The Birth of the Provincetown Playhouse

On November 3, 1916, the Provincetown Players performed their first production in their new home in Greenwich Village. The theater company performed King Arthur’s Socks by Floyd Dell, The Game by Louise Bryant, and Bound East for Cardiff by a young, relatively unknown Eugene O’Neill. Referred to as “the birthplace of modern drama”, the Provincetown Playhouse staged the works of some of this country’s most well-known playwrights and talented actors, including Eugene O’Neill, Edna St. Vincent Millay, Edward Albee, Sam Shepherd, David Mamet, Bette Davis, and Paul Robeson among others.  In addition to its incredibly talented authors and actors, the theater is noted for its progressive ethos – it had a large number of women involved in all levels of productions, and boldly staged controversial plays featured African Americans actors.

Original Provincetown Playhouse at 139 MacDougal Street. Source: New York Historical Society.

This experimental theater company had its beginnings not in Greenwich Village but in Provincetown, Massachusetts, as its name implies. A group of writers and artists summering together in the Cape Cod town in July of 1915 first performed Constancy by Neith Boyce and Suppressed Desires by George Cram Cook and Susan Glaspell on the veranda of a rented cottage. Word spread about the performance, and more performances followed — this time in a makeshift theater made from a fish house on a wharf. The following summer even more writers and artists were in attendance, having heard about the previous summer’s performances. Among the writers was Eugene O’Neill, who would have his first plays staged with this group. O’Neill became the first American dramatist to regard the stage as a literary medium and he remains the only U.S. playwright to receive the Nobel Prize for Literature.

Following the summer of 1916, the group decided to form an official organization in Greenwich Village where many of its members lived. Its purpose was to provide a platform for American playwrights and new American plays; this was part of the newly emerging “Little Theater” movement which was developing around the country. The theater company’s first home was on the parlor floor of 139 MacDougal Street, a row house just south of Washington Square Park (since demolished). By 1918 the company made its permanent home at 133MacDougal Street, a former bottling plant.

Provincetown Playhouse 1955. Source: http://www.provincetownplayhouse.com/history.html

The Provincetown Playhouse was the artistic home and birthplace of many of America’s most significant plays and playwrights who count the theater as their nurturing ground.  Unfortunately, despite the vigorous effort by the GVSHP and partner community organizers, NYU demolished nearly the entire building in 2008 in order to build office space for the University’s law school.  While a theater remains in that place with the Provincetown name and facade, virtually nothing else of the original space remains.

Demolition of Provincetown Playhouse & Apartments – 08/03/2009

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Sarah Bean Apmann