The story of the stagestruck amateurs who in 1915 produced two plays on a front porch in Provincetown, Massachusetts, has become part of the folklore of the American theatre. The visitor to modern Provincetown looks reluctantly on quaint gift shops, summer “cottages” and unattractive sand dunes. Nothing there, unless it be the untouched center of the sea itself, remains of the world which, it is now claimed, gave birth to the modern American drama. The activities of the Provincetown Players in their early days are wrapped in a sentimental mist, and memory is tender with them.
There is no reason not to view the Players affectionately, just as any group of theatrical amateurs may claim the charitable sympathy of their audiences. Their story is, in fact, no different from that of hundreds of others throughout the country, whose activities in some measure seem to compensate for a lack of rural folk games. Such groups are summer insects, rippling lightly the surfaces in which they drown. Their conception is in the heat of talk, and they are born amid a drumming of hammers and a frenzied splashing of sizing and stipple. Success is to them as unexpected as failure. Neither profits them substantially, for they are prey to warring temperaments, to disaffection, to economic pressures, to fatigue and, if they find strength enough to survive all these, to professionalism.
Inevitably in such a group, if the energy of idealistic enthusiasm develops into the motivation of conscious purpose, there arises the professional. His appearance spells the end of the fun, even if normal general attrition has not yet set in. The few groups that survive do so because they move rapidly toward the firm grounds of a professional organization.
In the Provincetown Players, the professional was Eugene O’Neill. Without him, they would have been long forgotten; it is doubtful that they would have survived even one season in New York City. He quickly became their most marketable commodity; his presence defined their aims for them; he was proof of their worth as an organization. Yet he was also their destroyer, for he alone moved in the course of the significant life of the group from amateur to professional.
The Players were determined amateurs. Their early criticism of the Washington Square Players, who had set them an organizational model, was that they had turned too quickly toward professionalism by hiring a director. Later, when both were operating in New York, the Provincetown tended to look down on its rival because the “professionals” kept a press book and invited critics to first nights—actions which revealed something of the business motives of Broadway itself. The attitude of the Provincetown group changed somewhat when they discovered that the Washington Square Players were being credited with the discovery of Eugene O’Neill. Then the press book was kept and the critics invited, and other minor signs of creeping professionalism became apparent.
What moved Cook in the beginning was probably not the quest for a native playwright or for a native drama. One suspects that this idea—stated as the Players’ raison d’ętre—was formulated to mark a difference from the predilection of the Washington Square Players for foreign plays. In the absence of interesting American playwrights, such a goal was born of necessity, but it continued as a hallmark of their activity as the Theatre Guild. The Provincetown, searching out a cause, joined the hunt for native playwrights, a quest that reaches far back into the history of this country and from time to time has assumed something of the comic proportions of the quest for the Great American Novelist. Before O’Neill, there was no reputable candidate for the dramatic honors, and his existence gave the group’s devotion to native drama some validity. Later, Cook was to say that the failure of the Players was evidenced by its inability to uncover other American dramatists of a stature comparable to O’Neill’s. As the group came together, however, the stated aim sufficed, and when it moved to New York, O’Neill’s suggestion was followed: that the group be called “The Playwrights’ Theatre.” So far as Cook himself was concerned, however, the purposes of the theatre closest to his heart were less literary.
Cook’s interest was caught by an idea of theatre as a community. “One man,” he wrote, “cannot produce drama. True drama is born only of one feeling animating all the members of a clan—a spirit shared by all and expressed by the few for the all. If there is nothing to take the place of the common religious purpose and passion of the primitive group out of which the Dionysian dance was born, no new vital drama can arise in any people.”2
His animating idea clearly was not the quest for American drama or even for a theatre. His words, which were accepted as the credo of the Players, center firmly on the idea of the communal spirit. Unlike the later Group Theatre, Cook fixed no political point of rallying, nor did he advocate such localized aesthetics as gave rise to the rural drama in regional theatres a few years later. What was important was the clan, united in festal ceremony in honor of Dionysius, late sprung up in America. Cook looked upon the theatre as an inevitable ritualistic outcropping of a group so oriented, but for him the group came first, the theatre second. The theatre, he said, was “Work done in the spirit of play,” a way of working that had “the only true seriousness.”3 He remained an amateur of theatre and, in the word’s French sense, of life. Throughout his active association with them, he sought to maintain the Players as an oasis of spirit in a dusty world.*
Behind his amateurism lay an abiding admiration for Athenian Greece. His was not an antiquary’s interest in the past, nor did professional scholarship inhibit his idealistic, visionary attempt to summon to the present, for the spiritual resuscitation of himself and others for whom he cared, something of the qualities he sensed in the Greek Idea. His associate on the board of the Provincetown Players, Edna Kenton, described his enthusiastic purpose: “Back to Greece!—that was Jig’s solution for every modern ill. Back, rather, to the spirit of Greece for its lesson, and then a return to re-evoke the group spirit from modern life.”5 In the end, his desire led him away from America, back physically to Greece, where before he died he convinced himself that he had indeed found among the shepherds of Mount Parnassus the community of feeling and endeavor that he called “Greek” and that provided the serenity of his dreams.
The concept of
Grecian “group spirit” was supplemented by the writing of
Friedrich Nietzsche whom Cook had read with awareness and whose
doctrine he preached with enthusiasm. Nietzsche’s description of the
Dionysian way seems especially to have appealed to him. The worship of
Dionysius that underlies the manifesto of the Provincetown Players is
as Nietzschean as it is Greek. Nietzsche’s popularity in America was
high in the second decade of the twentieth century as English
translations of his work began to appear. After 1910, he became
required reading for any young intellectual, but Cook had read him in
German as early as 1899 and wrote of him,
Importantly for O’Neill, as well as for the other members of the Provincetown Players, Cook served as Nietzsche’s prophet, selecting and teaching those elements of Nietzschean doctrine that best combined with his romanticized view of ancient Greek ideals. By these lights, his theatre was to become a Dionysian outgrowth of classic culture, a theatre truly of the group, amateur in the best sense, and far removed in its ceremonial spirit, in its methods and in its products from the commercial theatres of New York.
Cook gave the group
the best he had, both of his dreams and his physical energies. His
best was good. He dreamed of a theatre to be built in New York, and,
as he planned it, perhaps an analogy with the development of the Greek
theatre from ritual dancing places occurred to him, for his theatre
was conceived as a sophisticated metamorphosis of the wharf shed at
Provincetown on which the Players had first formally convened. He
Cook’s projected theatre anticipated, although it may have reflected some of their early talk in this vein, the efforts of such designers as Robert Edmond Jones to build a temple for “the artist of the theatre.” Evidently, Cook had heard of the developments of the European theatre which were shortly to revolutionize stage production in the United States. It is an entirely workable idea for a stage. Yet in its “pleasant” symbolism, in its careful practicality concerning pushbuttons, counterweights and obedient jacks, it is a little naďve, the work of a visionary seeking to pass as a master of his craft.
Cook’s practical work in the theatre was equally clearheaded, equally amateur. To cite a crucial, but typical example, in 1920 O’Neill showed him the script of The Emperor Jones, then titled The Silver Bullet. In Cook’s view, the play could be staged only against a “background of infinity.” Nothing, evidently, was more finite than the tiny stage of the Provincetown Playhouse. Their scenic stock-in-trade had been to that time small interiors giving vistas of too-colorful skies wrinkling above painted ground rows. From Germany, however, had come word of a scenic innovation, a plaster dome, curving to provide an unequaled sense of space, even on a small stage. Against its concavity, light could be played in flexible, infinitely variable combinations, the texture of the plaster providing a reflecting surface for light that no flat cyclorama could equal in depth or subtlety. The dome, Cook realized, was the only means to give O’Neill’s play significant scenic realization. Moreover, no American theatre possessed such a device. The temptation to innovation was as great as the artistic purpose, yet the Provincetown treasury amounted to $360. Over Cook’s instant insistence that the dome be built, the guiding committee of the theatre fell out. Such as it was, the group spirit was severely shaken by simple economics.
Cook walked over the opposition. When Dionysian group spirit became a
simple matter of majority rule, Cook turned dictator. Spending such
funds as he had for plaster, wire and steel, he built the dome
himself. As Edna Kenton tells the story, she went to the theatre to
discover Cook at work:
It is an account revealing in its ironies. The force of Cook’s vitality speaks through it, and it shows clearly the reverence he could command. Yet it also betrays something of the amateurism that relies on happy inspiration and the rushing in of fools. Miss Kenton is alive to the irony of the dictatorial God “animating the group spirit,” but a still deeper irony lies in the fact that Cook’s dedicated efforts to serve O’Neill’s play, efforts that brought the Provincetown Players their finest moments, destroyed the theatre for which Cook was both God and day-laborer.
The Emperor Jones was an amateur production of a professional’s play. Miss Kenton’s assertion that Cook directed the first production reflects a rumor that Arthur Hopkins had taken over the directorial position in the final stages of rehearsals. Whether true or not, many members of the group appear to have felt a need for a professional director. A similar situation developed with the settings against the dome. Having built it, the group was uncertain how to use it most effectively. Cumbersome settings in the usual manner proved so unsatisfactory that a few days before the opening, Cleon Throckmorton was called in to save the situation. His solution was to start over and to use simple cutouts, which, in silhouette against the dome, served to frame the play in space. Thus even in rehearsal, the production requirements of The Emperor Jones made clear that Cook’s ideal for the Players had never been a substantial, central motive for the group. Evidently, a professional playwright brought with him obligations that amateurs were unable to fulfill, however willing they were to give of their substance for his play’s eventual triumph.
After the production
had brought world fame to the Players, Cook, for a moment, felt
professional longings and so far deserted his ideal as to urge his own
play, The Spring, for uptown
production. Its failure and his own integrity of spirit caused his
idealism to reassert itself. He left the United States to live in
Greece, from where, in 1923, he wrote the obituary for the group as he
had envisioned it:
The “richest” member of the group was Eugene O’Neill, and there can be little question that he was desirous of a fuller professional life and greater recognition as an artist than any pseudo-Grecian attempt to realize the Dionysian spirit in Greenwich Village could offer him. Not that fame, as Broadway offered it, was his spur, nor even that Cook’s Nietzschean concepts were alien to him. Rather, he reached out for something more than the Provincetown could ever offer, because, as he worked, he began to learn that fine theatre, like any art, involves the total mastery of all relevant disciplines and that, in the end, all serious artists are in the best sense professional.
Without doubt, the Provincetown Players provided him with a convenient standing place. By the time of the opening of The Emperor Jones on November 1, 1920, they had staged the original production of twelve of his one-act plays.** In his formative years in their theatre, O’Neill evidently had ample opportunity to learn and to experiment. Yet he had other footings. During the same four-year period, the Washington Square Players staged the first production of In the Zone on October 31, l917,*** J. D. Williams staged Beyond the Horizon early in 1920 with a professional cast, George C. Tyler opened Chris Christopherson in an out-of-town tryout the same spring and had also agreed to produce The Straw, well in advance of the triumph of The Emperor Jones. With the exception of the Glencairn plays and The Emperor Jones, O’Neill’s most ambitious work depended for its hearings on the professional managers, Tyler and Williams. Nevertheless, the Provincetown was his first atelier, and in considering O’Neill’s development as a playwright, it is important to look at what he was before he met Cook at Provincetown in the summer of 1916, and at what, with his aid, he shortly became. For both the man and the Players, it was a decisive meeting.
* Susan Glaspell wrote that “because of his integrity of idea, (the Players') conspicuous success never made him see as less important the work of those who had not yet succeeded, who might never, in the usual sense of the word, succeed. If certain things we did reached the larger public, then perhaps our intensity should more and more go into the work which also had meaning, but which might be harder to project. The things that others would do were not so particularly our individual job. To cause better American plays to be written—that is what he kept saying.”4
** These were, in order of production, Bound East for Cardiff (July 28, 1916), Thirst (Aug., 1916), Before Breakfast (Dec. 1, 1916), Fog (Jan. 5, 1917), The Sniper (Feb. 16, 1917), The Long Voyage Home (Nov. 2, 1917), Ile (Nov. 30, 1917), The Rope (Apr. 26, 1918), Where the Cross is Made (Nov. 22, 1918), The Moon of the Caribbees (Dec. 20, 1918), The Dreamy Kid (Oct. 31, 1919), Exorcism (Mar. 26, 1920).
*** The production of In the Zone brought the Provincetown Players into sharp rivalry with the Washington Square Players. The latter group courted the critics as the Provincetown, guided by its idealism, did not. In the Zone brought O’Neill substantial publicity, such as he had never received from the Provincetown productions of five of his plays. Many members of the Provincetown group felt that they should come into the open, especially when the New York Times credited the Washington Square Players with the discovery of Susan Glaspell’s Trifles, Cook and Glaspell’s Suppressed Desires, Bound East for Cardiff and lie. Cook protested, but was told in print that “the performances in Macdougal Street are private. To the general public the primary means of making the acquaintance of the work of Miss Glaspell or Mr. O’Neill lay in the production of the Washington Square Players.” (Quoted in Kenton, 94)
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