Thursday, August 20, 2015
August 20, 2015: Cape Cod Stories: Provincetown
[For many up here in New England, summer means a trip or twelve to the Cape—Cape Cod, that is (with no disrespect to the beautiful Cape Ann). So this week, I’ll AmericanStudy five Cape Cod stories—share your own summer favorite places and their stories for a crowd-sourced weekend getaway, please!]
Three significant stages in the life of a Cape Cod community.
No place was more meaningful to the development of English settlement in New England (and beyond) than Provincetown Harbor, located at the Cape’s extreme tip (which, because of the quirks of the Cape’s shape and geography, is also actually its closest point to Boston). It was while navigating the harbor that Bartholomew Gosnold, considered the region’s first English explorer and one of the principal architects of English settlement in the New World overall, gave Cape Cod its name. And it was while the Mayflower lay anchored in the harbor that the Pilgrims signed the Mayflower Compact and began the coastal explorations that would lead them to Plymouth. The latter event in particular is the source of Provincetown’s longstanding motto, one inscribed on the flagstaff near the town hall: “Birthplace of American Liberty” (although other Massachusetts sites such as Lexington and Boston claim that honor for themselves).
Whether we buy that particular nickname or not (the Pilgrims, while pursuing a certain form of liberty to be sure, also practiced without question their own restrictions on liberty), there’s no doubt that Provincetown has subsequently helped give birth to a couple significant American freedoms. For one thing, there’s the artistic freedom represented by the Provincetown Players and the town’s early 20th century experimental theater community, which in many ways (often linked specifically to Eugene O’Neill, but captured at least as successfully by his fellow playwright and theatrical collaborator Susan Glaspell) signaled the first truly ground-breaking American dramatic forms and works, finally free of the 19th century conventions of melodrama. That’s probably an overstatement, and there’s plenty worth remembering and studying in 19th century American drama; but nonetheless the Provincetown theater community represented a watershed moment for American drama and literature, and one thoroughly tied—as is all performance and live art—to the place in which it was created. “Birthplace of American Theater” has a nice ring to it too, doesn’t it?
“Birthplace of American Gay Tourism” is a bit more unwieldy, but it fits quite nicely a third stage of Provincetown’s American story. The town’s experimental theater community and artists’ colony helped create a more welcoming environment for gay Americans than in most early 20th century places, and there were apparently prominent drag performances in town as early as the 1940s. By the 1970s, the town’s identity as a vacation destination for gay visitors was well-established enough to merit the 1978 formation of the Provincetown Business Guild (PBG), an organization dedicated to promoting gay tourism. Coming less than a decade after the Stonewall Riot, with most of the nation still thoroughly hostile to (or at least unwilling to acknowledge the existence of) gay Americans, the PBG’s formation reflects just how much Provincetown took the lead on gay rights. It has continued to do so in the decades since, and on the 2010 census had the nation’s highest rate of same-sex couples, at 163.1 per 1000 couples. A 21st century reflection of Provincetown’s continuing yet evolving role as a prominent site of American community, history, and ideals.
Last Cape story tomorrow,
PS. What do you think? Summer favorite places you’d highlight?