Short Plays, Small Spaces, Dreamy Kids
In its issue of 1 October 1932 The New York Sun declared that The Provincetown Playhouse “has had enough adventures for a dozen theaters.” Just over a half-century later, on 19 June 1985, Charles Busch’s Vampire Lesbians of Sodom began the first of 363 performances at the Provincetown Playhouse, adding yet another adventure to the fabled theater’s history by becoming the longest running non-musical in off-Broadway history and the last commercial production staged at 133 Macdougal Street (Fig. 1). Arriving at the Provincetown by way of the East Village arts scene in the late 1970s and early 1980s, Busch and his “Theater in Limbo” troupe practiced a kinder, gentler version of downtown performance art that had potential for crossover appeal. Laurie Anderson, Spaulding Gray, Meredith Monk, and other performance artists of that same period, such as the so-called N.E.A. Four, appealed primarily to an erudite avant-garde that comprised the audience—and sometimes performed as well--at such venues as P.S. 122, The Kitchen, and Theater for the New City, each of which had opened in response to the proliferation of new forms of performance after the end of the Vietnam War in 1975.
By the mid-1980s, the United States had become involved in a conflict at home nicknamed the “culture wars” that has continued to intensify during the intervening years; moreover, the AIDS epidemic was spreading at an alarming rate in the mid-1980s, claiming victims as scientists struggled to identify the virus and begin to experiment with ways to fight its effects. Ravaged and overwhelmed by the epidemic in just a few years, downtown artists and Village residents alike witnessed the politics of AIDS as the most insidious weapon yet devised in the on-going culture wars. Occupying more or less the same Macdougal Street real estate since 1918, the Provincetown Playhouse often reflected the agenda of artists, musicians, and radicals who had fled repressive cities and towns across America to settle in the neighborhood, thus making Greenwich Village the front line of battle protecting them from ways of life they had escaped. Whereas the original members of the Provincetown Players often wrote and staged productions in response to social and political issues, Vampire Lesbians of Sodom confronted the despair of the darkest years of the AIDS epidemic with laughter, celebrating the absurdities of pop culture by spoofing theater conventions and daring audiences to distinguish the men from the women on stage. Busch--in various states of drag--his seven fellow actors, and their audience all crammed into 133 MacDougal Street, where sporadic renovations had done little to address such long-standing complaints as Richard Lockridge’s observation in The Sun, “The Provincetown Playhouse in 1940 is just as uncomfortable as it was in 1916.”
Within the cozy quarters these cozy quarters, one Loretta Young entrance from Busch in a gown as expansive as that worn by Clare Eames in the Provincetown Players 1924 revival of Anna Cora Mowatt’s Fashion culminated with a spin and a sashay that sent the ensemble running for cover (Fig. 2). In his review of Vampire Lesbians of Sodom for The New York Times, D. J. R. Bruckner observed, “The Provincetown Playhouse, with its 15-foot-deep stage yawning behind a 9-by-18-foot proscenium is a perfect space for their antics.” B. T. Whitehill’s scenic design transformed the stage into a campy playground for actors in delightfully tacky costumes by John Glaser as the cast travelled through two thousand years in an epic of minute proportions while apparently having the time of their lives (Fig. 3).
Sixty-six years earlier, as world leaders negotiated the Treaty of Versailles and American soldiers returned from Europe wounded and disillusioned, Greenwich Villagers retreated from the prohibition battlefield after losing the fight against the Eighteenth Amendment but marched forward to victory for women’s suffrage guaranteed in 1920 by the Nineteenth Amendment. Despite the diligence of social reformers and the push for revolution in both the arts and politics, however, the battlefield Villagers had helped create was changing. “Greenwich Village had become commercialized during the war,” observed Floyd Dell, who joined the Players in 1916. In Homecoming: An Autobiography, he goes on to conclude, “The Village had advertised too well its freedom and happiness . . . The Villagers were beginning to leave the Village” (324-25).
It is against this background, as tense with uncertainty as the mid-1980s, that The Friendly House Association, located at 141 Harrison Street in far-off Brooklyn, arranged two benefit performances of “The Widow’s Veil” by Alice M. Rostetter on 24 and 25 February 1919 at the Provincetown Playhouse. The Association’s flyer daringly challenged its members: “We are planning a unique trip into Greenwich Village. Don’t you want to come and play BOHEMIAN [sic] for one evening?” Admission was $2.20 per person. As a bonus, ticket-holders could dine upstairs afterwards at Christine’s with genuine leftist, radical bohemians for $1.00 per plate.
What kind of two-headed monsters—part Cape Cod fishing village and part Greenwich Village--awaited members of this theater excursion? “We were supposed to be a ‘special’ group—radical, wild,” Susan Glaspell explained in The Road to the Temple. “But it seems to me that we were a particularly simple people, who sought to arrange life for the thing we wanted to do . . . we were as a new family; we lent each other money, worried through illnesses, ate together when a cook had left, talked about our work. Each could be himself, that was perhaps the real thing we did for one another” (235-6). The Friendly House Association’s theater party, much like contemporary tourists in the Village, no doubt wanted to observe the locals at close range--many of whom were rumored to practice free-love and to believe in psychoanalysis, and most of whom could tell them where to buy an illegal drink. The eccentric everyday pageantry of the Village in 1919 could be viewed as a kind of performance in which almost everyone participated; nonetheless, one towering and histrionic figure whose “sweeping black cape, walking cane, long gray beard and a wide-brimmed hat,” Leona Egan has remarked, “attracted attention even in the Village, where everyone was costumed” (119).
This Dionysian visionary was George Cram Cook, who directed the Provincetown Playhouse premiere of “The Widow’s Veil” on 17 January 1919; this smart and sad comedy of Irish tenement life, featuring Rostetter herself in the role of Mrs. Phelan, headed the February fund-raiser’s triple bill, which also featured “The Baby Carriage” by Bosworth Crocker and “The Squealer” by Mary Foster Barber. Both an artistic and financial success, “The Widow’s Veil” was chosen to be performed again 11-17 April 1919 on the so-called “Sixth Bill” of “The Fifth Season” at the Playwrights’ Theater; to be selected to share a bill of revivals highlighting the best work of The Players was a considerable achievement for Rostetter, who acted in numerous productions at 133 MacDougal Street but turned her subsequent playwriting efforts to creating works for schools and young audiences. Nonetheless, the publication of the play by Egmont Arens in 1920 facilitated amateur and professional productions of “The Widow’s Veil” across the country, helping to make Rostetter’s lone playwrighting effort among the most popular plays to have originated at the Provincetown Playhouse. (Fig. 4)
On the bill of revivals with “The Widow’s Veil” were “Night” by James Oppenheim, “Bound East for Cardiff” by Eugene O’Neill, and “Woman’s Honor” by Susan Glaspell. onor” by Susan Glaspell.H During the April 1919 performances of these revivals and, indeed, throughout “The Fifth Season” audiences at 133 MacDougal crowded into black pew-like benches and, while waiting for the often-delayed curtain, could study the burnt orange color on the walls and the indigo-painted ceiling. Of this site that formerly had housed a bottling plant and a stable, Joseph Wood Krutch concluded, “It had better be cleaned up and returned to the horses” (qtd. in Lockridge 24). Slightly larger than the theater at 139 MacDougal that had served the Players during their first and second seasons in New York, however, the new Playwright’s Theater down the block boasted a capacity of two hundred in an auditorium that gently sloped towards a stage measuring twelve feet deep and twenty-six feet wide--but whose furthest downstage point was a mere four feet away from the first row of the house (Gelbs 383-85). (Fig. 5)
Such an intimate environment embodied a founding principle of the group since their first summer in Provincetown: “The productions will be simple in stage settings.” Excerpted from a Players’ circular and reprinted in The New York Times on 27 October 1916, this brief statement of production aesthetics also provides a key to understanding the kind of plays the Provincetown produced through 1920; a crucial element of play selection, a responsibility that eventually fell to Glaspell and Kenton, was determined by the tiny size of the Provincetown stage. As Barlow has noted, “Some works were rejected because they required huge casts or elaborate scenery” (6).
Audiences comprising what Helen Deutsch and Stella Hanau have called “the brilliant coterie that had chosen the Village for its home” (21) understood their radical art, leftist politics, and new morality as interrelated manifestations of an unofficial movement now called The New York Little Renaissance. Members who attended the Provincetown—for The Playwright’s Theater, after all, was legally constituted as a private club—“were linked together in a common cause to create,” according to Arthur Wertheim, “a new American culture by overthrowing the genteel tradition” (243). The tiny Provincetown Playhouse stage enhanced the continuing experiment of that time, extending the adventures of the audience members, after notably lengthy scene shifts, to four different worlds in a single evening. The setting for Oppenheim’s “Night” was “a hilltop in October, the stars shining.” The action of “Bound East for Cardiff,” according to O’Neill’s program notes, “takes place in the forecastle of the British Transport Steamer Glencairn,” whereas Glaspell’s “Woman’s Honor” required the small stage to transform into “a room in the Sheriff’s House adjoining the jail.” (Fig. 6).
Decidedly idiosyncratic and more evocative in its stage directions than the other three plays on the bill, “The Widow’s Veil” occurs “twenty-four hours and not so long ago” and is set in “the meeting place of tender-hearted women,” the particulars of which the script explains almost as an after thought: “The floor’s the fifth” (Barlow 185). Only two characters, women who are neighbors, appear on stage during the play. Katy McManus—“she’s young and married” is Rostetter’s character note for her—and Mrs. Phelan—whom Rostetter describes metatheatrically as “her neighbor, to your left” (Barlow 185) —emerge from kitchen doorways in a drab brick wall surrounding an air shaft for a dumb-waiter that both serves the tenement’s residents and disrupts their lives with intrusive and noisy unpredictability. Although the Provincetown previously had produced a play set in an airshaft--“Down the Airshaft” by Irwin Granich (aka Michael Gold) in 28 December 1917—“The Widow’s Veil,” as Barlow has observed, redefines the airshaft “as a gendered space, a rare place where women can speak freely” (14). “The Widow’s Veil” certainly invites feminist readings, but no consideration of the play should fail to note that Rostetter, who had performance experience on the small stage at 133 MacDougal, utilized the theater’s close quarters to help convey the stifled existence of people crowded into spaces that walled up their potential to flourish and be happy. Moreover, Rostetter augmented the play’s claustrophobic environment by including numerous characters who are heard but never seen and creating a complex pattern of precise cues within her script for such sounds as crying babies, barking dogs, slamming doors, creaking ropes on pulleys, banging steam pipes, and local merchants hawking ice and groceries in thick immigrant accents. No reliable records exist to explain how “The Widow’s Veil” was performed; however, its two performance bills include the following credits: the January premiere casually noted “It’s Thomson that’s makin’ most of the noises,” and the April revival included “Voices and other sounds” with the list of characters, crediting Dorothy Miller, Norma Millay, O.K. Liveright, and Lewis B. Ell with performing them. The January and February 1919 performances of “The Widow’s Veil” also extended the world of the play to include program notes echoing the rhythm and idiom of Rostetter’s dialogue. “The curtain’s closin’ a bit of a moment,” the program explained. “When it opens it’s the morrow’s morn.” The April performances eschewed this nod to Irish-American ethnicity in favor of calling attention to the theatricality of the piece in a way that, from our perspective over a century later, may provide some indication of how Provincetown audiences were willing to reconsider theatrical conventions. The program for “The Sixth Bill” included this announcement: “Note: The Curtain will be drawn to mark the passing of eight dark hours.”
Edna Kenton’s recollection that the play’s sounds and voices were created during performances by her colleagues in the theater’s basement does not diminish Rostetter’s achievement. Both directing the play and recently finishing an adaptation of it reveal how effectively “The Widow’s Veil” can reder visible human form to the many isolated voices throughout the script. (Fig. 7) Among the play’s many riches are the tools Rostetter has provided actors and directors to discover genuine life and feeling in what Barlow has described as the play’s “ingenious setting” (181) and “almost surrealistic background” (182). With its suggestion that inherent in widowhood is the paradox of liberation and loss and through its majestically conceived soundscape of conversation snippets and urban cacophony, “The Widow’s Veil” embodies a version of Modernist theme and technique that proved accessible and highly popular for audiences.
As numerous as they are complex, the links between The Playwright’s Theater and Modernism—cogently explained in Brenda Murphy’s invaluable and essential study, The Provincetown Players and the Culture of Modernity—seem now, after a century’s distance, to have been pieces of a larger and occasionally muddled mosaic dominated by actual meeting places like The Liberal Club, The Washington Square Bookshop, Alfred Stieglitz’s 291 gallery, Polly Holliday’s restaurant, and Mabel Dodge’s salon; populated by authentic émigrés from around the United States who, like Floyd Dell, discovered in Greenwich Village that “the people one passed along the street were people that one knew . . . and it made the Village seem to belong to oneself” (250).
Similar to such subsets of Modernism as the Bloomsbury group in London and the Lost Generation in Paris, the mosaic of the so-called “Greenwich Village Insurgence” generally and The Provincetown Players in particular was held together with the glue of self-reflexivity that, at its worst, reeked of narcissism, but, at its best, transcended individual personalities to shape what Jig Cook called “our unrealized nation” (Sarlos 36) into an original American theater. The group’s earliest efforts were intended as entertainment for one another in Provincetown, Massachusetts, described in droll terms by Dell as “a tiny seaport which appeared to be a sort of summer suburb of Greenwich Village” (245). Interest in the small plays, however, quickly spread among the transplanted Villagers on the tip of Cape Cod, and whether by design or coincidence, the short plays performed in Provincetown during the summer of 1915 established some characteristics, albeit in rudimentary ways, that evolved during the years of The Playwrights’ Theater into attributes and an ambiance that although never openly adopted nor officially endorsed by the group nonetheless created a perceived identity for The Playwrights’ Theater, especially among writers and theater practitioners, that differentiated this new and perplexingly different modernist enterprise from rivals and allies alike.
The relatively short playing times shared by all four plays that first summer demonstrated one effect of the Little Theater Movement, which had been largely responsible for the resurgence of the short play form in the United States; one-act plays became the most performed genre in the Provincetown Players’ repertoire, brevity being the soul of their hits. As more writers became interested in having the Provincetown Players seriously consider producing their work, they adapted to this preference of the group, crafting what we now acknowledge to be masterpieces of the short form that the Playwrights’ Theater produced—and often chaotically so—in performances that, despite Cook’s belief in the Provincetown Players as “a blessed community of life givers,” never achieved consistent production values nor reached a reliable level of respectable acting from one play to the next. Staged publicity photographs, such as this backstage shot from January 1921, appeared in publications across the country urging towns and cities to start theaters of their own. (Fig. 8) The truth, however, was that by the time Jig Cook realized his dream of a plaster dome at 133 Macdougal Street for O’Neill’s The Emperor Jones in 1921, no physical or aesthetic structure could contain the Provincetown Players any longer.
Nonetheless, Vampire Lesbians of Sodom paid homage to the best traditions of the Players that, over sixty years, had become standard Off-Broadway practice. Like one of the Provincetown “Bills,” Vampire Lesbians of Sodom took its audience from ancient Babylon to 1920’s Hollywood to contemporary Las Vegas, and its curtain-raiser, Sleeping Beauty or The Coma, made a visit to swinging mod London of the 1960’s. Vampire Lesbians also used the small Provincetown playing space in creative ways that rivaled the intimacy of “The Widow’s Veil” and such plays as Pendleton King’s “Cocaine” (1917) and Dell’s “The Angel Intrudes”(1917) (Fig. 9), all three which Kenneth MacGowan once listed among the excellent Provincetown plays that “spring quickly to mind.” Busch was 31 years old when Vampire Lesbians of Sodom opened at the Provincetown Playhouse; O’Neill was 28 when “Bound East for Cardiff” played at 137 Macdougal following the premier on the Lewis Wharf in Provincetown; Rostetter was had been a teacher for most of her 39 years when “The Widow’s Veil” opened at 133 Macdougal—each of them kids shaping private dreams into short plays for small spaces that by good fortune have become invaluable to America’s theater legacy.
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Black, Cheryl. The Women of Provincetown, 1915-1922. Tuscaloosa: University of Alabama Press, 2002. Print.
Dell, Floyd. Homecoming: An Autobiography. Port Washington, NY: Kennikat Press, 1969. Print.
Deutsch, Helen and Stella Hanau. The Provincetown: A Story of The Theatre. New York: Farrar and Rinehart, Inc., 1931. Print.
Egan, Leona Rust. Provincetown as a Stage: Provincetown, The Provincetown Players, and the Discovery of Eugene O’Neill. Orleans, Massachusetts: Parnassus Imprints, 1994. Print.
Gelb, Arthur and Barbara. Life With Monte Cristo. New York: Applause Theater Books, 2002. Print.
Glaspell, Susan. The Road to The Temple. New York: Frederick A. Stokes Company, 1941. Print.
Kenton, Edna. The Provincetown Players and the Playwrights’ Theatre, 1915-1922. Travis Bogard and Jackson Bryer, ed. London: MacFarland and Company, 2004. Print.
Lockridge, Richard. “The Stage in Review: Present State of Provincetown Playhouse, With a Note on Its Past.” New York Sun 14 December 1940. Print.
Murphy, Brenda. The Provincetown Players and the Culture of Modernity. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2005. Print.
New York Sun, 1 October 1932. Print.
“No Mark of ‘Sacred Cow’ on Provincetown Players.” New York Herald 3 December 1916. Print.
Sarlós, Robert Károly. Jig Cook and the Provincetown Players: Theatre in Ferment. Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press, 1982.
Wertheim, Arthur. The New York Little Renaissance: Iconoclasm, Modernism, and Nationalism in American Culture, 1908-1917. New York: New York University Press, 1976. Print.
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