Professor's research lives in 'House that O'Neill Built'
A grand sporting edifice grew from the heart of the Bronx in 1923 that came to be known as “The House that Ruth Built,” a sizeable nod to Yankees star Babe Ruth, whose legendary talents coincided with the construction of the original Yankee Stadium.
Years earlier, in 1918, what would become a shrine to the brilliance and innovation of the American playwright was converted from a bottling plant into the Provincetown Playhouse in the heart of New York City’s Greenwich Village. It could just as well be called “The House that O’Neill Built,” a likewise suitable tribute to the starring role dramatist and Literature Nobel Laureate Eugene O’Neill played in creating an American identity in the plays of its native playwrights that had yet to emerge on the commercial stage.
Jeff Kennedy, a clinical associate professor in the New College of Interdisciplinary Arts and Sciences at Arizona State University’s West campus, knows the “O’Neill house” as well as anyone, like it was his house. He knows of the “family” that performed there and how its members worked together to usher American theatre into the modern era. Now he’s bringing that knowledge, his appreciation of the history of the Playhouse, the Provincetown Players and their significant impact on theatre in this country, to his classroom and across the country as well. In fact, Kennedy is in charge of the June 2011 International O’Neill Conference, which will take place in – where else? – Greenwich Village.
The Playhouse actually was built as a stable at 133 MacDougal Street, on the western edge of Washington Square on the island of Manhattan, and later turned into a bottling plant. When the Provincetown Players needed additional operating room, they rented the building and turned it into a 200-seat theatre that opened on November 22, 1918. The rest, as they say, is history.
“When you consider the rich history and the legacy of the Playhouse,” said Kennedy, “the primary contribution it made to the American stage is the importance of its early playwrights, particularly Eugene O’Neill and Susan Glaspell, whose play ‘Trifles’ continues to be considered by many as the greatest American one-act ever written, and whose feminist plays were subtle in execution but powerful in effect.
Continuing, he noted, “The Playhouse was a successful experiment in creating an amateur company for the purpose of experimentation towards the creating of an American identity in the plays of its native playwrights.”
Kennedy, whose 1,000-page dissertation for his Ph.D. from New York University traced and re-examined the history of the Playhouse from an interdisciplinary lens, said he brings his students a similar multi-perspective approach to the historical study of the Playhouse by integrating the social, political and cultural history of the times. He noted that the history of the theater is as much a history of Greenwich Village, a residential neighborhood viewed as a bohemian hotspot in the late 19th to mid-20th centuries, and where Kennedy lived for six years while attending NYU.
“The Village was the locale of a bohemian culture that influenced not only the arts and literature, but politics and modes of social interaction throughout the 20th century,” he said. “Many of the participants in the original Provincetown Players were social and political activists. Many were involved in the IWW (International Workers of the World) fights and strikes for fair labor practices, and many of the Players’ women were suffragettes. The Playhouse was next door to the home of the Liberal Club, the center of bohemian interaction in the Village.”
Among the earliest participants – actors, writers, producers – in the Provincetown Playhouse productions were such luminaries as O’Neill and Glaspell, George Cram Cook, John Reed, Edna St. Vincent Millay, Charles Gilpin and Wilbur Daniel Steele. As the Players launched American playwriting into the modern era and created a pathway for serious American playwrights to begin creating artistic plays about serious issues, James Weldon Johnson, one of the first African American professors at NYU, and a noted author, activist, poet and early organizer of the NAACP, wrote that the Playhouse and its Players were, “the initial and greatest force in opening up the way for the Negro on the dramatic stage."
Kennedy said his experience in the teaching of such subjects as theatre history, innovation in American theatre, and the development of interdisciplinary arts and performance includes many references to the Playhouse and its productions and history. In fact, he reported, it might be an instructor’s toughest role to teach American theatre without an important section of study on the Playhouse.
“The Provincetown is where the first imagist plays, expressionistic plays and surrealistic plays written by Americans were created and presented,” said Kennedy, who has created a web site for the theater, http://www.provincetownplayhouse.com.
“Since many consider O’Neill our most important American playwright of the 20th century, his early plays presented at the Playhouse – “The Moon of the Carribees,” “The Dreamy Kid,” “The Emperor Jones” – are always cited as his training ground to experiment with ways of presenting and writing.
“The Players’ impetus to even formally organize was to create an amateur group in which playwrights could present, without pressure of commercial theatre, new plays exclusively by American playwrights,” he said. “The plays the group presented were the first to use theatre to examine social conditions and political issues in a way that the professional theatre of Broadway had yet to do.”
Now Kennedy is juggling his teaching responsibilities in the New College Division of Humanities, Arts and Cultural Studies with chairing this summer’s conference, the eighth annual meeting presented by the Eugene O’Neill Society. The four-day conference will bring together O’Neill and theatre scholars from across the United States and Europe, and from as far away as Russia, India and China. Participants in the conference will include Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright Tony Kushner, director Robert Falls and actor Brian Dennehy, all of whom have been involved in presentations of O’Neill’s work.
“With this conference being hosted where O’Neill first began writing and producing his plays, what is generally regarded by scholars as the birthplace of modern American drama, we could not have found a more appropriate director for our conference than Jeff Kennedy,” said Laurin Porter, president of the O’Neill Society. “Since he wrote his dissertation on the artistic legacy of the Playhouse at NYU in 2007, he has emerged as a leading scholar on both this period and this historical institution.
During his days as a doctoral candidate at NYU, Kennedy created the historical gallery that is located inside the refurbished Playhouse. He also penned a 28-page monograph for NYU that was given to visitors and to celebrate the 1998 re-opening and produced plays at the historic location while a teaching fellow for the university’s Program in Educational Theatre. He is widely written on the subject of the Provincetown Playhouse.
“Jeff’s wide experience in the world of theatre, including musical theatre and theatre education, make him the ideal source person,” noted Porter, who is a professor of English at the University of Texas-Arlington. “In planning for this conference, he has dipped into his wide array of contacts and connections to provide a rich smorgasbord of events. He has been tireless in his efforts, and I, personally, could have asked for no better director.”
If the Provincetown Playhouse is “The House That O’Neill Built,” boasting an American arts legacy that is difficult to match, then Jeff Kennedy is one of its important caretakers. He is sharing his deep passion for the Playhouse, the Players and theatre itself with the world and with his classroom.
“The richness of the legacy of the Playhouse is why I would choose as an interdisciplinary researcher to become a scholar of its history,” he said. “The history of the Playhouse is a vital example of experimentation for a tangible purpose, in this case creating an American identity in theatre that its founders believed was lacking.
“Only a truly interdisciplinary program and a college like New College would allow me to teach the wide scope of the Playhouse’s influence and its affect on history.”