The Provincetown Playhouse holds an important niche in early American Theater History as the staging point cradle of the great Playwright Eugene O’Neill’s earliest, and most challenging, plays and the theatre was the hearthstone for premier plays written by Edna St. Vincent Millay, Edward Albee, John Guare, Sam Shepherd, Charles Busch, and David Mamet.
NYU owns the building that houses the Provincetown Playhouse, and NYU is all about gentrification and “newness” — “out with the old and in with the new” — is their driving, architectural, and philosophical mandate of the institution. As an exemplar of that argument, all VCRs were unilaterally removed from every NYU classroom over the Summer because NYU wants instructors to use DVDs and not videotapes; so without notification, or time for feedback or preparation, every NYU instructor was sunk into a VCR-less pit of darkness with no seamless way out of that unilateral punishment.
Part of the reason for NYU’s rebellion against an aghast past is that NYU has a university inferiority complex because the school isn’t, and shall never be, Ivy League like their uptown brethren Columbia University in the City of New York.
NYU is instead immature and brash and braying downtown fresh money without a history of their own, and so they have an unquenchable thirst to fit into the Old World by remaking all of Greenwich Village in its modern image. Here’s what the original Provincetown Playhouse looked like:
Here’s what the Provincetown Playhouse looks like today after NYU’s just finished gentrification.
It’s a shame how the old-world charm was stripped from the original iron façade and replaced by brick. NYU could have done a proper restoration back to the core of the original theatre, but they did not.
Initially led by George Cram Cook and John Reed, the Provincetown Players moved to New York City that fall of 1916 and turned the first floor parlor of an apartment at 139 Macdougal Street, an 1840 brownstone row house, into a theatre. The building was located in the heart of the Village, next door to the Liberal Club and Polly Holladay’s restaurant, a block south of the southwest corner of Washington Square. The group constructed a ten-and-one-half-by-fourteen-foot stage and added wooden benches to seat an audience of about 140; the benches were said to be the most uncomfortable in the world.
NYU’s takeover — and deconstructed renovation — of the Provincetown Playhouse was not taken quietly by its Greenwich Village neighbors.
When NYU bought the building in 1984, promises were made to preserve the historic theatre and not to touch “the four walls” that created the famous performance space. NYU planned to only preserve 6% of the theatre space — the walls — and gut the rest.
Of course, NYU started to tear down the entire theatre, walls and all, and neighborhood protests were filed.
After getting caught, NYU again said they would preserve the performance space and repair the wall they had just torn down.
This week, NYU announced the re-opening of the Provincetown Playhouse and in their PR blurp, they even confess their mistake in tearing down a wall they previously promised to keep:
During the renovation, the University retained almost all the original walls of the theatre, as well as its original volume, but upgraded it with new seating, new lighting and sound controls, and new air handling.
This is what the old interior of the Provincetown Playhouse looked like:
Here’s what the interior of the Provincetown Playhouse looks like now after NYU ripped the history and the provenance of the theatre from wall-to-wall:
The new Provincetown Playhouse is ordinary, tepid and soulless. NYU claims they spent $2 million on the “renovation” but it was more a gutting of history and the joy of a once-proud theatre movement, and — as of November 19, 2010 — local residents are still not happy with NYU’s destruction of the imps of the past:
Now, unfortunately, we have discovered that NYU has broken their one remaining promise regarding preservation of the Provincetown Playhouse theater — the historic seat rows have NOT been preserved for re-use in the new theater. In fact, there is virtually nothing remaining of the historic Provincetown Playhouse in the newly re-opened space to which NYU has attached that name, and virtually none of the university’s commitments regarding the theater remain intact.
What NYU failed to recognize in its Provincetown Playhouse prize is that a theatre is not just an address and four walls. A theatre is an essence of the bits of memory and sniffs of dust and the sound of thundering applause of every performance pinned to the walls and embedded into the floorboards — that is what constructs the tenons and fibers of the empty space — and there is the unfettered spirit of humanity encapsulated in ancient brick and in the swirling, tenuous, spores of antiquity; and it all could have been preserved or, at least restored, to its original magnificence — if only NYU had cared to do so.
NYU honored none of that.
Every inch of the way, NYU was led screaming by the ear to try to get them to do the right thing by the history of New York City and the provenance of the Provincetown Playhouse, and sometimes, every bad intention cannot be remodeled by a goodhearted and neighborly rectifier, and what was irrevocably lost, is intrinsically, and irretrievably, much more valuable than what was spent in the forced, but failed, revival.