In the summer of 1916, Eugene O’Neill arrived in Provincetown, Mass., depressed over his failure to find a stage for his plays.
He was 27, the son of an actor, a Princeton dropout who spent several years at sea in a tramp steamer and writing some plays.
That summer he found his stage and a whole lot more.
Provincetown was then a ramshackle village, a haven for Portuguese fishermen, sailors on benders, Bohemians from Greenwich Village and artists and intellectuals fleeing the war in Europe. It was a place where conventions were shed and parties got out of hand.
In 1915, the summer before Eugene O’Neill arrived, a group of friends had come from Greenwich Village to Provincetown. They were into theater, Freud, Marx and free love.
Among them were artists Marsden Hartley, Charles Demuth, William and Marguerite Zorach, and John Reed, a labor activist, poet and journalist. He was married to journalist Louise Bryant, and together they would cover the Bolshevik Revolution (depicted in the 1981 movie Reds). Mabel Dodge, who held a weekly salon for artists and writers in Greenwich Village, also summered in Provincetown. She and Reed had had a flamboyant affair that ended badly.
“It was in this strange atmosphere of art, mayhem and intoxication that the Provincetown Players was born," wrote Debra Lawless in Provinceetown: A History of Artists and Renegades in a Fishing Village. “While many people founded community theater groups, this one had an indefinable magic that would bestow on its members a Nobel and five Pulitzer Prizes and, as many later said, change the face of American theater.”
The group was disgusted with the frothy comedies and tired melodramas of Broadway while millions were being slaughtered in Europe.
On July 15, 1915, writers Hutchins Hapgood and his wife Neith Boyce Hapgood put their children to bed and entertained their Bohemian friends with two short plays staged on their veranda overlooking Provincetown Harbor. It was the first production of what would become the Provincetown Players.
The first, Neith Boyce’s Constancy, was a spoof about the romance between John Reed and Mabel Dodge. The audience was highly entertained.
Another married couple, newlyweds Susan Glaspell and George Cram ‘Jig’ Cook, wrote the second play that night, Suppressed Desires, a satire on Freudianism. Stage designer Robert Edmond Jones designed the set by moving furniture and pillows.
This was all very new. Summer stock theatre hadn’t taken hold yet. It would be three years before the first summer venue opened in St. Louis. The Manhattan Theatre Colony in Peterborough, N.H. (now in Ogunquit, Maine), and the Cape Playhouse in Dennis, Mass., didn’t start up until 1927, and the Berkshire Playhouse in Stockbridge, Mass., wouldn't open for another year after that.
The 1916 Season
In 1916, wealthy fiction writer Mary Heaton Vorse bought Lewis Wharf and the ramshackle fishing shack built on it. She let the Provincetown Players build a small stage inside the shack and put enough wooden benches to seat 100 people.
That summer, Eugene O’Neill moved into a cottage with Reed and Bryant and began an affair with Bryant. He had written a play about a sailor dying in the forecastle of a British tramp steamer. It was called Bound East for Cardiff, and it was unlike anything the audience had ever seen before. Yank, the dying sailor, spoke the way a sailor spoke, crude but poetic.
Susan Glaspell described what happened next:
There was a fog, just as the script demanded, a fog bell in the harbor. The tide was in, and it washed under us and around, spraying through the holes in the floor, giving us the rhythm and the flavor of the sea while the big dying sailor talked.
From then on, said Glaspell, the Players “knew what we were for.”
Many people will remember James O'Neil, (sic) who played "Monte Cristo." He had a son—Eugene O'Neil (sic)—who knocked about the world in tramp steamers…and saw life "in the raw," and thought much about it…He is one of the Players, and he has written some little plays which have made a very deep impression on those who have seen them produced here.
Four years later, Eugene O’Neill would win the first of four Pulitzer Prizes.
The Provincetown Players spent the next 10 years performing at 139 MacDougall St. in Greenwich Village. They never again played in Provincetown.
Read more about Provincetown from Provincetown by Debra Lawless and Provincetown: From Pilgrim Landing to Gay Resort, by Karen Christel Krahulik. You can buy them from The New England Historical Society’s bookstore here and here.