Eugene O’Neill and the Provincetown Players

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).

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. New York: Boni and Liveright, c1920.

[Portrait of Eugene O’Neill]. Carl Van Vechten, photographer, Sept. 5, 1933. Van Vechten Collection. Prints & Photographs Division.

Opening night also marked the New York debut of one of 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 HorizonExternal, opened on Broadway on February 2, 1920.

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, formerly a fish pier, now a tourist colony mainly inhabited by “artists”…Provincetown, Massachusetts. Edwin Rosskam, photographer, Aug. 1940. Farm Security Administration/Office of War Information Black-and-White Negatives. Prints & Photographs Division

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 for his plays and remains the only American playwright to have received the Nobel Prize in LiteratureExternal.

Portrait of Eugene O’Neill and Carlotta Monterey O’Neill. Carl Van Vechten, photographer, Sept. 5, 1933. Van Vechten Collection. Prints & Photographs Division.

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