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Wharf-Theater Era Takes a Curtain Call

BY Arthur Gelb
FROM The New York Times, July 24, 1963

Model of ‘16 O’Neill Stage Is Dedicated at Provincetown

A sentimental tribute was voiced here today to the original Provincetown Playhouse, where the dramas of Eugene O’Neill received their first; recognition.

Seventy-five townspeople, including octogenarians, who recall the birth of the theater on the wharf in the summer of 1915, gathered at the Provincetown Museum for the unveiling of a model of the Playhouse.  The model, which took 10 months to build, will be on permanent exhibition.

Also at the ceremony were sunburned children who had never heard of O’Neill or been told, as William Archer, the English critic, once wrote, that the sand dunes of Cape Cod were “the real birthplace of the American theater.”

Nevertheless, the youngsters gazed with awe at the exquisitely rendered model of the converted fishing shack, rickety platform and pilings that was the stage for O’Neill’s “Bound East for Cardiff” in 1916.

The children peered eagerly through the model’s tiny windows to see the stage set for the O’Neill play. And they listened respectfully as Charles Hapgood, son of Neith Boyce and Hutchins Hapgood, described his boyhood memories of the theater, which his parents helped to found.

Owner of Wharf Speaks

The youngsters listened, too, as Mary Heaton Vorse, now in her eighties, whose wharf and fish house it was, acknowledged the memorial, which “brings the old wharf always to mind.”  The model, displayed in a roomy glass case, is flanked on three walls by photographs, old playbills and other memorabilia pertaining to O’Neill and to those who have kept his plays alive here. The model is 6 feet long, 32 inches wide and 27 inches from the base of its weathered pilings to its shingled top. One-half inch represents one foot.

Constructed by Courtney Allen, a North Truro artist, from old lumber, charred saplings and sawdust, the model is based largely on his vivid memories of the building. He and some friends operated it as a coffee house during the early twenties.

The original Playhouse was destroyed by fire and ice storms by 1924.  At low tide a few pilings still jut from Cape Cod Bay on property that passed from Mrs. Vorse to John Dos Passos and is now owned by Ben Sonnenberg, the New York publicity man.

The model was commissioned by the Provincetown Museum’s director, Melville T. Nichols, and contributed by Catharine Huntington, who operates the modern Provincetown Playhouse on one of the few wharves left in town.

Opener Will Be Repeated

The Playhouse opens each summer with an O’Neill play; this season it was “Long Day’s Journey Into Night,” which will be repeated July 29-Aug. 3.

Also speaking at the ceremony was Mary Bicknell, who, at the age of 90, recalls helping run one of the two summer playhouses in Provincetown that filled the gap between the original and the one that Miss Huntington established in 1940.

Dr. Daniel Hiebert, who attended the birth of O’Neill’s second son, Shane, recalled his efforts to keep O’Neill sober long enough to write his first full-length production, “Beyond the Horizon.”  Mr. Hapgood said he could identify the model’s version of the front-row seat from which he had viewed “Bound East for Cardiff.”

Sipping a glass of sherry and leaning on a cane, Mrs. Vorse told how her wharf was commandeered as a theater.  Each of the hastily assembled founders contributed a few dollars and ransacked their homes for scenery.

“We had no mission,” she said. “We just had plays -- and we had fun.  It’s exciting to know that it turned into history.”

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