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Chapter One
Eugene O'Neill's First Stage: Provincetown


The seamen’s forecastle of the British tramp
Glencairn on a foggy night midway on
the voyage between New York and Cardiff.

--Eugene O’Neill, Bound East for Cardiff

Eugene O’Neill, a twenty-seven-year-old untried playwright, came to Provincetown the summer of 1916 looking for a stage.  He found it perched on the waterfront, scruffy and salty, awaiting his debut.  The histrionic O’Neill may have swaggered a bit as he walked down a ramshackle wharf into a salt-encrusted, sea-washed fishing shack that housed a narrow stage.  He knew from his theatrical experience with his father, the popular actor James O’Neill, that this setting was a natural one for his sea play.   Bound East for Cardiff takes place mid-ocean in a cramped, noisome forecastle on a foggy night.  O’Neill helped to direct the play, insisting on a minimum of props.  And with a beginner’s luck, on premiere night the sea provided a bonus of special effects: a thick fog, a wailing foghorn, and a high tide rushing in and splashing beneath the floorboards.  O’Neill, the former sailor and now poet-of-the-sea, had found a new home.  He stayed on in Provincetown for nine years, one of the most productive periods of his career.

The stage itself nearly floated on water.  It was on the first floor of a two-story converted fishhouse at the far end of rickety Lewis Wharf, which reached about 100 feet into Provincetown harbor.  Throughout the performance incoming waves, swelled by a new moon, flooded the tidal flats and battered the spindly pilings under the fishhouse.  For days the weather had been muggy and damp, not at all unusual in the summer when a tropical front stalls off the coast of Cape Cod.  Just before 8:00 P.M. on Thursday, July 28, 1916, the wind changed to the north and the freshening breeze locked the town in a moist, cool fog.

The fishhouse theater was layered with smells of the sea and of sailors:  oilskins and rubber boots, pipe tobacco, and sweat reeking from the actors crammed into makeshift bunks.  There was also the fetid scent of burned wood as well as of fresh paint.  Three weeks earlier, the west wall of the fishhouse had been badly scorched by an accidental fire and the adjoining walls had been painted black to mask the damage.  There was the lingering smell of old wharves—a mixture of fish oil, turpentine, and tar.  As if all these stage effects weren’t enough, the fortunate young playwright also had the mournful sound of an intermittent foghorn echoing from Long Point Lighthouse, two miles across the harbor.  So with a lapping tide, an enveloping fog punctuated by a warning horn, the stuffiness of nearly one hundred people jammed into a rough-hewn odoriferous fishhouse measuring only 25 feet by 35 feet, it took no scenic magic for the audience to believe that they were indeed in the cramped forecastle of a tramp steamer stalled mid-ocean.

On the outside walls of the fishhouse were two large sliding doors a story high, one facing south, the other west.  These doors had been conveniently rolled back when fish, freight, and dories were unloaded from fishing vessels.  The sliding door at the south end of the wharf was cleverly incorporated as a stage backdrop.  It measured about 10 feet by 12 feet.  When the weather allowed, the door was rolled back for scenic effect-—revealing a seamless horizon of sea and sky.

The new owner of the wharf, Mary Vorse O’Brien, a popular fiction writer, had rented the top floor of the fishhouse to the New York-based Modern Art School.  It was run by Bror Nordfeldt, artist and inventor of the white-line block print.  She had also managed to rent out her small cottage at the foot of the wharf.  The summer before, the cottage had been a fish market, but the rent was long overdue.  John A. Francis, the realtor and long-time friend and ombudsman to Provincetown’s writers and artists, wrote Mary O’Brien on March 3, 1916, about the delinquent rent: “I told him (Manuel Morris, the fish dealer) that he already owed you for three months rent…It strikes me that the only way you can get this money is to take fish for it in the summer.” The fish dealer, however, took to the street and peddled his fish from a cart.

Summer 1916 was actually the second season of theatricals for the group of amateurs who became the Provincetown Players.  Their first season had also been in Provincetown, during the summer of 1915.  It was a spontaneous beginning.  On July 15, at 10:00 in the evening, after the children had gone to bed, the writers Neith Boyce and her husband Hutchins Hapgood amused their friends with some theatricals staged on their summer veranda facing the harbor.  Neith Boyce’s one-act play, Constancy, was the first performed.  It is a spoof about the romance between Mabel Dodge, a wealthy socialite, and John (Jack) Reed, poet, journalist, and future revolutionist.  All knew the plot beforehand, for the love affair was the talk of Greenwich Village.

The vacationing scenic designer Robert (Bobby) Edmond Jones arranged the impromptu set. He simply moved abort some pillows and lamps to create a set on the veranda; then he turned the audience about to face the living room for the second play, Suppressed Desires.  This too was a spoof—of Freudianism—by the newlyweds, novelist Susan Glaspell and her writer husband, George (Jig) Cram Cook.  The group was delighted.  Jig thereupon arranged a second bill of two new one-act plays on Lewis Wharf.  Jig staged his own play, a satire about the feud between current artistic schools in Change Your Style; and he staged Contemporaries, a parable about the homeless in New York City, the work of the young writer Wilbur Daniel Steele.

After the 1915 summer productions in Provincetown, the winter talk in Greenwich Village switched from Maxism, free love, and Freudianism to theater.  It was Jig Cook who spearheaded the efforts to create new drama, modeled after the theater of ancient Greece.  Jig wanted the theater to be an artistic community: “True drama is born only of one feeling animating all the members of a clan.”  Jack Reed was at first co-leader, and characteristically enthusiastic; however, he was professionally overcommitted and relinquished control to Jig Cook.

Those who had taken part in the plays in Provincetown in 1915 formed a loose vanguard directed toward a new American theater that would break free from the hackneyed melodramas and frothy comedies on Broadway controlled by commercial syndicates.  Except for Jack Reed and his play Moondown, their attempts to get their own plays staged in New York by the newly formed Washington Square Players had failed.  They envisioned a change toward psychological realism, as found in the Abbey Players of the Irish theater.  Their dream materialized in Provincetown the following summer of 1916 with O’Neill and his Bound East for Cardiff.

O’Neill’s premiere was on the second bill of the 1916 season.  The first bill began two weeks earlier on July 14, 1916, and consisted of three traditional one-act plays.  There was Winter’s Night by Neith Boyce Hapgood, a journalist and fiction writer, in which she parodied her own marital conflicts.  Not Smart, a spoof of both the Provincetown Portuguese and the bohemian attitude toward sex, was by the otherwise serious, short-story journeyman Wilbur Daniel Steele. (“Not smart” was a localism for getting pregnant.)  Freedom, a political farce by John Reed, completed the bill.  Little is known of these premieres, so overshadowed were they by Bound East.  On the second bill with Bound East were two other plays:  a reprise of Steele’s Not Smart and a debut of The Game, an allegorical drama by the journalist Louise Bryant.

Bound East is a one-act play that reflects the seafaring experience of its youthful, obsessively autobiographical author.  Its mood recaptured O'Neill’s dreary, homeward voyage to New York from Buenos Aires on the Ikala, a British tramp steamer.  Eight months earlier O’Neill had been ecstatic when he sailed from Boston on the Charles Racine, a fetching Norwegian windjammer. Eugene’s father, James O’Neill, a successful actor and theatrical entrepreneur, had paid the $75 fare, hoping that his dissolute younger son would profit from a sea adventure.  One in Buenos Aires Eugene reverted to his old habits of excessive drinking and cavorting with derelicts and pariahs, as he had in Manhattan.  He slept in flophouses and with the readily-available Brazilian prostitutes.  When his money ran out and his health failed, he signed on with the freighter as a “scenery bum,” one who works his passage from port to port.

O’Neill’s original title for Bound East, written in 1914, was “Children of the Sea.”  It is a story about the fatalism and the helplessness of seamen.  The plot centers on Yank, who is dying from a shipboard accident that crushed his chest.  The action is restricted to the cramped seamen’s quarters of the steamer Glencairn, a “rusty lime-juicer,” as it lumbers eastward across the Atlantic in fog and darkness.  Shipmate Driscoll mercifully stays with Yank, who is afraid to die alone.  “For God’s sake don’ leave me alone!”  The play begins with humorous, fantasized memories as Cocky, a “weazened runt,” boasts to his shipmates about his love affair with the “queen of the cannibal isles.”  Through his characters O’Neill relates his own waterfront days in Buenos Aires. “D’yuh remember the times we’ve had in Buenos Aires”  I do that; and so does the piany player. He’ll not be forgetting’ the black eye I gave him in a hurry.”  The mood shifts to grim reality as Driscoll and Yank talk of their bittersweet memories, centering on their disillusionment with the sea.  “It must be great to stay on dry land all your life and have a farm with a house of your own."” The play ends when death comes as a "pretty lady dressed in black.”

O’Neill directed Bound East with the help of the professional actor Edward (Teddy) Ballantine, who took the part of Cocky.  Despite the protests of the artists, who had constructed abstract, art deco sets for other productions, O'Neill insisted on realistic scenery and props.  William Zorach, sculptor and painter, who with his wife Marguerite designed memorable, cubist scenery for the group, complained that O’Neill resisted his designs. “Gene insisted everything had to be factual.  If the play called for a stove, it couldn’t be a paint box.”  Jig Cook, philosopher-turned-farmer, turned-writer, turned-carpenter, supervised the props for this and most other sets.  For the wharf productions he designed a stage “in four sections which could be picked up by hand and set at various levels and angles.”  Three bunks were built along the far wall of the fishhouse adjacent to the sea; wooden benches were placed in front of the bunks; portholes were painted on the canvas behind the bunks; and a wooden pail and a hanging kerosene lantern completed the arrangements.  Costumes were simple:  the all-male cast wore oilskins and walked around in their heavy woolen  socks.

The premiere casting cannot be fully reconstructed.  Of the eleven characters, it is know that the part of Yank was played by Jig Cook and that of Cocky by Teddy Ballantine.  There is some evidence that the actor Frederick Burt played Driscoll.  Journalist Jack Reed, soon to be acclaimed for his first-hand coverage of the 1917 Russian Revolution, Ten Days That Shook The World, and Wilbur Steele, soon to be recognized as one of American’s leading short-story writers, most likely took minor acting parts.  True to the group’s democratic spirit, writers, actors, and artists exchanged roles and duties.

It is well-established that O’Neill himself played The Second Mate, the least demanding role.  He had one line, “Isn’t this your watch on deck, Driscoll?”  Although O’Neill was reportedly terrified about his role, he nevertheless later bragged about his acting debut.  He chided the director of a later production that it might not have been as good as the original “because I didn’t play the Mate, what?”  Furthermore, from out-of-the-wings could be heard the drone of O’Neill's measured, baritone voice, for he prompted the poorly rehearsed players throughout the performance.

In the summer of 1916 Provincetown was a crucible of creative activity, seething with bohemians from Greenwich Village.  The summer colonization of Provincetown, which had begun slowly in 1914—when World War I restricted travel to the artistic haunts of Europe—peaked in 1916.  Artists were everywhere, painting on the streets, wharves, shacks, or exhibiting in Town Hall and in the new Provincetown Art Museum.  Writers congregated on the beach and on the narrow sidewalks and streets and talked about their assignments for popular magazines like Scribner’s or revolutionary magazines like The Masses, and in the usually quiet East End of town there was concentrated activity as this energetic group of writers and artists banded together to produce some experimental, amateur theatricals on Lewis Wharf.

The waiting audience that lingered on the wharf that foggy Thursday evening to gossip and preen was excited about seeing O’Neill’s play.  News of the play’s tryout had spread quickly through the close-knit summer colony. Almost everyone had some personal involvement in these non-commercial play productions, either as creative artists, theatrical aides, or subscribers.  No one god paid.  The money was raised only to cover production costs—scenery, lighting, seats, curtain, and costumes.

The most expensive production was less than $13.  Jig found the summer group to be ready subscribers.  For the 1916 summer, the first bill of three plays was priced at fifty cents and sold out immediately.  For the next three bills, or nine plays, subscriptions were sold for one dollar.  No licenses were required because admission was by prior subscription.  This was a way of avoiding licensing fees both in Provincetown and New York.

One can imagine the fascination of Provincetown residents and the summering Bostonians as they watched the chattering bohemians gather on Lewis Wharf before the performances.  In her signature outfit, a red cape over white linens, Louise Bryant doubtlessly was ringed by male admirers.  Among her summer entourage were the avant-garde artists Charles Demuth, with his black shirt and purple cummerbund, and Marsden Hartley, wrapped in a flowing navy-blue coat accented with a gardenia boutonniere.  Also in attendance was Max Eastman, editor of the controversial magazine, The Masses, sporting his proletarian uniform of brown corduroy shirt and trousers.  Bryant was the season’s much-talked about beauty, with her striking red hair, green eyes, and flawless complexion.  The prevailing rumor, later substantiated, was that Bryant was romantically involved with O’Neill, even though she was virtually engaged to Reed.

The waiting bohemians were well-traveled cosmopolites. Jack Reed, tie-less and tousled, was an internationally known war correspondent.  Demuth and Hatley were habitués of Gertrude Stein’s famed Paris salon, as were the writers Neith Boyce and Hutchins Hapgood.  Also among Stein’s coterie were the smock-clad artists Ethel Mars and Maud Squire, who had left America’s staid Midwest to enroll in life classes in Parisian ateliers.  Artists Marguerite and William Zorach had traveled to Europe as well as to the South Pacific to search out the haunts of the French painter Paul Gauguin.  In 1913 both Zorachs had exhibited at the landmark New York Armory Show, as had Marsden Hartley.

One way these Greenwich Village bohemians protested was in their manner of dress.  Women bobbed their hair, removed their corsets, and wore loose garments; men wore open-neck working-class shirts of flannel or corduroy and, if artists, wore smocks and berets in the Continental fashion.  Purple was the season’s rage—in all its shades:  mauve, plum, lavender, and magenta.  It accented women’s make-up and dress and even men’s clothes.  There were the more conventionally attired, such as Mary O'Brien and Susan Glaspell, who had bought Provincetown homes, just a little “up-along” Commercial Street.  They were talked about in town, not for their clothes necessarily, but for their wild parties, where women were seen to drink liquor and smoke cigarettes.

While theater history was being made on Lewis Wharf, what might have been the random thoughts of those first-nighters?  Surely Mary O’Brien was reliving a deathwatch as she heard Driscoll say his long goodbye to the dying Yank.  The previous Fall she had comforted her husband Joe as he lay dying in a New York hospital.  Although of a different sort, Max Eastman was rehearsing a goodbye scene.  That summer he was planning to tell his wife, Ida Rauh, that he was leaving her for another woman.   Jig Cook and Sue Glaspell recently had had their share of good-byes.  When they decided to marry, they were virtually exiled from their native, conventional Iowa because of the notoriety attached to Jig’s divorce.  The seriously ill Jack Reed was preoccupied with death; in a few weeks he was to undergo major surgery to remove a diseased kidney.  There were others with less tragic thoughts, such as Louise Bryant, who that night was awaiting her debut as a playwright.  She was thinking of that dark-haired, dark-eyed, handsome and mysterious O’Neill, her new love interest.

Neith Boyce was no doubt concerned about her husband Hutchins and his worrisome affair with Lucy Collier.  That summer Lucy had taken a nearby cottage.  While waiting for his own play to be staged that night, Wilbur Steele was annoyed with the valuable time these summer theatrics had taken away from his professional writing.  He was especially worried about his minister father’s reaction to the summer’s frivolity.  For many of the others, professional writers and artists, their thoughts turned to their careers, to whether or not their future lay in the theater.  It is safe to say that O’Neill alone was thinking of little else but his play.  He had decided even before that night that the theater would be his whole life.

Bound East was a signal success.  Susan Glaspell vividly recalled the premiere in her memoir, The Road to the Temple: “It is not merely figurative language to say the old wharf shook with applause.”  Only days before, Bound East had been enthusiastically selected by the democratic caucus of bohemians.  The play was read by the actor Frederick Burt in Glaspell’s Provincetown parlor while the taciturn, brooding O’Neill listened from the adjoining dining room.  Approval was unanimous.  Spontaneously the assemblage rushed to congratulate their new playwright.  They knew immediately that O’Neill’s play was different; it was the breakthrough they had hoped for.

Why this instantaneous approval of O’Neill?  Most of the artists and writers were familiar with the leading playwrights of Europe, such as Strindberg and Ibsen, whose work had inspired O’Neill.  O’Neill had adopted the Europeans’ melancholy and introspective themes to become America’s own apostle of woe.  Until O’Neill, no American dramatist had brought the new genre to home shores.  He was the first to challenge the century’s materialism; the first to stage the lower-class idiom and life on an American stage; and the first American playwright to work solely as an artist.  Many of the innovative techniques that he later employed in his major dramas—poetic use of light and sound, dialect, dramatic narrative—had their beginnings in this germinal play, the one he selected for his premiered.  In 1922 after he had won a Pulitzer Price for Beyond the Horizon, O’Neill recounted that in the winter of 1913 and 194, he had written: “eight one-act plays, two long plays.  Of these Bound East for Cardiff (was the) only one worth remembering.”

The audience filed out more slowly and more somberly than they had entered, for they had witnessed a magic moment, a turning point in theater history.  All the memoirists in the audience, and there were many, talked and wrote about O'Neill's première and that “remarkable summer” of 1916 in Provincetown.  Some turned to playwriting, others to directing or scenic design.  None but O’Neill lasted as a playwright.  In September, before they left Provincetown for subsequent successful seasons in New York City, they became a formal group, the Provincetown Players.  In one way or another the Players organization lasted over a decade.  Their failure was due to their success—they eventually were absorbed by the commercial theater they had revolted against.

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