Friday, April 16, 2010

The Provincetown Players


(Provincetown, Massachusetts -- old structure used as a theatre)

In the summer of 1915, a group of friends vacationing in Provinceton, Massachusetts put on informally staged plays that they had written, performing them in their vacation houses or on the porch for their friends. From such humble beginnings arose a new form of modern American theater.

Soon other friends and neighbors heard about these performances and clamored to be invited or included, so other plays were put on. One of the originators of the group, Mary Heaton Vorse, owned a wharf with a small building on it, and soon they took over the building to use as their theater, and called themselves The Provincetown Players.

The first plays they put on were Constancy by Neith Boyce, and Suppressed Desires by George Cram Cook and Susan Glaspell.

(Staging a play)

Most of the people in this creative group lived during the year in Greenwich Village in New York City. When they returned to the city at the end of their vacation, they told all their friends about the plays they had put on during their summer vacation, and soon other writers, artists and actors were eager to participate for the following year.

In the movie "Reds," based on the life of John Reed (played by Warren Beatty), this creative community in Provincetown is featured in one section. Reed, his wife Louise Bryant, poet Harry Kemp, editor of The Masses Max Eastman, Ida Rauh, Floyd Dell, and Eugene O'Neill (having an affair with Bryant) all came to Provincetown the next year to put on or participate in the new summer theater group.

In the first few seasons, the group put on several of Eugene O'Neill's plays, as well as plays by Susan Glaspell. In later years they put on plays by other young new writers including plays by Reed, Bryant, Theodore Dreiser, Edna St. Vincent Millay, and Wallace Stevens.

(Eugene O'Neill - right- at Provincetown, Mass.)

In the second season, the young Edna St. Vincent Millay joined the group as an actress. She soon also submitted plays she had written, including an anti-war play titled Aria da Capo, which was put on by the theatre group. Among the members of the audience were Emma Goldman, whose niece and nephew were both involved with the theater group.

In the fall of 1916, the Provincetown Players (as they called themselves) officially moved to New York City, renting a brownstone at 139 MacDougal Street in Greenwich village, close to Washington Square. By their second year in New York, they had enough audience subscribers that they decided to take a larger space, a few doors down at 133 MacDougal Street.

(133 MacDougal St.)

133 MacDougal Street had been a stable at one time, but before the theatre group took over it had been used as a bottling plant. It was perfect for the theatre group. This location (133-139 MacDougal) was renovated over the years, altered in many ways, but recently has been the subject of a dispute between NYU (New York University) which owns the building and wants to convert it for other uses, and a historical preservation site that wants to maintain the site as a historical treasure of the city.

(MacDougal St., after many renovations)

Eventually tensions arose between the original founders of the theatre group and the new upcoming artists. As the theatre group became more successful, they had over 1600 subscribers, and became a well-established theatre. There was a temptation to select plays which, if successful, could be moved into larger theatres and generate more money for the group. This tension contrasted with the desire of some to put on plays that would stretch the audience's understanding of life, and perhaps be less popular for that reason.

By 1922, these tensions caused the group to split apart. O'Neill and some others took over, and continued putting on plays. One play had black American actor Paul Robeson kneeling and kissing the hand of a white actress. This caused such a frenzy that the police came to the theatre and surrounded it, because of threats that had been made.

(Provincetown mixed-race cast)

Over the years of its existence, the Provincetown Players was known for putting on a new form of theatre, as well as including plays by woman playwrights, and having both black and white actors in their plays. All of these things were important influences on the development of theatre in New York.

The group continued to function with varying characters until 1929 when the stock market crash ended its run, and the Provincetown Players disbanded, the members going on to pursue their talents in other places. The Federal Theatre Project (part of the WPA) used the theatre in the 1930s to create theatre projects and train actors, teachers, and set designers. NYU now owns the building where the Provinceton Players performed at 133 MacDougal, and plans to substantially change its structure.

(MacDougal St., after many renovations)

As far as I know, NYU has begun construction on the street with promises that it would maintain at least the shell of the Provincetown Playhouse, to retain some of the historical significance of the building.

No comments:

Post a Comment