Today in History

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?

Eugene O'Neill
Beyond the Horizon

Portrait of Eugene O'Neill
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.

Provincetown, Cape Cod, sand dunes
Provincetown, Cape Cod, Sand Dunes, Provincetown, MA.
American Landscape and Architectural Design, 1850-1920: a Study Collection from the Harvard Graduate School of Design

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, Provincetown, Massachusetts
Captain Jack's Wharf,
formerly a fish pier, now a tourist colony mainly inhabited by "artists..."
Provincetown, Massachusetts,
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.

Provincetown. By F. K. Rogers
Provincetown,
by F. K. Rogers,
1877.
Map Collections

Eugene O'Neill and Carlotta Monterey O'Neill
Eugene O'Neill and Carlotta Monterey O'Neill,
September 5, 1933.
Creative Americans: Portraits by Carl Van Vechten

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).