In the heart of Greenwich Village, a historic theater emerged as a cradle of creativity and a crucible for groundbreaking theatrical experiments—the Provincetown Playhouse. Established in 1915 in Provincetown, Massachusetts as the Provincetown Players, this group of creatives moved to New York in 1916 and opened what became the permanent home for the Playhouse at 133 MacDougal Street. It quickly became a hub for avant-garde performances, revolutionizing American theater, from its first performance, staged on November 22, 1918. Examining the early years of the theater, it becomes apparent that the Playhouse owes much of its success and pioneering spirit to the vital contributions of women.
Originally founded to break away from the commercial constraints of Broadway and embrace a more experimental and daring approach to theater, leading figures included Susan Glaspell, Eugene O’Neill, and George Cram Cook. The Playhouse quickly became a haven for artists eager to explore the boundaries of conventional drama. In addition to Susan Glaspell, other pioneering women of the theater included Djuna Barnes, Edna St. Vincent Millay, and Sophie Treadwell, each making significant contributions to the Playhouse’s early years and leaving an indelible mark on American theater.
Susan Glaspell, a trailblazing playwright, and journalist, played a pivotal role in the formation of the Provincetown Players. Her commitment to fostering a space for unconventional and thought-provoking plays laid the foundation for the Playhouse’s future success. Her first play produced at the theater, “Trifles,” is now considered a feminist masterpiece. Glaspell’s later work after her time at the Playhouse, “Alison’s House,” would go on to win the Pulitzer Prize.
Djuna Barnes was a multifaceted artist—novelist, poet, illustrator, journalist, and playwright. Her involvement with the Provincetown Playhouse marked a period of exploration and experimentation in her career. Her innovative plays often challenged traditional narrative structures by being performed in one act. While she would later criticize her early theatrical work, it exemplified her ability to blend poetic language with theatrical expression.
Edna St. Vincent Millay, a celebrated poet and playwright, found a creative home at the Provincetown Playhouse during its formative years. Her play “Aria Da Capo,” produced in one act but divided into three contrasting sections, is considered an anti-war play and remains one of the finest examples of American verse plays. Millay would go on to win the Pulitzer Prize for poetry in 1923 for her poem “The Ballad of the Harp-Weaver.”
Sophie Treadwell was a playwright and journalist known for her socially conscious and feminist works. She became part of the Playhouse’s producing committee. Her own most famous work, “Machinal,” premiered on Broadway in 1928. Inspired by the Ruth Snyder case, it explored themes of societal expectations and the oppression of women. “Machinal” is considered a landmark in American expressionist drama and showcased Treadwell’s ability to use the stage as a platform for social critique. Her contributions to the Playhouse and her other work reinforced the ability of theater to be committed to addressing pressing social issues such as women’s suffrage, labor struggles, and the impact of war.
Women played a multifaceted and critical role in shaping the identity of the Provincetown Playhouse. Their influence was not confined to the stage; it permeated every aspect of the Playhouse’s operations. Not only were they prominent playwrights, directors, and performers, but they also worked tirelessly behind the scenes as producers and advocates for the experimental spirit that defined the Playhouse. Their work helped Provincetown Playhouse become synonymous with innovation and a space that nurtured a community of artists who were unafraid to challenge societal norms and experiment with new forms of storytelling.
The opening of the Provincetown Playhouse in Greenwich Village marked a watershed moment in the history of American theater. The pioneering spirit of its early years, fueled by the contributions of remarkable women, resonates as a testament to the transformative power of the arts. Unfortunately, the Provincetown Playhouse no longer stands as a physical landmark, having been all but torn down by NYU in 2008-2009. It nevertheless remains a symbol of the enduring impact these pioneering women had in shaping the trajectory of American theater.