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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.”
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
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.
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
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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
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.
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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