"Something Sweetly Personal and Sweetly Social": Modernism, Metadrama, and the Avant Garde in the Plays of the Provincetown Players

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The argument of this study is that many of the experimental productions of the original Provincetown Players (1915-22) should be viewed not simply as modern, but as a mixture of modernist and avant-garde theatre. The Players' early comic spoofs critiqued the modernist zeal for nouveau social and cultural topics of their era, such as free love, psychoanalysis, and post-impressionist art, and were the first American plays to explore the personal as political. Hutchins Hapgood, a founding Provincetown Player, described these dramas as containing at once "something sweetly personal and sweetly social" (Victorian 394). Often employing metatheatrical techniques in their critique of modern institutions, Provincetown productions, this study argues, echoed two key attributes of avant-garde theory: The self-critique of modernism's social role recalls Peter Bürger's description of avant-garde movements developing out of a fear of" art's lack of social impact" in aestheticism and entering a "stage of self-criticism" (Bürger 22). Additionally, by integrating performance into the life of their community, the Players' echo Bürger's theory that the avant-garde attempts to reintegrate autonomous art into the "praxis of everyday life" (22).

Discussed in this study are plays created during the summers of 1915 and 1916, including Neith Boyce's Constancy (1915), Susan Glaspell and George Cram Cook's Suppressed Desires (1915), John Reed's The Eternal Quadrangle (1916), Wilbur Daniel Steele's Not Smart (1916), and Louise Bryant's The Game (1916). Also considered is Floyd Dell's Liberal Club satire St. George in Greenwich (1913). A second group of expressionistic plays analyzed in this study include verse plays by poet, editor, and troubadour Alfred Kreymborg, such as Lima Beans (1916), Jack's House (1918), and Vote the New Moon (1920) and Djuna Barnes's exploration of Nietzsche in Three From the Earth (1919).

A third focus of the study is a group of full-length plays by Susan Glaspell, George Cram Cook, and Eugene O'Neill: Glaspell's The Verge (1921) and Inheritors (1921); Cook's The Athenian Women (1918); and O'Neill's Before Breakfast (1916), produced by the Provincetown Players, and Bread and Butter (written 1913-14) and Now I Ask You (written 1916), both unproduced.