Tuesday, November 10, 2009

Gertrude Stein: two plays, part one: What Happened

WE DO LIKE TO GO to the theater, Lindsey and I. We see all the plays in Ashland at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival; we see nearly all the plays in Los Angeles (Glendale, actually) at A Noise Within. We catch occasional plays closer to home, in Berkeley or San Francisco or even up here in Sonoma county, in Santa Rosa or Sebastopol.
We like the standard repertory; we like new plays; we like the classics; we like drama originally in other languages. We'll be in Glendale in a week or ten days to see Shakespeare, an adaptation of Dostoevsky, and Michael Frayn's wonderfully funny Noises Off (confusingly, perhaps, at the repertory company called A Noise Within, playing its last season this year in Glendale before moving next season to a new house in Pasadena).

I have a lot of favorite playwrights: Chekhov, Shakespeare, Euripides, Moliere, Pirandello, to name five who come quickly to mind. Behind them come dozens more — I won't go into that now; maybe some day I'll draw up a list of Top Hundred. (I did that years ago for composers, listing them by nationalities; it was an amusing little exercise.)

Right now, though, my irreducible Favorite Playwright is Gertrude Stein. I met her dramatic work over fifty years ago, through Virgil Thomson's setting of her Four Saints in Three Acts. This began an enthusiasm that's never ended — you can read its history in my little book Why I Read Stein. I've set two of Stein's plays as little operas myself, and would love to finish the trilogy if someone would only promise to produce it. (Ladies Voices and I Like It to Be a Play have been produced; What Happened A Play remains to be composed.)

Well. When I heard the Department of Theater, Dance, and Performance Studies at UC Berkeley was producing a number of one-act plays, and that among them would be two of Stein's plays, I was absolutely delighted and made plans to drive down to see them, and Sunday we saw two of the three programs, one with What Happened A Play, the other with Three Sisters Who Are Not Sisters.

I wish I could be more enthusiastic about what we saw. Each program opened with Eugène Ionesco's Salutations: five actors, hundreds of adjectives, recited in alphabetical order, in two quite different physical productions. The afternoon production continued with Suzan-Lori Parks's Devotees in the Garden of Love in a strikingly beautiful physical production, with impressive acting by Jessica Charles, Kelly Strickland, and Dekyl Rongé, but delivered so stridently (as was much of the Ionesco) that the intelligibility of the lines was all too frequently lost completely.
After the intermission the program promised What Happened. What we got was that play, in all its textual beauty, with interpolations of perhaps improvised, perhaps written-out lines having little to do with Stein's play, sometimes in Spanish, nearly always mundane.
A director's note may explain this:
…I initially intended to clarify at some length Stein's approach towards language and art with the hope of assisting the audience in "understanding" this admittedly challenging yet beautiful text. But, in the end, I realized that such definitive understanding is exactly the opposite of what she intended. Therefore, please just sit back and watch, hear, think, and feel. Sometimes we push too much for a singular meaning.

Scott Wallin is right to reject singular meaning, but wrong, I think, to multiply it unnecessarily. He is particularly wrong, in my opinion, to let his audience assume everything heard here was Gertrude Stein's. Her plays are famously overheard conversation, but they have an integrity, stylistically and theatrically, that comes from a single observer's point of view (far-reachingly intelligent though it be), filtered through a single writer's editorial and expressive technique.

Stein herself discusses this better than I can. (She's as redoubtable a critic as she is a playwright.) I quote from Jason Fichtel's useful discussion 'When this you see remember me': The Postmodern Aesthetic of Gertrude Stein's Drama, posted at time-sense, an on-line quarterly I'm going to have to explore:
I think and always have thought that if you write a play you ought to announce that it is a play and that is what I did. What Happened. A Play. . . . I realized then as anybody can know that something is always happening. Something is always happening, anybody knows a quantity of stories of people's lives . . . everybody knows so many stories and what is the use of telling another story. What is the use of telling a story since there are so many and everybody knows so many and tells so many. . . . So naturally what I wanted to do in my play was what everybody did not always know or always tell.
[from Stein's Lectures in America (Boston: Beacon Press, 1959), p. 207]

What Happened, Fichtel writes,
becomes a cubist experiment in playwriting. As she does in Tender Buttons, Stein continues to experiment with cubism in literature—trying to describe the world around her in varying, complex, and indirect ways.

Well, okay, this kind of thing is said all the time. I reject the notion of "experiment" here; the word has too useful a primary meaning to go on using it in this vaguely condescending way; the "experimental" Modernists didn't develop art theory and then write or paint or compose experiments to try it out; it's the critics and academics who make "experiments" of the primary sources they grapple with. Nor do I like the word "trying" in Fichtel's last sentence. Stein damn well does express (not "describe") "the world around her in varying, complex" (but not "indirect ways"; she does that because it is in fact a varied, complex world, and her brilliant decision was to distill and reproduce it, not narrate or "describe" it.

I suppose you have to be a Modernist, or at least an aware member of one of the Modernist generations, to enjoy Stein qua Stein; and I suppose we have to be patient with the critics and stage directors who, not being of the Modernist moment themselves, almost invariably come to her — when they do, with any degree of seriousness — through a postmodern sensibility. And I suppose we should be grateful for productions like this one: at least they bring Stein's plays to the attention of the audience; perhaps that will lead one day to closer attention to the texts themselves.

And, of course, one of the banes of the postmodern moment is the director elevating his own craft to a position equal, if not superior, to that of the author whose work he presents. I'd like to see this the Department of Theater, Dance, and Performance Studies, and Dramaturgy, taking the dramaturge to be a spokesman for the author, not an explicator or interpreter.

As before intermission, the performance of What Happened was hurt by rushed and shouted lines, helped by quite beautiful visuals — colors, lighting, gesture. Dramatic theater is enlarged by bringing to its preparation concepts from dance and performance art: but it's too bad rhetoric and vocal expression is apparently denied equal consideration. My guess is, though, that the vocal problems will be dealt with in subsequent performances; and in spite of all the reservations expressed here I'd go back for a second sight if I weren't going to be out of town.
  • Salutations, by Eugène Ionesco, directed by Charlotte McIvor; Devotees in the Garden of Love, by Suzan-Lori Parks,directed by Godfrey Plata; What Happened, by Gertrude Stein, directed by Scott Wallin; Durham Studio Theater (Dwinelle Hall), UC Berkeley; repeats Fri. Nov. 13 (10pm), Sat. Nov. 14 (3pm), Thurs. Nov. 19 (7pm), Fri. Nov. 20 (10pm), Sat. Nov. 21 (7pm)

  • Since writing the above, I've run across the complete text of What Happened: A Play online, with an intelligent description of its origin, here. O wondrous Internet!

    1 comment:

    John Whiting said...

    The most remarkable realizations of Gertrude Stein’s plays that I’ve seen on the screen were done twenty years ago by Jaap Drupsteen. They’ve disappeared from public view, but he gave me copies at the time. I’ve put them up on YouTube; we’ll see if they’re allowed to stay there. You’ll find them listed on my YouTube home page: http://www.youtube.com/user/JohnLelandWhiting