Provincetown Players: A Quaint Little Fishing Village
FEATURE by Alan Bodian
PROVINCETOWN, MA -- Early in June of 1916, The Dorothy Bradford from Boston docked at Railroad Wharf. Among its passengers two men disembarked and asked directions to the East End of town. One, lean, darkly handsome and wearing a seaman's shirt with the stenciled logo American Line, was 27-year-old Eugene O'Neill making his first entrance into Provincetown, symbolically by water and wearing the uniform of one who had gone down to the sea in ships. His companion, 61-year-old Terence (Terry) Carlin, a seasoned habitue of waterfront dives and labor battles (and dedicated to the proposition of never having a fulltime job), liberated him from life's worst kind of bondage. Carlin and O'Neill were confirmed drinking buddies, having spent the previous winter and spring at their favorite spa, a sawdust-on-the-floor saloon for serious drinkers, on the waterfront facing the Hudson River.
Their mission as they headed for 621 Commercial Street--the home of Carlin's friend, Hutchins Hapgood--was to put the touch on him for a tenspot, inquire where they could flop for the night, and introduce O'Neill to the "theatre crowd" about which Hutch had written him. Seven years earlier, in 1909, Hapgood depicted Carlin as a labor hero who did combat with capitalism in An Anarchist Woman and forged a lasting friendship between them. For Carlin more fame lay in wait for him. At this point no one could have predicted O'Neill would create a mythic character in The Iceman Cometh with Carlin serving as the model for Larry Slade, "the old foolosopher" who speaks the play's most memorable line, "To hell with the truth."
On this overcast day the simple truth was they were homeless and flat broke and in need of food and drink and a place to flop. As they walked east, the Provincetown they saw was anything but quaint or the laid-back fishing village described in a brochure handed out on the Dorothy Bradford, obviously written in more peaceful times. With the war in France stalemated and in its second year, foreign travel all but disappeared leaving travelers little choice but to explore their native shores.
In the summer of 1916 Provincetown was flourishing and as the season wore on activity intensified to a fever pitch never before seen. Each day the Dorothy Bradford deposited a full load of 1650 pleasure-seekers who filtered into narrow streets, some in search of "Killem Quick" liquor for which the town was notorious. In spite of prohibition laws, there seemed no control on a dozen "Killem Quick" dealers or their confederates, professional gamblers who roamed freely in floating bar rooms. Not only did the local constabulary hear frequent complaints about drunks and rowdies on board the Bradford, but to liven up festivities, three training battleships, the Ohio, Missouri and Wisconsin, dropped anchor and gave their crews shoreleave to do what sailors always do: drink, hunt for women, and engage in after-hours brawls to the total discomfort of residents in need of a good night's sleep.
During the early years of the new century, Provincetown went through a gentrification process, renaming streets for Mayflower immigrants--Alden, Ryder, Bradford, Winthrop and Standish--to change the image of a port once bustling with whaling vessels and commercial craft, a port of call named Hell Town and where a tearoom formerly named Priscilla Alden would magically morph into The Black Cat Cafe, a feat achieved simply by flipping its sign around. To add to the congestion, Front Street became Commercial Street, its worn wooden planks replaced by pavement, and buses plied their routes on a 22-foot-wide street with armies of day-trippers dodging two-way traffic.
In 1916 there were at least five art schools in Provincetown with more than 600 students taking instruction. Easels deployed on town beaches became a part of the landscape, posters announced an Artist's Costume Ball and a Beachcomber's Minstrel Show, and public exhibitions by the two-year-old Art Association attracted more than a thousand paid admissions to Town Hall. Provincetown was gaining stature as a summer art capital and the establishment took notice. Webster and Hawthorne would have a two-man show at the St. Botolph Club the following spring, and after the Town Hall exhibitions, forty young artists were invited to show in Boston galleries.
By any measure, the summer of 1916 was remarkable and nowhere was this more visible than on the East End with an extraordinary cast of characters who formed The Provincetown Players. In addition to "Jig" Cook and Susan Glaspell, the Hapgoods and a colorful cross-section of Greenwich Village writers and artists, they were joined by Mabel Dodge, who arrived in a chauffeur-driven Pierce-Arrow accompanied by her latest paramour, the artist Martin Sterne, about to be installed as her third husband. They were followed by John Reed and his true love Louise Bryant who rented a spacious cottage at 592 Commercial Street which became a gathering place for friends and radicals, fellow travelers who shared their politics and open Bohemian style of living. As always, the realtor John Francis was willing to be of service. Francis had already spent the better part of the previous winter at the beck and call of Dodge, who decided to redecorate the former Life Saving Station out at Peaked Hill, painting the interior solid white to capture the luminescent light of Race Point, and installing modern plumbing worthy of her impeccable standards.
Into this collection of avant-garde cosmpolitans entered a complete unknown who was to impact their lives and forever be identified with Provincetown and the happenings of a truly memorable summer. After their arrival, Carlin and O'Neill found an unused shed on Snow's Wharf, a few hundred yards from the Hapgoods, and there they camped out, scrounging for free fish and depending on the kindness of strangers. O'Neill once described his life as a series of cycles, six or seven years long, and using this as a calendar one can trace the odyssey which brought him to Provincetown and a climactic event on an abandoned wharf once employed by a thriving fishing industry.
In 1910, while doing "make work" on one of his father's productions, O'Neill secretly married and produced a son he was not to see again for eleven years, Disturbed and not wanting his 22-year-old son's escapades to be publicized, his father James gave him a stipend which allowed him to sail out of Boston on a Norwegian windjammer--the Charles Racine--to see a new life for himself.
This and later voyages indelibly etched in O'Neill's psyche the mystery and power of infinite expanses of ocean, the tragic dimension which seemed to doom seamen's lives, the cruelty and omnipotence of Nature, an almost metaphysical obsession which shaped the tonality and subliminal currents found in much of his writing.
After the Charles Racine, a pattern of O'Neill's early life surfaced and included such themes as shipping out, hanging out in waterfront dives like the Hell Hole in Greenwich Village, which became No Chance Saloon in The Iceman Cometh, and setting his sights on becoming a writer. In 1913 his career was put on hold when he entered a sanitarium for treatment of tuberculosis, and once again his father paid the bills. While in recovery O'Neill made a solemn resolution to become a playwright and nothing else, no matter what intervened, writing would be his one and only calling.
Harvard would be his next port of call and he applied to enroll in English 47, the course in playwriting presided over by the celebrated George Pierce Baker, the lion of creative mentors in academic circles. To prepare himself, O'Neill battened down and proceeded to compose five plays in the months before settling in Cambridge, waiting for the semester to begin. Having invested every minute of time and energy, he created five plays, one of which was Thirst, which became the title of a slim volume he decided to print himself after convincing his father to provide a loan of $450, the cost of publication.
To say that O'Neill's career at Harvard was a washout or distort the transcript would in no way misrepresent his enlightenment in the hallowed halls of ivy. When called upon to appraise O'Neill's oeuvre, Professor Baker invoked the strictures of dramaturgy, noting that his style was deficient in structure, form, plot and character, labeling them "mood pieces" with occasional flashes of imagistic dialogue but definitely not in harmony with theatre's eternal verities. To further bruise a neophyte's self-esteem, O'Neill made periodic visits to bookstores to learn that Thirst hadn't made Cambridge's bestseller list. Adding insult to injury, an offer was made to sell the books back to him a thirty cents a copy.
Not to anyone's surprise, aside from a 1916 production of the play in Provincetown--starring himself and Louise Breyant--when O'Neill's career soared into the stratosphere, he wouldn't permit the reissue of Thirst during his own lifetimre, inadvertently supplying posthumous ammunition for scholars in search of topics for a torrent of dissertations.
In the background of this most remarkable summer were the marathon melodrama of Mary Heaton Vorse's negotiations with Seamen's Bank over Lewis' Wharf, the swift passage of time and, finally, the approval of the loan.
In July, just in the nick of time, word spread eastward that thanks to the guardians of depositor's interests there would be a Playhouse! When the green light was relayed to Jig Cook, he dug in and resumed planning a second season.
A call to action set in motion feverish preparations--repair of the storm-battered fishhouse, assembly of actors, designers and stagehands, motivate writers to write and inspire untested playwrights to fulfill Cook's exalted vision of a theatre collective unlike any then around, a clarion call to carry on the promise of Plato's Republic. To be sure, the Wharf was not to be confused with the ampitheatre at Epidavros, even in rustic miniature, but at a minimum Cook wanted to surpass the Washington Square Players and the Little Theatre of Chicago on the frontier of new directions for community theatre.
Once in motion, nothing could detour Cook, who in many ways was precursor to the young Orson Welles; nothing, not even a fire early in July which destroyed a small building and blackened two walls of the old fishouse. Luckily local artists came to the rescue. Bror Nordfelt and William Zorach recuited students to stain damaged walls and match the primitive simplicity of an abandoned fishhouse. The charred, soaked curtain was replaced by a stand-in, one found in the local dry goods store.
* * *
On July 27, 1916 a new play by a new voice received its world premiere on Lewis' Wharf, the capacity audience mesmerized and drawn into a drama about life and death on a cargo ship headed for Wales. As if by design, the harbor was socked in and almost on cue a foghorn sounded, providing an eerie soundtrack while the tide crept in under creaking floor boards, the air heavy with the melancholoy of loneliness, and all seemed of one piece.
Some years later in her memoirs, Susan Glaspell wrote about a night to remember: "It seems to me I have never sat before a more moving production than our Bound East for Cardiff when Eugene O'Neill was produced for the first time. Jig played Yank. As he lay dying, he talked of life as one who knew he must leave it."
Glaspell continued: "The sea has been good to O'Neill. It was there for his opening. There was fog, just as the script had demanded, a fog bell in the harbor tolled. The tide was in and washed under and around us, spraying through the holes in the floor, giving us the rhythm and flavor of the sea while the big dying sailor talked to his friend Driscoll of the life he had always wanted deep in the land where you'd never see a ship or smell the sea. It is not figurative language to say the old wharf shook with applause."
On that memorable night a star was born and that star was O'Neill, who went on to international fame and fortune. During that remarkable summer there were other productions on Lewis' Wharf culminating in a special bill: Thirst, The Game by Louise Bryant and Suppressed Desires by Cook and Glaspell.
The final performance took place on Sat. Sept 2, 1916 and as it turned out, marked the end of the Provincetown Players.
Buoyed by the acclaim of their second season, Cook looked beyond the horizon and decided to bring his prodigious energy and purpose to New York, where The Provincetown Players were formally organized. Cook's first location was 133 MacDougal Street and later he rented a more spacious brownstone a few doors away which, with parlor walls removed, became the new home of the Players.
From the fall of 1916 until the early twenties, the collective continued to thrive and when Cook's 1920 production of The Emperor Jones became a hit, the play moved uptown to the Selwyn Theatre, where it became a money-maker. Important critics now made pilgrimages to Greenwich Village and Broadway producers stood by, waiting breathlessly for O'Neill's next effort.
For someone who was both founder and guiding spirit, and who had devoted his most productive years to the company, Cook felt he was bring shunted into the shadows as O'Neill's career went into orbit. What wounded Cook most was that O'Neill seemed to remain on the sidelines as others manuevered for billing, claimed credit and in effect demoted him to supporting member of the company. These tactics despite knowledge that Cook labored at the side of O'Neill while he was writing The Emperor Jones, offering advice on staging and folkloric insights on tribal rites and customs.
Cook took this to be an oracular warning and set sail for his beloved Greece to recharge spiritually and to purge himself of petty animosities. While at Delphi, he was stricken by a rare glandular disease and died in 1924 at the age of 51. The recognition denied him in Greenwich Village was bestowed upon him by the Greek Government for his enthusiastic support in helping revive The Festival of Panhellenic Theatre. A memorial plaque to George (Kyrios) Cook was installed and a large stone from the Temple of Apollo marks the location of his burial site.
One year after the second season in Provincetown, John Reed and his wife Louise Bryant traveled to East Europe and as correspondents timed themselves perfectly to bear witness to the Russian Revolution during the turbulent events of 1917. Reed's Ten Days That Shook the World became in Lenin's opinion the most reliable portrait of the downfall of Czarism and the birth of a new social order.
After a stopover in Provincetown, where he met Susan Glaspell while writing his book, Reed went back to Russia to survey the aftermath of the revolution. In Moscow, exhausted from constant travel, drink and the debilitating effects of a damaged kidney, Reed died of typhus in 1920 at the age of 33. A young, romantic legend and a passionate supporter of the Revolution, he was awarded what some consider the dubious honor of burial beneath the walls of the Kremlin. His celebrity spread internationally and in this country namesake John Reed Clubs became a haven for romantic rebels who called themselves "progressives." Sic transit gloria! During a wave of Stalinist revisionism, the John Reed Clubs became The League of American Writers.
Susan Glaspell was a founder, playwright and intensely committed member for the entire seven-year life of The Provincetown Players. After her husband's death in Delphi, she returned to the USA and resumed her literary career. Among her books was The Road to the Temple, both autobiography and glowing tribute to the memory of Cook, a true son of Thespis and the glory that was Greece.
In 1931, Glaspell won the Pulitzer Prize for Alison's House, a play based on the life of Emily Dickinson. That same year, in the 1931 edition of Mourning Becomes Electa, O'Neill wrote this dedication: "For Susan Glaspell. Congratulations on winning the Pultizer Prize. An honor long overdue!"
In many ways this was also an overdue tribute to Glaspell's late husband, who had done so much to insure the early success of Eugene O'Neill.
In 1922, O'Neill won the Pulitzer Prize for Beyond the Horizon, his first full-length play in a long career marked by many honors and the title of America's Most Distinguished Playwright. Beyond the Horizon was written at Peaked Hill Bars, where he moved in 1919 with Agnes Boulton and where their two children, Shane and Oona, were conceived. What began on a battered wharf on the East End of Provincetown in the summer of 1916 reached its pinnacle in 1936 when O'Neill won the Nobel Prize. He remains the only American dramatist ever so honored.
Provincetown today continues to be what it was then, a place for new ideas and anyone willing to take a chance.
(This concludes the two-part feature. Visit Archives for part one)