From the Cape: Walking the Sand of Williams and O’Neill

by Stephen Sachs

I understand it now. I get it. Why Provincetown has lured playwrights and painters for decades. Some artists anchor here  and never leave. Others flock in seasonally, migrating like birds and humpback whales, lingering for a period of nourishment before moving on.

For painters like Edward Hopper it was the light. The soft brilliance of the light here is legendary. The luminosity so rich, light itself seems to hold its own color. Reds are more red, blues are more blue.  Lazy watercolor clouds, vibrant cobalt skies,  the sun shimmering off the bay.  You gaze at the landscape for one hour and watch it change one hundred times as light, sun and clouds shift and dance before your eyes.

Hopper spent nearly 40 of his 84 summers on the Cape. Hopper painted hundreds of canvases here. Everywhere I look, I see a Hopper painting in the landscape. The sand cliffs, the grass dunes, a lonely solitary clapboard house perched on a bluff overlooking the sea.

Tennessee Williams spent four summers in Provincetown (1940, ’41, ’44 and ’47) during which time he worked on The Glass Menagerie, A Streetcar Named Desire, Summer and Smoke, The Night of the Iguana and Suddenly Last Summer. He struck up a friendship with Jackson Pollock (who also spent summers here). Williams was 29 when he first came to the Cape in 1940. It was here that he had his first brief love affair and also met Frank Merlo, the great love of his life.

Eugene O’Neill, a 29 year-old untried playwright, came to Provincetown with “a trunk full of plays” in the summer of 1916.   It proved a turning point in his playwriting career and a milestone in the history of the American Theatre. His first plays were performed on the first floor of a two-story converted fishhouse at the far end of rickety Lewis Wharf, which reached about 100 feet into Provincetown harbor. The group called itself the Provincetown Players. O’Neill stayed on in Provincetown for nine years. Some of those early Provincetown plays went on to Broadway.

The original Provincetown Playhouse on the wharf. Eugene O'Neill's first play, "Bound East for Cardiff", premiered here.

On a narrow harbor road, sandwiched between seaside condos, is the site of  the wharf that held the Provincetown Players and launched the first plays of Eugene O’Neill. The original dock is long gone. Destroyed by fire and surf. A plaque marks the historic site.

Tomorrow, I drive to New London, CT, to move my older son into his dorm room at Mitchell College. New London is also where Eugene O’Neill spent his young formative years. The house, once owned by his father for 30 years, still stands. It is the setting for O’Neill’s final masterpiece, Long Day’s Journey Into Night.

I journey tomorrow from Provincetown and the ghost-wharf where O’Neill’s first play was born, to New London and the childhood home where his final play is set.

I, too, am a playwright.  My week in the Cape now ends. I roamed the beach that Williams sauntered, gazed at the dunes that Hopper painted, and strolled the harbor O’Neill walked. And early each morning, I would pad down the narrow wood stairs of our rented house on Drummer Cove. Make coffee. Fire up my laptop. Sit before the keyboard like climbing into a small boat on Provincetown bay, and cast off! Set sail! Bow pointed toward the rising sun!

The first draft of a new play.

Stephen Sachs is the author of the play Bakersfield Mist and the Co-Artistic Director of the Fountain Theatre.

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