Today in History: November 3
Eugene O'Neill and the Provincetown Players
Supposing I was to tell you that it's just Beauty that's calling me, the beauty of the far off and unknown, the mystery and spell of the East, which lures me in the books I've read, the need of the freedom of great wide spaces, the joy of wandering on and on—in quest of the secret which is hidden just over there, beyond the horizon?
Beyond the Horizon
Eugene O'Neill, September 5, 1933.
Creative Americans: Portraits by Carl Van Vechten, 1932-1964
The experimental Provincetown Players opened their first New York season on November 3, 1916, at 139 MacDougal Street in Greenwich Village. The premiere featured three short plays: The Game, by journalist and social activist Louise Bryant; King Arthur's Socks, a comedy by Floyd Dell; and Bound East for Cardiff, a one-act play by then unknown playwright Eugene O'Neill (1888-1953).
Opening night also marked the New York debut of one the most influential American playwrights of the twentieth century—Eugene O'Neill, who wrote many full-length plays over the course of the next two decades. The Provincetown Players produced all of O'Neill's short works between 1916 and 1920—helping him develop a reputation in New York before his first full-length play, Beyond the Horizon (external link), opened on Broadway on February 2, 1920.
This fledgling New York theater group was an offshoot of an earlier effort of a group of young artists and writers vacationing at the seaside resort of Provincetown, Massachusetts. During the summer of 1915, these artists organized the Provincetown Players by adapting a building on a wharf as a stage. The group wrote and performed their plays and designed and constructed all their own stage sets and costumes. They were at the forefront of a growing movement in American Theater toward small, experimental, noncommercial theaters. Early members of the group of players included literary and political figures such as Susan Glaspell, activist and writer John Reed, Neith Boyce Hapgood, Hutchins Hapgood, Louise Bryant, George Cram Cook, and Ida Rauh.
Captain Jack's Wharf,
formerly a fish pier, now a tourist colony mainly inhabited by "artists..."
Edwin Rosskam, photographer, August 1940.
America from the Great Depression to World War II: Photographs from the FSA and OWI, ca. 1935-1945
Eugene O'Neill, whose father had been a popular touring actor, performed the role of ship's mate for the premiere of his play, Bound East for Cardiff. In this walk-on part, the playwright had one spoken line. In a Sunday, August 13, 1916, article about the Provincetown Players in the Boston Globe (external link), journalist A. J. Philpott wrote O'Neill's first review:
Many people will remember James O'Neil, (sic) who played "Monte Cristo." He had a son—Eugene O'Neil (sic)—who knocked about the world in tramp steamers…and saw life "in the raw," and thought much about it…He is one of the Players, and he has written some little plays which have made a very deep impression on those who have seen them produced here.
O’Neill is credited with transforming American theater into a literary medium which, in its artistry, rivaled the best in American fiction and painting. He won four Pulitzer Prizes (external link) for his plays and remains the only American playwright to have received the Nobel Prize in Literature (external link).
- Search on Eugene O’Neill in the collection: Built in America: Historic American Buildings Survey/Historic American Engineering Record, 1933-Present to find photographs and textual information on O’Neill’s former home, Tao House, now the Eugene O’Neill Historic Site.
- Search on Eugene O'Neill in Creative Americans: Portraits by Carl Van Vechten, 1932-1964 to find more photographs of the artist and the village where his plays were first produced. Browse the Occupational Index to find photographs of other prominent twentieth-century playwrights, poets, and actors.
- Harry Kemp spent a year with the Provincetown Players in 1916 and opened his own Poetry Theater in Greenwich Village in 1921. He shared his musings and his poetry with writer May Swenson of the Federal Writers' Project in the American Life Histories: Manuscripts from the Federal Writers’ Project, 1936-1940 interview, "Tramp Poet."
- Search on Provincetown in the collection America from the Great Depression to World War II: Photographs from the FSA and OWI, ca. 1935-1945 to find many photographs of the Provincetown, Massachusetts, summer scene of the 1930s and 1940s which include fisherman, tourists, and artists.
- Search on Provincetown in other American Memory photographic collections and map collections to find many other images and maps of the Provincetown area.