In Everybody’s Autobiography, Gertrude Stein opined, “My writing is clear as mud, but mud settles and clear streams run on and disappear.” Indeed, some 70 years on, Stein’s writing remains—as opaque as ever. Some graduate playwriting programs give her works pride of place, emphasizing her luxuriations in language and her disdain for character and plot. And a couple of her pieces—Four Saints in Three Acts and Dr. Faustus Lights the Lights—receive occasional revivals.
Yet the majority of Stein’s theater is little read and less performed: Mud isn’t everyone’s cup of tea. In A Jury of Her Peers, Elaine Showalter’s recently published study of American women writers, Showalter declares Stein to be “unreadable, incomprehensible, self-indulgent and excruciatingly boring.” She adds: “Stein seems more and more like the Empress Who Had No Clothes—a shocking sight to behold.”
David Herskovits, artistic director of Target Margin, disagrees. He has elected to stage Stein’s A Family of Perhaps Three as the flagship production of a festival at the Chocolate Factory titled “The Theater of Tomorrow: Innovation in American Theater 1900–1946.” The 1922 script consists of 10 prose pages organized into paragraphs. Speakers and scenes are not delineated; stage directions don’t appear. In repetitive sentences that would give a grammarian fits, Stein describes two sisters who go to work and never marry—the prose doesn’t disclose much more. Sample sentence: “They could both of them, they did, both of them, they would, either of them, know that they were ones having been together and they were ones having been alone.”
Herskovits divides the two sisters among three young actresses (Chinasa Ogbuagu, Allison Schubert, Indika Senanayake) attired in cardigans and safety blankets. He devises plenty of stage business to keep the cast and audience occupied amid the plotlessness: The women shift furniture, dally with teacups, execute dance steps, don and doff spectacles. While the prose is indeed “self-indulgent and excruciatingly boring,” it is precisely what may have attracted Herskovits: He’s long been interested in disrupting the process of signification, delighting in the space between words and their meaning. Stein’s constant repetitions and revisions allow him to mess about with the language, assigning action and emotion disconnected from the text. If the production doesn’t escape entirely from dullness, Herskovits counters the script’s bulk with sweetness, creating a world that’s gentle, playful, and pleasantly feminine—not a shocking sight at all.