Inventing the Century

Gertrude Stein Is Hot and Alice B. Toklas Has Her

"We wanted a play that was true to Gertrude's aesthetic of being in the continuous present," says Pashalinski. Their idea was that the audience would be guests in the Stein- Toklas apartment on the Rue de Fleurus. "And every once in a while we forget they're there. And get taken up with our own problems."

Director Anne Bogart decided to work with the idea of cubism by using certain movements and repetitions. She asked the two actresses to look at photos of the couple and choose their favorite poses, which were then used in blocking the play. Bogart says she was interested in "the quality of space between them. Their gestural language. The way they looked at each other or away from each other. What they wished to portray to the camera."

The Cecil Beaton photo they're using as an annoucement captures the familiar arrangement: Gertrude in the foreground, Alice not quite in focus behind her. "[Alice] fostered this image of the self-effacing maidservant," biographer Souhami notes, "and it belied her force of character and true role in the relationship." In some books, Alice gets cropped out of the pictures entirely.

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.

It's hard to remember now that there was no precedent for their relationship, just as there was no precedent for Stein's work. There was no public presentation of lesbianism before them, and just as they invented a persona that is familiar to us today, they invented a literature.

Gertrude Stein appears to be in the midst of a revival, though that would imply a moment of popularity she's never actually had. But with a production of The Mother of Us All headed for City Opera, an operatic version of Stein's novel Blood on the Dining-Room Floor scheduled at WPA, and the Wooster Group's Obie-winning production House/Lights (based on Stein's play Dr. Faustus Lights the Lights), the woman who invented the 20th century is finally "hot."

Chapman thinks it has to do with the millennium: "She was very much about the beginning of this century, the beginning of modernism, and I think we're just now catching up. Her work is almost 21st century in a way. Look at the theater. All these British plays everyone is in love with—they're all 19th-century forms. We still don't know how to listen, how to read Stein, and we have found such joy in her language. It's so liberating."

Gertrude and Alice: A Likeness to Loving opens May 29 at the Signature Theatre, 555 West 42nd Street.

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