Inventing the Century

Gertrude Stein Is Hot and Alice B. Toklas Has Her

Gertrude Stein didn't "kill the 19th century"—or create the 20th—on her own. It's hard to imagine the flowering of her work or her life without Alice B. Toklas: "wife," protector, validator of Stein's genius, and for a long time, her only audience. Still daunting and largely unread today, Stein was once even more so. But Lola Pashalinski and Linda Chapman find her work pleasurable, lyrical, even "mainstream." Their new play, Gertrude and Alice: A Likeness to Loving, tells the story of the unconventional marriage at the heart of early modernism and brings that difficult language to life. Most of it is Stein's, some Toklas's. But in this production, the abstraction, repetition, and syncopation reveal the syntax of a relationship.

Stein and Toklas met in September 1907 and remained inseparable until Stein's death in July 1946. One biography from the '50s (John Malcolm Brinnin's The Third Rose) makes a sort of glorified typist out of Alice. In Janet Hobhouse's acclaimed Everybody Who Was Anybody, Alice has progressed to "confidante." It's only in our Gay '90s (and in Diana Souhami's biography Gertrude and Alice) that the whole story comes out, so to speak. Stein proposed to Alice, and they considered themselves married. Of course, this was always spelled out in Stein's work for anyone who knew how to read it.

Pashalinski says the Stein-Toklas marriage "was a vehicle for Gertrude's writing and a bargain to make Gertrude a success. Gertrude's need for recognition and Alice's need for recognition through Gertrude is the core of our play."

Linda Chapman as Alice (left) and Lola Pashalinski as Gertrude: We wanted a play that was true to the aesthetic of being in the continuous present.
Dona Ann Mcadams
Linda Chapman as Alice (left) and Lola Pashalinski as Gertrude: We wanted a play that was true to the aesthetic of being in the continuous present.

Gertrude and Alice began to germinate in 1992. That year, Pashalinski teamed up with a fellow member of the Ridiculous Theatrical Company, Georg Osterman, for The Georg and Lola Show, directed by Chapman. They decided to round out an evening of skits with an exchange of letters between Stein and Virgil Thomson documenting their "down and dirty fight" over the royalties for the opera Four Saints in Three Acts. Osterman knew Thomson, the composer who worked with Stein on Four Saints and The Mother of Us All; Osterman could also do a drop-dead imitation of him. The reading was so successful, they began working on a full-length play about the Stein-Thomson collaboration.

They were doing it thoroughly, working with Stein scholar Ulla Dydo on the research, finally getting a script together for a reading at New York Theater Workshop in May 1995. But Osterman died of AIDS that fall, and they put the play aside. "It was just too personal, too sad," Pashalinski explains. "So that was gone. But people—Ulla particularly—didn't want the work to be lost. We were encouraged to do a play about Gertrude and Alice, because it seemed inevitable that Linda and I should play those roles."

The two resemble the iconic couple somewhat, and they have been together themselves for nearly 19 years. "I think our lives do inform this in some way," says Chapman.

Gertrude and Alice takes the couple from courtship through the triumphant visit to America in 1934 following the publication of The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas, the most accessible of Stein's books and her first success. By then, she was 60 years old, and, as Chapman points out, "The irony of the success is that she's written the book in Alice's voice."

The play also deals with one issue that roiled in their relationship. In 1932, Alice found out about an affair Gertrude had had years before their own meeting and chronicled in her then unpublished first novel, QED. Though Stein had apparently forgotten the whole thing, Alice became insanely jealous over the "other woman," May Bookstaver. Chapman and Pashalinski say their researcher went to the original typescripts of Stanzas in Meditation and found that Stein had crossed out the word may, replacing it throughout with can—apparently to appease Toklas. Even in a late work from the '40s, they found a note in a margin from Toklas next to the word may. She'd written, "This again?"

Using this incident, or even just following a chronology, gives the Chapman-Pashalinski play more of a story line than any theater piece written by Stein, who customarily dispensed with such niceties as plot, character development, stage directions, and, well, drama. But the play still has Stein's language. And that associative wordplay is still so radical that, as Pashalinski puts it, "She makes you invent a new form."

Stein's work just can't be elucidated in the usual ways, unlike the novels of James Joyce, her contemporary—and the modernist whose innovations were championed. How is Ulysses like The Odyssey? Et cetera. Determining the references in each Joycean line has become a cottage industry. But Stein's words are both simple and oblique, and they do not refer to preexisting literature. She was working with shapes, sounds, rhythms. She was working with the magic of language, trying to release its power: the associative power of individual words, the incantatory power of sentences. She did to language what Picasso did to the picture plane. She broke literature down, like a cubist painting that shows every side of a face. This was how she broke with the 19th century. And every other century.

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