PROVINCETOWN PLAYHOUSE REDUX--AND THEN SOME!
Helen Hayes, addressing a crowd estimated at over 500 in the Universalist Church of Provincetown on Sunday, November 19, called the Provincetown Playhouse "the cradle of modern drama in America." She was one of the guest speakers at a ceremony heralding the reconstruction of that cradle: the announcement of the winner in a unique eight-day, on-site architectural competition for the design for a new Provincetown Playhouse and Eugene O'Neill Archival Center. It was an emotional morning, and rightly so, for the Provincetown Playhouse, whose most recent manifestation (its third since 1915) had been destroyed by teenage arsonists in March of 1977 (see p. 14 of the Newsletter's January 1978 issue), was indeed the artistic "home" of O Neill, and from that man and place has evolved all that is best in American drama.
The eight-day competition, called a "Design Charette" and supported by grants from the National Endowment for the Arts and the Massachusetts Foundation for Humanities and Public Policy, took place in the wharf-front Flagship Restaurant in full view of an interested and involved public. As William Marlin, architecture critic for The Christian Science Monitor, associate editor of Architectural Record magazine, and initiator of the Charette project, said on the 19th, the competition was "designed to take the public into confidence and into account."
Seven New England architectural firms competed, and their initial activities were described by Anne LeClaire in the Boston Sunday Globe (November 12, p. A-20): they "spent the first two days in Provincetown attending briefings and orientation meetings, touring the town, visiting the site of the theater, talking with community residents and reading a book prepared specifically for the Charette which details the town's economic and cultural history and its artistic heritage." Designs were expected to include a 400-seat theater; an archival center; heated rehearsal space which could be used year-round and, accommodating an audience of 100, could also house productions of new and experimental work; and "a large entrance room, which would open onto the ocean with fireplaces at either end," that would retain the "homey" atmosphere of the previous Playhouses.
One of the challenges to the competitors, besides fitting the building to the town that will be its home, was the specific space where the theater-archive complex will stand. Just off Commercial Street in the center of town, down an alley from Adams Pharmacy, on the oldest whaling wharf in Provincetown, the site's spatial dimensions are 47' by 266'.
The week of designing at an end, the nine jurors, headed by I. M. Pei and including five other renowned architects and three residents of Provincetown, met to make their decision on Saturday the 18th. But it was not until 2:30 a.m. on the 19th, the day of the ceremony, that their deliberation concluded. Suspense was evident everywhere; the whole town was abuzz with rumors and speculations.
After Town Manager Charles Cobb opened the announcement ceremony with a genial welcome, Mr. Marlin praised the "intensity and integrity" that had marked the competition. The resultant building, he said, will be "not only a structure, not only a symbol," but an opportunity "for raising the sights of people (and) for the enhancement of human feelings."
Before announcing the winner, I. M. Pei called this unusual method for selecting an architect "an experiment that will set a standard for the nation." It had amply fulfilled, he said, the two conditions for which it had been proposed: to involve the people of the community; and "to give the competitors, as well as the jurors, the chance to understand the community in which the structure is to be built." Provincetown, he said, has "a very special and recognizable form, scale and texture," and the jurors chose the design most appropriate to them. Mr. Marlin described it as a "large piece of lovingly created cabinetry," a "literal evocation of the traditional Cape Cod style with contemporary flourishes" (New York Times, Nov. 20, p. C-16). And Adele Heller, Producing Director of the Playhouse, praised it as "sensitive, traditional and in keeping with both the theater and the town" (Boston Globe, Nov. 20, p. 3).
Then the suspense was at an end. Mr. Pei announced and congratulated the winner, William Warner of Exeter, Rhode Island, who said he was "flabbergasted." He'd just spent two weeks in the town--his first visit in ten years. "Now I can come again in the summer!" It is interesting that of the seven competing firms, Mr. Warner was the only architect who worked alone; the other six were represented by two-person teams. I don't know who the townspeople had been betting on, but I heard the phrase "dark horse" behind me in the applause-filled church. Dark horse or not, Mr. Warner has constructed a light, bright and attractive model, which may be on display at the special O'Neill exhibit in the foyer of the New York Hilton's Grand Ballroom East on December 29. Mr. Warner's plan, which still must undergo modifications in consultation with a specialist in theatre design, will later be printed in Architectural Record, in a ten-page feature in the Christian Science Monitor next March, and in a future issue of the Newsletter.
Helen Hayes said that, although she had never been to Provincetown before, her visit was "like a homecoming," since Provincetown had always been a part of her life. She recited Emily Dickinson's poem, "I never saw a moor," and said, "I feel like that today." She recalled how, after 1916, her mother had bought season tickets for the cut-rate Sunday night dress rehearsals at the Provincetown Playhouse in Greenwich Village, where they saw such plays as The Hairy Ape, The Emperor Jones and the sea plays. "We were impressionable, and they would have been impressive to solid rock!" She herself had played in O'Neill only twice: in A Touch of the Poet on Broadway in 1957, and in Long Day's Journey at the Catholic University in Washington--her last stage performance. Taken ill during the run, she had been briefly hospitalized, and the attending physician found that she was allergic to theater--more specifically, to dust, which is prevalent in the theater. He urged her, if she wished "a few more years in this world," to withdraw from the production immediately. But Miss Hayes was too much a trouper to quit. It was only after completing the run of Long Day's Journey that "I allowed myself to be benched."
Miss Hayes said she was not sure why she was there, but confessed to a long-standing weakness for accepting attractive invitations. (She reported, in fact, that her late husband Charles MacArthur had expected to long outlive her and had an inscription all ready for her headstone: "God called, and Helen said, 'Yes, I can come.'") But her determination to be present, despite illness, attested to the momentousness of the event, which she described as "a noble and a blessed idea" and "an exercise in grace reborn."
Biographer Barbara Gelb, who began by reminding Miss Hayes that the actress had, at the age of eighteen, been turned down by O'Neill for a role in The Straw, spoke of O'Neill's Provincetown years--the encouragement he received there from George Cram ("Jig") Cook; the plays he wrote in Provincetown (the sea plays, Anna Christie, The Emperor Jones, The Hairy Ape, and Beyond the Horizon, which is set on a farm in nearby Truro); his rivalry with John Reed for the affections of Louise Bryant, and his and John's being suspected, in the spring of 1917, of signaling U-boats with a special espionage device--that turned out to be O'Neill's typewriter! "The spirit of O'Neill and his colleagues is still very alive here," she said, noting especially the "kinship and harmony with life" that O'Neill had felt "out here." She quoted his description of the sphinx-like sand dunes and his feeling of being most at one with his beloved sea in this town at its edge. Her conclusion was that, while New York was the city of his birth and New London was the town of his boyhood, "Provincetown was the birthplace of his art."
Adele Heller was the last speaker, before the crowd adjourned to a festive reception and prepared to view once more the models at the Flagship Restaurant. Understandably moved by emotions of a day that signaled the realization of a dream, she recalled her first, honeymoon visit to Provincetown in 1949; and spoke eloquently of her love of the theatre for its power to "give birth to a higher reality" and to "communicate the broadest possible range of human feelings to individuals." For that was the real meaning of the day. As I. M. Pei had said, the "heart and soul of the project is to produce a great space for the theatre."
Of course the greatest events are yet to come. Groundbreaking is scheduled for late spring of 1979, and the theater is expected to open on July 4, 1980. As in the past, the Playhouse will nurture new playwriting talent while also producing the classics--with, of course, a play or more of O'Neill's every season. Surely, as the following list of Playhouse productions of O'Neill since 1940 attests, no theater has been as dedicated in preserving his work on stage.
One of the most exciting features of the new design is the O'Neill Archival Center, which will feature an extensive collection of O'Neilliana and a library of critical literature, and will be a year-round center for O'Neill studies and publication--the only one in existence that can, on a regular basis, bring academics and theatre people together for creative collaboration. But more on that in a future issue. For the present, congratulations to Adele Heller and the Provincetown Playhouse for putting "the cradle of modern drama in America" back on the map--and then some!--Frederick Wilkins
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