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Greenwich Village: The Birthplace of Modern American Drama

Provincetown Playhouse 1927

Greenwich Village has been a hot-bed for creative theatrical minds since at least the beginnings of the 20th century.  In fact, among the most important of the movements in American theater were nurtured right in the heart of the Village.

In September of 1916, a group of artists from Provincetown, Massachusetts, who had become disillusioned by the commercialism of Broadway, moved their group to New York City where they felt the could have more of an impact on the art.   They sought to “establish a stage where playwrights of sincere, poetic, literary and dramatic purpose could see their plays in action and superintend their production without submitting to the commercial managers’ interpretation of public taste.”  Lofty goals, indeed.  However, it did not take them long to establish themselves in New York and attract writers, artists and an audience of like mind.

Playhouse Exterior 1950s
Playhouse Exterior 1950s

Among those who joined the Provincetown Players within their first year in the city were none other than Edna St. Vincent Millay and Eugene O’Neill.  The group rented a parlor space at 139 MacDougal Street for $50 a month and began their quest to liberate the American playwright.  First on the bill was O’Neill’s “Bound East for Cardiff” followed by Susan Glaspell’s “Suppressed Desires.”  On a side note, Glaspell was, in fact, the lover of famed Villager poet and Provincetown Player Edna St. Vincent Millay, who would go on to both write for and act with the Provincetown Players before establishing her own creative space, the Cherry Lane Theater (stay tuned for a post next week that dives deeper into that story).

Vampire Lesbian of Sodom by Charles Busch
Vampire Lesbians of Sodom by Charles Busch

After some initial financial struggles, The Provincetown Players secured a backer in the form of the Stage Society of New York, and established themselves at 133-139 MacDougal Street.   They produced the early works of O’Neill for four seasons, including the first productions of “The Emperor Jones” and “The Hairy Ape.”  Such plays were not for the mainstream theatrical audience.  It is only because of the fertile artistic ground found in the nooks and crannies of Greenwich Village that O’Neill was able to experiment and hone his writing style before he and his works inevitably moved “uptown.”

The Provincetown Playhouse was subsequently the artistic home and birthplace of many of America’s most significant plays and playwrights. Edward Albee, Sam Shepard, Charles Busch, and David Mamet, among others, count the theater as their nurturing ground.  Unfortunately, despite 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.

Provincetown Playhouse before being torn down
Provincetown Playhouse before demolition 2008

The disappearance of so many affordable spaces that give rise to creative endeavors makes us pause to ask:  Where will future artists go for a safe haven to create?

Read more about the Provincetown Play house here and here.

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