Provincetown Players

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Provincetown Players
Provincetown Theatre - Van Vechten.jpg
Lewis Wharf (site of first two seasons of Provincetown Players)
Formation 1915 (1915)
Dissolved 1923 (1923) or 1929 (1929)
Type Theatre group
Purpose amateur productions of new, experimental theatre
  • Cape Cod
    New York City

The Provincetown Players was an influential collective of artists, writers, intellectuals, and amateur theater enthusiasts. Under the leadership of the husband and wife team of George Cram “Jig” Cook and Susan Glaspell, the Players produced two seasons in Provincetown, Massachusetts and six seasons in New York City between 1915 and 1923. The company's founding has been called "the most important innovative moment in American theatre,"[1] in part for launching the career of Eugene O'Neill and building an audience for American playwrights.

Founding in Provincetown[edit]

The Provincetown Players began in July 1915. Provincetown, Massachusetts had become a popular summer outpost for the bohemian residents of Greenwich Village. On July 21 a group of friends who were disillusioned by the commercialism of Broadway created an evening’s entertainment by staging two one-act plays. Constancy by Neith Boyce and Suppressed Desires by Susan Glaspell and George Cram Cook were performed at the home of Hutchins Hapgood and Neith Boyce.[2]

The evening was a success and an additional performance was organized. Mary Heaton Vorse donated the use of the fish house on Lewis Wharf where a makeshift stage was assembled.[3] The two one-acts which had been presented at the Hapgood home were restaged in August and a second bill of two new plays was presented in September: Change Your Style by George Cram Cook and Contemporaries by Wilbur Daniel Steele.[4]

Enthusiasm for the theatrical experiment in Provincetown continued over the winter of 1915-16 and a second season was planned at Lewis Wharf. The plays were funded in part by a subscription campaign in which George Cram “Jig” Cook described the aim of the group: “to give American playwrights a chance to work out their ideas in freedom."[2]

The second season introduced Eugene O’Neill and his play Bound East for Cardiff.

New York City[edit]

In September 1916 before leaving Massachusetts, the group met and, formally called themselves "The Provincetown Players," voted to produce a season in New York City. Jig Cook was elected president of the newly constituted organization. The Players were founded to “establish a stage where playwrights of sincere, poetic, literary and dramatic purpose could see their plays in action and superintend their production without submitting to the commercial managers' interpretation of public taste.” [2]

On September 19, 1916 Cook rented a theater at 139 Macdougall Street which the Players dubbed “The Playwright’s Theater.”[3]

The Players developed a pattern of producing a "bill" of three new plays every two weeks over a 21-week season. [3]

The first New York season in 1916-17 presented nine “bills” between November and March, including three new O’Neill plays and a revival of Bound East for Cardiff, three plays by Neith Boyce and two by Susan Glaspell.[4]

In the 1917-18 season Edna St. Vincent Millay and her sister Norma joined the Players as actors and Millay’s Two Slatterns and a King was produced. [3]

In the 1918-19 season The Players move to 133 Macdougall Street and called the theater “The Provincetown Playhouse.”

The Players were founded as an amateur group. But with each New York season, some members began to define their “bills” as successes or failures. Some founding members considered this means of evaluation the criteria of commercial theater, and therefore a violation of the mission of The Players. By the end of the third New York season, Cook and Glaspell decided to step away from the Players for a year-long sabbatical (1919-20).[4] During the sabbatical the theater’s day-to-day management was carried out by an executive committee.[2]

The 1919-20 season ("The Season of Youth")[3] included three plays by Djuna Barnes, two by Eugene O’Neill, Aria Da Capo by Edna St. Vincent Millay, and Three Travelers Watch A Sunrise by Wallace Stevens.

Success and Change[edit]

Eugene O’Neill’s The Emperor Jones opened the 1920-21 season and was an overnight hit. The cast included Charles Gilpin who was the first professional actor to perform with the Players. Alexander Woollcott in the New York Times called The Emperor Jones an "extraordinarily striking and dramatic study of panic fear.” O’Neill’s play “reinforces the impression that for strength and originality he has no rival among American writers for the stage.”[2]

Cook used the production of The Emperor Jones to advocate for a striking scenic innovation - the construction of a dome in the Playhouse modeled on the scenic element used in art theaters in Europe. The dome, (kuppelhorizont) used a “combination of vertical and horizontal curvatures” as a reflective surface to represent the horizon and create a greater sense of depth than a flat cyclorama.[4]

After the attention The Emperor Jones received, some members of the Players began to associate success with a Broadway transfer. The mission of the Players became more clouded when, in the 1921-22 season O’Neill’s The Hairy Ape, which was funded by commercial producer Arthur Hopkins, was a popular hit.[2]

Commercial success eroded the collective spirit of the founding of the Provincetown Players. As a result of the growing pressure to succeed in commercial terms, Cook and Glaspell decided to travel to Greece. The Players suspended their work for the 1922-23 season. Though Cook wrote his subscribers promising a season beginning in October 1923, the Provincetown Players would not produce again.[4]

In 1923 the primary members of the Provincetown Players’ corporation voted to formally disband. According to Jig Cook the vote “gave the theater they had loved a good death.”[2]

Continuing the Name[edit]

After the formal dissolution of the Players, several associates sought to create a producing organization that would carry on the success of the Players and use the Players' name. When Jig Cook died in January 1924, Susan Glaspell could not stop the creation of a new producing organization, but fought to protect the name "The Provincetown Players" from the new partnership.[4]

In January 1924 “The Spook Sonata” (a translation of August Strindberg’s “Ghost Sonata”) premiered. It launched a new phase in the life of the company that was still identified in the popular imagination as the Provincetown Players. Artistic guidance was now under the leadership of a triumvirate: Robert Edmond Jones, Kenneth Macgowan and Eugene O’Neill operating as “The Experimental Theatre, Inc.” and producing in the “Provincetown Playhouse.”[5]

The Provincetown operated under the triumvirate for two seasons. But Macgowan himself allowed that “the Provincetown Players of the great days. . . ended when Jig Cook went to Greece and Eugene O’Neill went to Broadway.”[2]

The triumvirate dissolved after two years and the “Third Provincetown” operated from 1925-1929. The theater continued to wrestle with the tension between process and product. The original Provincetown Players were founded on ideals of simplicity, experimentation and group process. Success, on the other hand, relied on finished products and expansion. The stock market crash ultimately sealed the theater’s fate. After the final performance of “Winter Bound” by Thomas H. Dickinson on December 14, 1929, the theater company closed for good.[2]

Role of Women in the Provincetown Players[edit]

Women were a prominent part of the founding of the Provincetown Players. Susan Glaspell and Jig Cook were partners in creating the Players. Glaspell and Neith Boyce co-wrote (with their husbands) the first two plays performed by the Players. Mary Heaton Voise donated the use of the fish house on Lewis Wharf as the Players first home for two summers in Provincetown. Similarly, the Players gave voice to women artists. Of the forty-seven playwrights whose work was produced by the Provincetown Players, seventeen were women.[3] Prominent among these playwrights were Glaspell, Boyce, Djuna Barnes, Louise Bryant, Mary Carolyn Davies, Edna Ferber, and Edna St. Vincent Millay.[4] In addition to challenging the artistic status quo of Broadway, the Provincetown Players gave opportunities to women and challenged the sexual segregation of commercial theater.[6]

Little Theatre Movement[edit]

The Little Theatre Movement in America came about in response to the tepid entertainment offered by the commercial theater. In an effort to appeal to a mass audience Broadway took few chances with untested plays and playwrights. The Little Theaters provided an outlet for American playwrights, stories with social significance, performed, predominantly, in a social realist style.[7]

The Players and Greenwich Village[edit]

The anti-commercial impulse, emphasis on artistic expression, and collective decision-making of the Provincetown Players were manifestations of the bohemian spirit of Greenwich Village of the 1910s. The Players were founded because of a vast network of friendships between artists, intellectuals and radicals. Mabel Dodge who hosted the most celebrated literary salon of the period, was the former lover of founding member of the Players Jack Reed. Their love affair was the thinly disguised subject matter of the first Players production, Constancy. Max Eastman, editor of the radical magazine The Masses, was a founding member of the Players. The first New York theater for the Provincetown Players was on Macdougal Street next to the The Liberal Club, a gathering place for young radicals.[8][9]

Artists Affiliated with the Provincetown Players[edit]

Djuna Barnes, Theodore Dreiser, Edna Ferber, Susan Glaspell, Robert Edmond Jones, Edna St. Vincent Millay, Eugene O’Neill, John Reed, and Wallace Stevens.


See also[edit]

Further reading[edit]

  • Beard, Rick, and Leslie Cohen Berlowitz, eds. Greenwich Village: culture and counteculture. New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers UP for The Museum of the City of New York, 1993.
  • Egan, Leona Rust. Provincetown as Stage. Orleans, Mass.: Parnassus Imprints, 1994.
  • Gewirtz, Arthur, and James J. Kolb, eds. Experimenters, Rebels, and Disparate Voices: The Theater of the 1920s Celebrates American Diversity. Westport, Connecticut: Praeger, 2003.
  • Glaspell, Susan. The Road to the Temple. New York: Frederick A. Stokes and Company, 1927. (A posthumous biography of Cook.)
  • Kenton, Edna. The Provincetown Players and the Playwrights' Theatre, 1915-1922. McFarland & Company, 2004.
  • Murphy, Brenda. "Provincetown Players and The Culture of Modernity". Cambridge, UK: Cambridge UP, 2005.


  1. ^ Carpentier, Martha. ""Susan Glaspell: New Directions in Critical Inquiry"". Cambridge Scholars Publishing. Retrieved 9 March 2015. 
  2. ^ a b c d e f g h i Deutsch, Helen (1931). The Provincetown: A Story of the Theater. Farrar & Rinehart, Inc. 
  3. ^ a b c d e f Wetzsteon, Ross (2002). Republic of Dreams: Greenwich Village: The American Bohemia, 1910-1960. New York: Simon & Schuster. 
  4. ^ a b c d e f g Sarlos, Robert Karoly (1982). Jig Cook and the Provincetown Players. Amherst: U. of Massachusetts Press. 
  5. ^ Pendleton, Ralph (1958). The Theater of Robert Edmond Jones. Middletown: Wesleyan UP. 
  6. ^ Ozieblo, Barbara (2008). Susan Glaspell and Sophie Treadwell. New York: Routledge. 
  7. ^ Gainor, J. Ellen (1996). "The Provincetown Players’ Experiments with Realism" in Realism and the American Dramatic Tradition. Tuscaloosa: U of Alabama Press. 
  8. ^ Delaney & Lockwood (1976). Greenwich Village: A Photographic Guide. New York: Dover Publications, Inc. 
  9. ^ McFarland, Gerald W (2001). Inside Greenwich Village: A New York City Neighborhood 1898-1918. Amherst: U. of Massachusetts Press. 

External links[edit]