Inventing the Century
Gertrude Stein didn't "kill the 19th century"or create the 20thon 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."
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 peopleUlla particularlydidn'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 canapparently 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 contemporaryand 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.
"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.
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 withthey'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.
Get the This Week's Top Stories Newsletter
Every week we collect the latest news, music and arts stories — along with film and food reviews and the best things to do this week — so that you'll never miss Village Voice's biggest stories.