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The Triumvirate (1): The Art Theatre   Next


Between the Provincetown’s production of Diff’rent in December, 1920, and of The Hairy Ape on March 9, 1922, Gold, “Anna Christie” and The First Man received professional productions. The Hairy Ape from the beginning had interested Arthur Hopkins, the producer of “Anna Christie,” who used the Provincetown production as a testing ground for the script. He collaborated with James Light on the direction, paid the costs of the Provincetown production and, by April 17 had moved the play to Broadway. George Cram Cook’s organization produced one more play, Susan Glaspell’s Chains of Dew, and then disbanded for its so­called “holiday,” never to be reformed as Cook had envisioned it.

Diff’rent was, thus, the last of O’Neill’s apprentice works. He was approaching the place where he could demand the best that America’s fully professional theatres could provide him, and his ambitions rode high. Nevertheless, there were obstacles. Gold, “Anna Christie” and The First Man had each to wait a year before production, and in that period he had completed his play about Ponce de Leon, The Fountain, which no producer would touch, and which was to wait three years before it went onstage. O’Neill, as always, did not wait well. New projects absorbed him, and scripts in which he had great faith grew cold as they made the. rounds seeking an interested buyer. Moreover, both Gold and The First Man were box-office and critical failures. Gold, as staged by J. D. Williams, was marred by inadequate sets and a deplorable cast whose star, Willard Mack, failed to learn his lines and improvised much of his dialogue. It ran for ten nights. The First Man, almost universally rejected, ran for twenty-seven performances. A similar fate awaited The Straw, which was not produced until November 1921 and which ran for only twenty performances.

It seems inevitable that O’Neill would seek a more satisfactory way of bringing his plays to the stage—some means over which he would have control and that would permit him to experiment as he had done with the Provincetown Players under Cook. Clearly, however, the organization, whatever form it took, had to be both professional and at the same time dedicated to the highest theatrical ideals. Except for rare producers like Arthur Hopkins, Broadway was notoriously short on such idealism.

In the years immediately surrounding the First World War, Broadway’s deaf ear was turned against the devotees of the Art Theatre who, in a number of short-lived but successful ventures around the country, were attempting to bring to the theatre new methods of play production, conceived in the light of aesthetic standards derived from European sources. Some evidence of what the new standards were had been seen. The tour of the Irish Players in 1911 had opened many eyes to a new kind of drama and a new style of acting. In 1912 and 1913, the Manchester Repertory Company toured with plays by Galsworthy, Masefield, Arnold Bennett and Shaw, and in 1912, Max Reinhardt’s elaborate Arabian Nights “mimo-drama,” Sumurun, was brought to New York by Winthrop Ames. In 1916 and 1917, Diaghilev’s Ballet Russe appeared in this country. The importations were only confirmation of the rightness of many American endeavors in the same line. As early as 1907, the productions of Greek tragedy by Margaret Anglin had offered exciting possibilities. So, later, had the Chicago Little Theatre, under the direction of Maurice Browne, and Livingstone Platt’s Toy Theatre in Boston. When they came into being, the Provincetown Players and the Washington Square Players formed a significant part of the new movement, but throughout the country groups with similar force and purpose were attempting to define the nature of the new spirit in theatre; from Los Angeles to Detroit, throughout the Midwest and South, the energy displayed in working with nothing and for nothing but spiritual reward was outstripped only by the corporate idealism which they all showed.


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