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The Amateur: George Cram Cook   Next


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.

Yet by 1916, when they moved into Macdougal Street in Greenwich Village, it was probably too late, if ever there had been hope, for them to turn professional as the Washington Square Players were to achieve metamorphosis into the Theatre Guild. A line had been sharply drawn through the center of the organization, and on either side of it stood the two men chiefly responsible for the Provincetown’s survival. The extent of the quarrel between the group’s leader, George Cram Cook, and Eugene O’Neill is now impossible to determine, but “Jig” Cook’s summation of the Provincetown’s achievement suggests strongly that he felt O’Neill’s success had destroyed the Players. Although O’Neill was what Cook claimed he was seeking, an American playwright of genius, and although he cooperated with him to the full, he was temperamentally unable to come to terms with what O’Neill released in the organization. Cook’s was a life of dedication to an ideal that was never fully formulated, a seeker after a shrouded goal, a man for whom the search was more important than the good being sought. Susan Glaspell rightly titled her memoir of her husband, The Road to the Temple: it was the road and not the temple that mattered. Speaking of Cook’s particular power “to riddle, to defend, to invite,” she added: “Sometimes I wish the Provincetown Players had been a magazine.” The magazine, she seems to have felt, would have permitted him to experiment in endless amateurism, to live as if he had tasted Ponce de Leon’s fountain and was thereafter free to seek perpetually and not to find. It was O’Neill’s discovery of his own power, his increasing mastery of the drama, bringing with it new needs and giving to the group new goals, that in the end sent Cook to a self-imposed exile in Greece, from where, whenever he looked back, he viewed the course of the Players with resignation and a touch of bitterness.

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,

Nietzsche brings not only new ethical feeling but new ethical ideas. Not every one has the courage, and ability, to admit these new ideas with no fear or favor, and let them win if they can. But those who do so admit the ideas of Nietzsche find in the fight they wage against old ideas, more drama, more story, more poetry, than is generally found in drama, story, or poetry. . . . The spiritual passion of Nietzsche’s writing is too keen, too intense, to be readily endured in those times when life keys one’s own nerves high. It is precisely to our times of dullness that Nietzsche offers the sting of his perpetual pain and joy. He is a creator of the creative mood.6

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 wrote,

The first stage of the Players on the wharf at Provincetown was in four sections which could be picked up by hand and set at various angles and levels. These reappear in the new stage—four transverse sections lifted or lowered or tilted by obedient hydraulic jacks into a zig-zag ascent, any hillside slope or tower or terrace. The new dome, so planned as not to interfere with a well-equipped fly-gallery (counter weights permitting operation from the stage level), is used in connection with the new structural invention which makes it possible to raise the curtain and play your play in pure space. Nothing is there but infinity and the stage broken into big plastic elements with which you may compose. Also the proscenium. You push a button to make it higher, lower, wider, narrower, shallower, deeper. The four elements combine into one deep stage; they separate into three stages—fore stage, main stage, inner stage, to be used in swift succession of changing scenes—and so restoring to the drama its Elizabethan power of story telling.

Behind, around, above this trinity of stages there is nothing to mask—nothing to conceal—a pleasant symbol of artistic sincerity.

Permitting the swift handling of bulky scenery—as massive as any play may need—this playing space does not compel the use of a single inch of scenery. With flats and drops, flies and borders out, with no surfaces put there to hide other surfaces, the artist of the theatre shall at last be free to let his human figures and chosen objects receive mystically deep significance from their background of infinity.7

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.

Characteristically, 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:

Jig was there alone, at the back of the stage, in a cluster of steel netting, iron bars, and bags of cement. He was making plaster, in workmen’s clothes. I thought of A Half Hour in Heaven (a play rejected for the Provincetown theatre because it could not be adequately staged), of God and his angels working in space. Jig was working alone, creating space itself. It was a nice enough little comparison, and I did not miss the irony of it—a dictatorial god . . . “animating the group spirit.” In spite of all the dome was going in, Jig’s “must” had found its only way.

He looked up as I came down the aisle, then turned his back on me and finished throwing in his batch of mixed plaster. I stepped on the stage and sat down, waiting. He worked slowly until he had finished the work. Then he turned.

“There’s to be no argument about this,” he said suddenly. “I’ve had enough from everybody. The Emperor has got to have a dome to play against. You see, Edna, it begins . . . thick forest at first . . . steadily thinned out . . . scene after scene . . . to pure space      He was telling me the story and the action and the scene of The Emperor Jones, standing against the plaster ellipse that was “space.” And as he went on, it began to happen— one of his hours of creative talk of the rarest and finest. . . .

Jig directed the first production of The Emperor Jones. I know this because I was there and watched him do it. We were all there, all over the place. The group spirit was rampant, and to play with the lights on the dome was the best game of all.8

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:

Three years ago, writing for the Provincetown Players, anticipating the forlornness of our hope to bring to birth in our commercial-minded country a theater whose motive was spiritual, I made this promise: “We promise to let this theater die rather than let it become another voice of mediocrity.”

I am now forced to confess that our attempt to build up, by our own life and death, in this alien sea, a coral island of our own, has failed. The failure seems to be more our own than America’s. Lacking the instinct of the coral-builders, in which we could have found the happiness of continuing ourselves toward perfection, we have developed little willingness to die for the thing we are building.

Our individual gifts and talents have sought their private perfection. We have not, as we hoped, created the beloved community of life-givers. Our richest, like our poorest, have desired most not to give life, but to have it given to them. We have valued creative energy less than its rewards—our sin against our Holy Ghost.

As a group we are not more but less than the great chaotic, unhappy community in whose dry heart I have vainly tried to create an oasis of living beauty.

Since we have failed spiritually in the elemental things—failed to pull together—failed to do what any good football or baseball team or crew do as a matter of course with no word said—and since the result of this is mediocrity, we keep our promise: We give this theater we love good death; the Provincetown Players end their story here.

Some happier gateway must let in the spirit which seems to be seeking to create a soul under the ribs of death in the American theater.9

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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