Provincetown is a small seaport in Massachusetts. A group of left-wing activists, including Floyd Dell, John Reed, George Jig Cook, Mary Heaton Vorse, Michael Gold, Susan Glaspell, Hutchins Hapgood, Harry Kemp, Max Eastman, Ida Rauh, Theodore Dreiser, William Zorach, Neith Boyce and Louise Bryant, who lived in Greenwich Village, often spent their summers in Provincetown. In 1915 several members of the group established the Provincetown Theatre Group. A shack at the end of the fisherman's wharf was turned into a theatre. Later, other writers such as Eugene O'Neill and Edna St. Vincent Millay joined the group.
As Barbara Gelb, the author of So Short a Time (1973), has pointed out: "Cook and Susan Glaspell had participated, along with Reed, in the birth of the Washington Square Players in Greenwich Village and had written a one-act play to help launch a summer theater in Provincetown in 1915. Cook dreamed of creating a theater that would express fresh, new American talent, and after his modest beginning in the summer of 1915, began urging his friends to provide scripts for an expanded program for the summer of 1916. None of his friends were professional playwrights, but several, like Reed, were journalists and short-story writers. Their unfamiliarity with the dramatic form was, in Cook's opinion, precisely what suited them to be pioneers in his new theater and to break up some of the old theater molds; Cook wanted them to disregard the rules and precepts of the commercial Broadway theater, and to stumble and blunder and grope their way toward a native dramatic art."
Linda Ben-Zvi has argued: "Jig Cook may have been a visionary, but when needed, he also displayed a practical bent. In order to support the theatre for the summer, he drafted a circular to his friends, asking for subscriptions: for $2.50 patrons received two tickets each for four bills planned for the season, with individual tickets priced at forty cents. Edna Kenton, in her history of the Provincetown Players, reports that eighty-seven subscribers responded, bringing the treasury to $217.50."
The play, Suppressed Desires, that George Jig Cook co-wrote with his wife Susan Glaspell, was one of the first plays performed by the group. He also wrote the anti-war play, The Athenian Women during the First World War. Another member of the group, Louise Bryant, wrote: "It was a strange year. Never were so many people in America who wrote or painted or acted ever thrown together in one place." During this period the group also produced Constancy (1915) by Neith Boyce and Enemies (1916) by Hutchins Hapgood.
Ida Rauh appeared in several of these productions. Linda Ben-Zvi has argued: "The person who received the most glowing reviews was Ida Rauh, who had developed into the finest actor the Provincetown Players produced. She appeared in thirteen productions in the first two seasons, and was referred to in print as the Duse of MacDougal Street or an American Bernhardt. In life she displayed a similar power and sensuality." In 1916 Ida left Max Eastman. Soon afterwards she began an affair with George Jig Cook. This came to an end in March 1918. Hutchins Hapgood wrote. "Jig and Ida breaking, it is said. Jig is jealous of notices of Ida in the papers - so they say."
On 28th July, 1916 the group performed Bound East for Cardiff, a play written by the young playwright, Eugene O'Neill. The cast included George Jig Cook, John Reed and O'Neill, who was persuaded to play the one-line role of the ship's mate. It was the ideal play for the Provincetown Theatre. Susan Glaspell later recalled: "The sea had been good to Eugene O'Neill. It was there for his opening. There was a fog, just as the script demanded, fog bell in the harbour. The tide was in, and it washed under us and around, spraying through the holes in the floor, giving us the rhythm and the flavour of the sea while the big dying sailor talked to his friend Drisc of the life he had always wanted deep in the land, where you'd never see a ship or smell the sea."
O'Neill's one-act play shared the bill with The Game, that had been written by Louise Bryant. According to Barbara Gelb: "Louise hurried to finish her play, The Game. Though it was a rather stilted attempt at parable... it caught the interest of William and Marguerite Zorach, both artists, who thought they could create an innovative stage setting, and it was accepted for the second bill." Mary V. Dearborn, the author of Queen of Bohemia (1996), remarked: "The play boasted a remarkably overstated and formalized acting style... Utterly, deliberately non-realistic, the play received more acclaim than it perhaps deserved." John Reed himself provided a one-act play entitled, Freedom. This was followed by another, The Eternal Quadrangle.
O'Neill's next play, The Thirst, had Louise Bryant, taking the lead role. Floyd Dell, who was the literary critic of The Masses, argued in his autobiography, Homecoming (1933): "Eugene O'Neill, whose little one-act plays were superb and beautiful romanticizations and glorifications and justifications of failure."
Susan Glaspell also wrote Trifles (1916), a play based on the John Hossack case, for the group. It has been argued that the play is an example of early feminist drama. Other plays by Glaspell written during this period included The People (1917), The Outside (1917), Woman's Honour (1918), Inheritors (1921) and The Verge (1921).
Michael Gold had three one-act plays performed at the Provincetown Theatre Group. Floyd Dell wrote King Arthur's Socks and The Angel Intrudes in the first season. Mike Gold had three one-act plays Edna St. Vincent Millay was considered a great success as Annabelle in The Angel Intrudes. In 1918 Millay directed and took the lead in her own play, The Princess Marries the Page. Later she directed her morality play, Two Slatterns and the King at Provincetown.
Many of the productions that appeared at Provincetown were later transferred to New York City. This were initially performed at an experimental theatre on MacDougal Street but some of the plays, especially by Susan Glaspell and Eugene O'Neill were critical successes on Broadway. The Provincetown Theatre Group came to an end in 1926 when its star writer, Eugene O'Neill, decided to deal directly with Broadway.
George Jig Cook eventually came to the conclusion that the Provincetown Theatre Group had failed: "Three years ago, writing for the Provincetown Players, anticipating the forlornness of our hope to bring to birth in our commercial-minded country a theatre whose motive was spiritual... I am now forced to confess that our attempt to build up, by our own life and death, in this alien sea, a coral island of our own, has failed. The failure seems to be more our own than America's. Lacking the instinct of the coral-builders, in which we could have found the happiness of continuing ourselves toward perfection, we have developed little willingness to die for the thing we are building. Our individual gifts and talents have sought their private perfection." The two main figures in the group, Cook and Glaspell, suspended operations and moved to Greece.