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Theater 33.2 (2003) 108-109

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Trumping the Triumvirate

Jonathan Shandell


The Women of Provincetown, 1915-1922 by Cheryl Black 2002: University of Alabama Press

If Susan Glaspell must sit a permanent second fiddle to O'Neill as a playwright, at least she has been invited into the orchestra. What of her numerous female Provincetown collaborators, whose contributions have yet to win from historians even the qualified recognition of "almost as good as" comparisons? Harold Clurman—reflecting on the years that preceded his Group Theatre—waxed nostalgic about "the Macgowan-Jones-O'Neill days." So it has gone for decades: with most of Provincetown's dynamic history obscured behind the cachet of the celebrity triumvirate that took control. But with her thoroughly researched study The Women of Provincetown, 1915-1922, Cheryl Black provides alternatives to this Rushmore-like lineup of male faces. Beginning from the familiar (but still necessary) protest that "theatre history, no less than general history, has frequently been reduced to the doings of great men," Black vows to "place the achievements and experiences of [Provincetown's] women center stage." The book celebrates the pioneering contributions made by women to the ensemble and repositions the Provincetown Players at the forefront of the Greenwich Village early feminist movement.

Not surprisingly, Provincetown relied almost exclusively on women for traditionally feminized theatrical tasks—costuming, clerical support, and hospitality, for example. More remarkable—especially in a group with domineering male presences like George Gram Cook and the aforementioned trio—was the extent to which women infiltrated historically masculine preserves. "At a time when women playwrights were rare, women directors rarer, and women scenic designers nearly unheard of, Provincetown's female membership excelled in all these functions," writes Black. The cataloging of biographies and theatrical credits becomes exhaustive and occasionally statistical; some chapters even feature bar graphs that plot the "participation rate" by women within certain categories for each season and across the group's entire history. More valuable than the data are the engaging stories behind them: the all-but-forgotten creativity of women whose names should figure more prominently in our understanding of American theater history. Black provides insightful new accounts of the works of many overlooked artists, including the formalistic stage designs of Marguerite Zorach, the management of Eleanor Fitzgerald, the acting experiments of Ida Rauh, and, most usefully, the directing genius of Nina Moise.

Most extant scholarship tells astonishingly little about Provincetown's most prolific and successful stage director. Moise was a skilled tutor of actors, as well as a collaborator trusted by many of Provincetown's playwrights. Her mastery of blocking and physical composition set the standard for the minuscule Macdougal Street stage. Equally masterful was [End Page 108] her navigation through the thicket of competing Provincetown egos. These achievements came at a time when the director-specialist was new to American theater, and within a company dedicated to playwrights staging their own works. Eugene O'Neill, who rarely worked well with anyone, professed "complete confidence" in the wisdom and sensitivity that Moise brought to rehearsals. A wider New York audience first encountered O'Neill's drama largely through Moise's stewardship of such early one-acts as Ile, The Sniper, and The Long Voyage Home. Still, somehow "Jig" Cook usually receives sole credit for the "discovery" of O'Neill. Black's scholarship provides an illuminating new perspective on that popular American myth.

Just as enlightening as the book's rich array of descriptions is the political and ideological setting it provides for the company's activities. Black demonstrates how, to its female founders, the Provincetown Players represented more than just a safe house for Village bohemians escaping the commercialism of popular theater. Its value to the women's movement went beyond its impressive record as an equal-opportunity employer in an otherwise sexist society, or as a soapbox for early protest plays like Trifles. Born in the dizzying vortex of first-wave feminism, the ensemble was for many the means to much larger social ends. As Black argues, "The women of Provincetown were pursuing a formidable objective: to revolutionize all human relationships—to create...


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pp. 108-109
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Archived 2005
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