564 Commercial Street

 
Susan Glaspell House

Though not as widely known today as they ought to be, the writers Susan Glaspell (1876-1948) and George Cram “Jig” Cook (1873-1924) were arguably the chief force behind the Provincetown Players, whose first production in 1915 — the summer before Bound East for Cardiff — was of the couple’s play, Suppressed Desires. Glaspell, a native of Davenport, Iowa, graduated in 1899 from Drake University and then went to work at The Des Moines Daily News, covering a murder case that would later inform her works Trifles and A Jury of Her Peers. Back in Davenport after a year at the University of Chicago, she joined the Monist Society, which was led by Cook, and their love affair began. They bought 564 Commercial in 1914 and set out to make it their own with the help of one singular interior designer: the celebrated painter Charles Demuth.

The project was delightfully described by Linda Ben-Zvi in her 2005 biography, Susan Glaspell: Her Life and Times. (Cook had been the subject of an earlier work by Robert Károly Sarlós, Jig Cook and the Provincetown Players: Theatre in Ferment, published in 1982.) “Jig had decided that the upstairs walls should be orange. Demuth agreed. ‘But the slope must be yellow,’ he insisted, referring to the special nature of the Cape Cod house, which had sharp angles in the upper story. ‘And the floor green,’ Jig added. ‘But the woodwork black.’ Thirteen years later, Susan still marveled at the way the orange wall, which was actually many shades, lovingly applied by Jig and Demuth in the summer of 1914, still glowed when the sun hit it. And the blue that Jig had chosen for one of the many upstairs doors — ‘that blue which later he loved on the dome at the Provincetown theater, the deepest blue of the sky, blue of eternity it seemed to him’ — still vibrated with the sun.” In the yard, Cook also created a sundial atop four nude sculptures of Glaspell.

The Cooks’ comedy, Suppressed Desires, ridiculing the popular obsession with Freud, was on the first bill performed by the embryonic Players, in the home of Hutchins “Hutch” Hapgood and Neith Boyce at 621 Commercial, on 15 July 1915. The next year, in this house, the troupe eagerly agreed to produce Bound East for Cardiff, by the young playwright Eugene O’Neill. Cook played Yank.

He died at Delphi, Greece, in 1924. The following year, she married Norman Matson, with whom she collaborated on The Comic Artist. In 1930, Eva Le Gallienne presented Alison’s House at her Civic Repertory Theater, 107 West 14th Street, in Manhattan. The play won the Pulitzer Prize for drama the next year. The Times‘s theater critic, Brooks Atkinson, did not believe the prize was warranted; in part because the play did not accurately reflect Glaspell’s ability. “Miss Glaspell is one of our most gifted writers,” Atkinson wrote for the paper of 10 May 1931.

For nearly a quarter of a century she has been an influence for good in the literature of this country. Like Willa Cather, who also comes out of the Middle West, Miss Glaspell has been seeing life steadily and seeing it whole …. Since coming East, Miss Glaspell has maintained her intellectual agility with conspicuous success …. Miss Glaspell has somehow contrived to preserve her native independence of mind, to perceive the infirmities that lie at the roots of every glamourous creed and to hear the human heartbeat behind the sonority of lofty talking. She has a sense of humor. She still believes that people should do what suits their temperaments best, whether they are prudent or not.

That might describe the last full decade of her life, which featured a lot of drinking, very little writing and an affair with Mary Hackett’s brother, Langston Moffett, a strikingly handsome man 27 years her junior, who seemed to be her match in alcohol consumption. Friends spoke of the arrangement cruelly. Edmund Wilson quoted Charles Kaeselau as saying that it was a great thing for their circle of friends “because now Susan and Langston could listen to each other where they had previously made other people listen to them.” And when Mary Heaton Vorse learned in the summer of 1934 that Glaspell and Moffett were off on an ecstatic idyll in the Maine woods, she said, “I wouldn’t want to lie around with a pine cone up my ass no matter how young the man was.”

None of that is to suggest a diminution of her involvement in intellectual and civic life. Glaspell was described by The Advocate as being “most jealous of the preservation of the beauty that was old Provincetown.” Her opposition to the widening of Ryder Street — on the grounds that it would require the felling of several trees — compelled the Provincetown Civic Association to relocate the trees instead, on the Town Hall lawn. For good measure, a Siberian elm was planted near the walk to the soldier’s monument in her honor and was named the Glaspell Elm.

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