to which many of the East Enders contributed, once referred to the East End as "The Wasteland," borrowing freely from T.S. Eliot; yet Eastman was endlessly fascinated by the creative and "amorous energies of this talented collection of persons who were friends and peers." Like himself, they were all recent transplants from Greenwich Village, which made Lower Manhattan the most exciting place on the planet until the exodus to Montparnasse in the mid-twenties. In summer, Provincetown was on the threshold of being renamed "Eighth Street By the Sea."
In 1913, the Hapgoods and their four children relocated to Provincetown because of dimninished circumstances and the chance to rent a house for the season for $100. Apparently, Hapgood's celebrated career as a pioneering journalist was in decline while his wife's career was rising, as a feminist author and successful short story writer. Provincetown provided a fertile setting for Hapgood's new interests, which Eastman described as "Hutch's natural impulse toward sin," meaning drink and the pursuit of other men's wives. His own wife, the handsome and gifted Neith Boyce, was soon to gain celebrity as the author of Constancy, one of the first plays presented by The Provincetown Players.
Greenwich Village was a rather compressed area radiating around Washington Square, as much a state of mind as an urban destination, a Bohemian quarter of low rents and the gospel of free love, liberated from bourgeois constraints and the boring blandness of smalltown tastes. This cauldron of new ideas and experimentation marked the beginning of the 20th century: Einstein, Freud, muckraking journalism, the rise of militant labor and spread of revolutionary fervor, the introduction of new art concepts at The Armory Show. All this found a voice in Greenwich Village. In Manhattan, below 14th Street, intellect and creative expression were coin of the realm, the most liquid form of currency.
But money still counted when it came to underwriting and widening the horizons of this new and innovative Bohemia. Enter Mabel Dodge! A major turning point occurred when she decided to leave her glorious villa near Florence, Italy and relocate to the Village, where she set her salon in "a palatial brownstone at 23 Fifth Avenue." There, on Wednesday nights, she entertained gatherings of what she called the "movers and shakers," writers, poets and pundits, or labor leaders like Big Bill Haywood or revolutionaries like Emma Goldman.
The price of innovation was that at each meeting the participants would provide a different theme and a night of incandescent conversation. Her model was Gertrude Stein's salon on the Rue Fleurus in Paris which brought together the Picassos, Hemingways and Cocteaus; but Stein's list was rigidly exclusive, while Dodge's list ranged freely because her immense wealth afforded unlimited possibilities. On one occasion she invited 200 members of the IWW or "Wobblies" as they were called, and after listening to a session of Marxist rhetoric and condemnation of capitalism, Dodge signalled servants to bring in silver platters of roast pheasant accompanied by a selection of vintage wines. In contrast, on another occasion but to the identical audience, two blocks to the south, Mary Heaton Vorse and Joe O'Brien served spaghetti and meatballs--bring your own drinks.
One can freely trace the "Provincetown Connection" to Mabel Dodge and the influence of her salon on lower Fifth Avenue. Among the first to welcome her when she arrived from Italy was Hutchins Hapgood who became a close friend and staunch supporter, calling her "a promoter of the Spirit." As primary advisor, admirer and confidant, it wasn't too long before he was installed as guru and offered his formula on how to deploy her fortune to insure Dodge's standing among the radical intellegentsia. Following a long and distinguished career as a New York journalist and reputation as a philosophical anarchist with an M.A. from Harvard, Hapgood first suggested that Mabel hold weekly gatherings and that he compile the guest lists from his diverse circle of friends. Once again, history took a detour because of a fortuitous act of networking.
At one of those Wednesday soirees John Reed surfaced as a poet of promise and a dashing young man of adventure, having interviewed Pancho Villa in 1912 during the Mexican Revolution. That same night, Big Bill Haywood delivered an inflammatory account of an ongoing strike at the silk mills in Paterson, New Jersery. In his concluding remarks, Haywood suggested that Dodge should underwrite a rally to dramatize the plight of exploited workers.
Dodge listened politely until John Reed jumped up and volunteered to organize such an event which became "The Paterson Strike Pageant" staged at Madison Square Garden in June, 1913. Reed, who wrote the scenario, was joined by Robert Edmond Jones, a fellow Harvard graduate. Both men went on to gain fame--Reed as the world-class author of Ten Days That Shook the World, an eyewitness acount of the Russian Revolution, Jones as an acclaimed designer of Broadway plays.
"The Pageant" was an ideological blockbuster and a financial disaster, but Dodge chose to cut her losses and zeroed in on Reed, who became her lover, which despite her being eight years older, confirmed a belief that beyond the life of the mind there is the life of the body, so why not couple them in synchronous harmony? Boyce's Constancy, a thinly veiled satire of the affair, did not appear on the first bill of The Provincetown Players by coincidence.
Still legally married to architect Edwin Dodge, the second of four husbands, Dodge could pick and choose bedmates with abandon because hers was a kind of wealth which denied nothing, especially since she was always in the driver's seat. Daughter of rich parents in Buffalo, both of whom came from banking families, Dodge was an only child given free rein to indulge in any and all recreations from Buddhism and psychoanalysis to peyote and automatic writing, or to use her checkbook to sponsor avant-garden happenings ranging from the neo-Grecian dances of Isadora Duncan to Emma Goldman's Anarchy or the International Armory Show of 1913.
John Reed was "the flavor of the month" until the menu changed, as it always did. In her eyes Reed had the "true touch of the poet," a strong chin and seductive dimples and that faraway glint of a robust young man in search of distant adventure. Her woman's intuition would be validated four years later when Reed became "the most important chronicler of the Russian Revolution" according to Lenin himself.
One would be hard pressed to dispute that the birth of modern theater took place in Provincetown and occurred principally through the passion, fervor and commitment of George Cram "Jig" Cook, who had the singleminded vision and drive to inspire others to harness creative juices and deliver the goods. A man for all seasons, Cook toiled as director, playwright, actor, set builder and above all passionate disciple of theater in classical Greece. His ultimate goal was to clone the "Golden Age" beginning at 564 Commercial Street where he lived with his third wife, Susan Glaspell--a professional author completely supportive of his elevated ambitions. Shortly after the Cooks moved into Greenwich Village, the Hapgoods convinced them to come to Provincetown.
The East End was becoming a summer extension of the Village, so what better place for Gaspell to write and for Cook, with his Little Theatre background, to pursue his dream while caring for his two small children from an earlier marriage.
Sun and sand, the joyous laughter of children doing what they do best, and the transparent infidelities and highly charged eroticism of neighbors, seemed to inspire Cook and his mission to mould a collective enterprise whose purpose was to create original work and discard the suffocating formulas of the commercial theater of the day. The season became a summer of labor and dedication, and finally on Lewis' Wharf Cook, the ringmaster set the whole enterprise in motion, keen to avoid the illusion of amateurism. One source of documentation, coming years later from Cook's daughter Nilla, described how as an 8-year-old she watched "rehearsals held in the living rooms of one or another neighbors' houses...and only those taking part in a given section of the play were present."
No fanfare or drum rolls or media blitz were provided by the Provincetown Advocate. On July 15, 1915, the fruit of the intense preparation received its world premiere at the Hapgood residence, 621 Commercial Street.
Suppressed Desires, a satire on the voguish interest in psychoanalysis, written by Susan Gaspell and Cook, opened the show. The set (chairs, sofas and tables) was shifted around for the second offering on the inaugural night of The Provincetown Players.
Constancy by Neith Boyce made the small invited audience laugh the informed laugh of insiders as they recognized a parody of the notorious affair between John Reed and the flamboyant Mabel Dodge.
The night was a resounding success and three weeks later, on Sept. 9th, a second bill was presented at Lewis' Wharf--a property lent to the group by Mary Heaton Vorse, who was negotiating to finance the rundown property at 571 Commercial Street. To add irony, the props were supplied by Bror Nordfelt, who was running the Modern Art School in rented space upstairs in the old fishhouse.
Change Your Style, a comic satire on the collision between modern and traditional art, was written and directed by George Cram Cook. The play connected uproariously with the audience, many of whom were art students engaged in the very same struggle.
The companion piece, Contemporaries, was written by Wilbur Daniel Steele, who went on to become an award-winning short-story writer. Steele's theme--depression, the extreme cold of the previous winter and the plight of the underclass--was both timely and politically daring. The protagonist, a young IWW organizer, assembles a band of homeless people and leads them into a church for shelter. The cast included Jig Cook, Ida Raugh, Max Eastman and Mary Vorse's son, Heaton.
As it must to all summers, even those of innovation and great promise, the inaugural season of The Provincetown Players came to an end. Still to be answered, for those dedicated children of Thespis--Jig Cook and Company--was an important question: would there be a second season?
(Part Two of this feature will appear in the Sept/Oct, 2008 edition of Lively-Arts.com)