The Provincetown Players and the Greenwich Village Scene
The Provincetown Players have long been acknowledged by theatre-historians among the groups that brought modern theatre to the United States. This course would begin with a critical examination of what is meant by “modern drama,” and would enter briefly into questions about the geography of artistic modernism. Specifically, we would look at the consensus that artistic modernism began in Europe and was imported into the United States while also attending to the deepening cracks in that consensus. Especially in the context of the United States, modern drama meant a powerful and deliberate rebellion against the commercialism of main-stage entertainment. One reason for a focus on The Provincetown Players in particular is the sheer variety of American writers who tried their hands on the Provincetown Stage. In addition to the plays of Eugene O’Neill and Edna St. Vincent Millay expected in such a course, we could also read the plays of Theodore Dreiser and Wallace Stevens alongside some of these authors’ better known works in other genres. We would spend a little time looking at the immediate social milieu of the Players -- learning a bit about such persons as Emma Goldman and Margaret Sanger, about all the magazines and reform movements, about the early Harlem Renaissance. Emerging out of this milieu, the Provincetown Players was more than a movement in theatre arts. Its founding vision was to awaken a uniquely American cultural renaissance that would heal the divisions of American life -- uniting urban and rural peoples, equalizing the sexes and races, and pulling together the world’s religions and reconciling them with scientific ways of knowing. This vision was underwritten by a lofty anthropological notion of theatre in the society of ancient Greece that was typical of late-nineteenth century education in the classics. We will read The Road to the Temple (1927), the book that makes the greatest claims for the ideals of the Provincetown Players. This unusual document is an elegiac biography of founding member, George Cram Cook, written by Susan Glaspell, another founding member of the Players, who was a playwright and bestselling novelist, and was Cook’s widow. This would necessitate some critical examination of their complexly interwoven personal and artistic relationship. Glaspell, a professional fiction writer, will also help us frame what it meant that Provincetown Players were “amateurs.” The aim of this course is not only to foster a deep understanding of the social and intellectual currents of modernism, but also to complicate notions of “literature” and the production and the consumption of art.