Provincetown Players

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Provincetown Players
Provincetown Theatre - Van Vechten.jpg
This photo is not a photo of the Provincetown Players first playhouse on Lewis Wharf, but Cape Cod wharf in the West End of Provincetown. Lewis Wharf is located in the far East End of town across from the former home of Susan Glaspell. Today there is a plaque there to mark the spot.
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 (1915 and 1916) and six seasons in New York City between 1916 and 1923. The company's founding has been called "the most important innovative moment in American theatre,"[1] in part for launching the careers of Eugene O'Neill and Susan Glaspell, and ushering American theatre into the Modern era.

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 22 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 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 as well as Trifles by Susan Glaspell.

New York City[edit]

In September 1916 before leaving Massachusetts, the group met and, led by Cook and John Reed, formally organized "The Provincetown Players," voting 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 Macdougal Street which the Players dubbed “The Playwright’s Theater.”[3]

The Players developed a pattern of producing a "bill" of three new one-act 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, which included a revival of Bound East for Cardiff, and plays by Neith Boyce, Susan Glaspell, Floyd Dell, Rita Wellman and Harry Kemp. A significant addition to the Players was director Nina Moise, who significantly helped the Players with their staging and interpreting of plays.

In the 1917-18 season Edna St. Vincent Millay and her sister Norma joined the Players as actors and featured three new plays by O'Neill, three by Glaspell, and their first full-length play, The Athenian Women, written by George Cram Cook.

In the 1918-19 season The Players moved to 133 Macdougal Street and called the theater "The Provincetown Playhouse".

The Players were founded as an amateur group, and initially did not allow critics to attend to review their plays, hoping to protect their experimental nature. But with each New York season, some members began to define their “bills” as successes or failures and finally it was voted to allow critics tickets to performances, even though some founding members considered this means of evaluation the criteria of commercial theater, and therefore a violation of the mission of The Players. At 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 overseen by business manager Mary Eleanor Fitzgerald, known to all as "Fitzi," and James Light.[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 was led by Charles Gilpin who was the first African American professional actor to perform with a primarily white company. 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, and with no new playwrights coming to them to be developed, Cook and Glaspell asked to incorporate the "Provincetown Players" so as to protect the name, and then left 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. Jig Cook had already written to the company, before he left in 1922, that they had given “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 Greece 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. Neith Boyce and Susan Glaspell (who co-wrote it with her husband Cook) wrote the first two plays performed by the Players. Mary Heaton Vorse 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, Rita Wellman, Mary Carolyn Davies, 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 (actor). Their love affair was the thinly disguised subject matter of the first Players production, Constancy. Max Eastman, editor of the radical magazine The Masses, also participating with the Players. The first New York theater for the Provincetown Players was at 139 Macdougal Street next to the Liberal Club, a gathering place for young radicals.[8][9]

Artists affiliated with the Provincetown Players[edit]

Djuna Barnes, Theodore Dreiser, Susan Glaspell, Robert Edmond Jones, Edna St. Vincent Millay, Eugene O’Neill, John Reed, Wallace Stevens and Marjory Lacey-Barker Charles Demuth (Artist)[10].


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 Wetzsteon, Ross (2002). Republic of Dreams: Greenwich Village: The American Bohemia, 1910-1960. New York: Simon & Schuster. 
  4. ^ a b c d e f 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. 
  10. ^

External links[edit]