Albert and Shirley Small Speial Collections Library
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Setting the Modern Stage
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Setting the Modern Stage

Provincetown Players

During the summers of 1915 and 1916, while the First World War raged in Europe, a small group of writers and artists fled the heat of Greenwich Village in New York City, escaping to the small sleepy fishing village of Provincetown, Massachusetts, on Cape Cod. There these talented playwrights, poets, journalists, painters, set-designers and socialites spent the days working and, in the evenings, entertained themselves and friends by staging plays, first in their living rooms and then in a make-shift theatre on Lewis Wharf. In the course of their first summer, this avant-garde band of bohemians staged four plays and began to call themselves the Provincetown Players.

With the summer of 1916, another young struggling playwright was introduced into this circle of creative talent. Eugene O'Neill arrived on the scene. That summer the Provincetown Players staged two of O'Neill's plays, Bound East for Cardiff and Thirst, launching the career of America's fist modern playwright. As Susan Glaspell wrote, the group "knew what we were for" after a reading of O'Neill's Bound East.

At the end of the summer of 1916, many of the Players moved back to Greenwich Village, intent on continuing to produce new American plays. After starting in one small theatre on MacDougal Street, they moved to larger facility on the same street, naming it the Provincetown Theatre. Through the 1920s, the group produced experimental theatre by American playwrights, promoting especially O'Neill's plays.

As difficulties arose over focus and ideology, the group began to change. Some of the members moved on to pursue other projects, while new talented artists, such as Edna St. Vincent Millay, joined. The theatre could not survive the impact of the stock market crash and closed its doors in 1929. By that time, the Provincetown Players, with their dedication to presenting new innovative dramatic works by American playwrights, had left an indelible mark on the Little Theatre movement in America.

 

Collection of programs and announcements for plays performed by the Provincetown Players. New York: Provincetown Players, 1916-1933.
Gift of Clifton Waller Barrett.

 

Production photograph from Bound East for Cardiff. [Provincetown, MA], 1916.
Courtesy of the Museum of the City of New York.

 

O’Neill stands on the ladder to the left.


George Cram Cook and Susan Glaspell

George “Jig” Cram Cook and his wife, Susan Glaspell, were two of the founding members of the Provincetown Players. Cook, impressed with having seen the Irish Players, wanted to form a similar theatre group to write, design, stage, and perform new plays by American playwrights. Together, Cook and Glaspell penned one of the first pieces staged by the Players, entitled Suppressed Desires, which spoofed the new practice of psychoanalysis. Cook and Glaspell, individually, wrote many other plays that the Players produced. Wishing to expand their audience, Cook led the way in moving the Provincetown Players to New York.


In 1922, having become disenchanted with the management of the Players and the group’s endorsement of more commercial theatre, Cook and Glaspell left for Greece. Following Cook’s death there in 1924, Glaspell returned to live in Provincetown, where she continued writing novels and plays.

 

Autograph notebook, signed, belonging to Susan Glaspell. 1915.

From the Clifton Waller Barrett Library of American Literature.

 

Typed manuscript of “Suppressed Desires” by George Cram Cook and Susan Glaspell. With autograph corrections. No date.
From the Clifton Waller Barrett Library of American Literature.

 

Autograph letter from George Cram Cook to Edna Kenton. 10 to 23 July 1922.

From the Clifton Waller Barrett Library of American Literature.

 

Cook discusses the fate of the Provincetown Players.

 

Edna St. Vincent Millay

Pulitzer Prize-winning poet Edna St. Vincent Millay joined the Provincetown Players after their arrival in New York. In 1917, early in her literary career, she moved to Greenwich Village and auditioned to become an actor in the company. Her involvement with the Players lasted until 1919, and she progressed from actor to director and playwright. The Provincetown Players produced her one-act verse play Aria da Capo in 1919.

 

Millay, Edna St. Vincent. Aria da Capo (A Play in One Act). [London]: Chapbook, 1920.
From the Clifton Waller Barrett Library of American Literature.

 

Jack Reed

John “Jack” Reed, noted journalist and revolutionary, was part of the creative group that summered in Provincetown. In 1916, Reed provided the Provincetown Players with two plays—Freedom and Eternal Triangle. Reed was married to journalist and writer Louise Bryant, who also contributed to the Players summer theatre bill. Both were political activists whose works reflected the socialist leanings of the bohemian group. Reed became best known for his Ten Days That Shook the World, a first-hand eyewitness account that chronicled the Russian Revolution. He died in Russia in 1920 and was buried under the wall of the Kremlin in Moscow’s Red Square.

 

Reed, Jack. Everymagazine: An Immorality Play. Music by Bill Daly. [New York]: n.p., [1913].
From the Marvin Tatum Collection of Contemporary Literature.

 

The play was produced before the Dutch Treat Club at Delmonico’s, on February 19, 1913.

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