Gertrude Stein Essay - Stein, Gertrude (Drama Criticism)

Stein, Gertrude (Drama Criticism)


Gertrude Stein 1874-1946

American playwright, biographer, poet, novelist, and essayist.

The following entry presents information on Stein's works through 1996.

Regarded as a major figure of literary Modernism and as one of the most influential writers of the twentieth century, Stein wrote avant-garde compositions that continue to prove as radical as when her experimental prose, poetry, and drama first appeared. Uttering such famous expressions as “a rose is a rose is a rose” and coining the designation of American expatriates during the 1920s as “a lost generation,” Stein rejected tenets of nineteenth-century naturalism and developed an abstract manner of literary expression that emulates the principles of post-impressionism and cubism in the visual arts. In her plays, Stein emphasized language and word play above all else, eschewing such dramatic conventions as plot, character, and scenery. Consequently, producers were reluctant to mount productions of Stein's dramas, and only a few were performed during her lifetime. While most critics have acknowledged the contributions of Stein's radical innovations to the evolution of twentieth-century theater, her often cryptic style and radical structure have made her works less popular than those of her contemporaries Virginia Woolf, James Joyce, and Thornton Wilder.

Biographical Information

The youngest daughter of wealthy American Jews, Stein was born in Allegheny, Pennsylvania, but spent her infancy in Vienna, Austria, and Passy, France, before her family settled in Oakland, California, while she was a young girl. In 1893 Stein enrolled in the all-female Harvard Annex (later Radcliffe College) in Cambridge, Massachusetts, where she attended lectures by psychologist William James, who influenced her artistic development with his theories of perception and personality types. Upon graduation, Stein entered the medical school at Johns Hopkins University to study psychology, but becoming disaffected, she left in 1902 without a degree. In 1903, she moved to Paris with her brother, Leo, who later became a noted art critic. In 1907 Stein met her lifetime companion, Alice B. Toklas, who began residing with the siblings in 1909, the same year Stein published her first work, Three Lives. Meanwhile, the home at 27 rue de Fleurus became a salon for such leading artists as Pablo Picasso, Henri Matisse, and Georges Braque, who later mingled after World War I with such prominent American expatriate writers as Sherwood Anderson and Ernest Hemingway. An early advocate of Cubism, Stein tried to mimic its theories in her diverse writings of the period, ranging from the poetry collection Tender Buttons (1914) to the sprawling novel The Making of Americans (1925). Between those works she wrote numerous experimental dramas but rarely saw them produced on stage. Stein eventually outlined her literary principles in the essay “Composition as Explanation” (1926), which she based on lectures she delivered at Oxford and Cambridge universities. As her social and literary influence flourished, a publisher friend urged Stein to write her memoirs, which led to the publication of her best-known and most popular work, The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas (1933), which was actually Stein's own autobiography. In 1934, Stein's libretto Four Saints in Three Acts was scored by Virgil Thomson and produced as an opera in New York City to rave reviews, which prompted a celebrated American lecture tour through 1935. In Nazi-occupied France during World War II, Stein assumed the proportions of a legend in Paris where she befriended many of the American servicemen stationed there after the liberation of France and memorialized them in Brewsie and Willis (1946). On July 27, 1946, Stein died of cancer at the American Hospital at Neuilly-sur-Seine, France.

Major Works

Stein's first play, What Happened (1913), resembles satire in comparison to conventional dramaturgical principles. Although the play has a traditional five-act structure, it is devoid of such elements of drama as plot, character development, scenery, and stage directions. In fact, What Happened is a play in which nothing happens. As in most of her other works, Stein experimented with language and syntax in her dramas, forcing the spectator to decode her meaning. Ladies' Voices (1916) focuses on a group of women who have gathered at Mallorca, Spain, for Carnival time. Through their conversations, they explore the world of spoken words. Stein's experimental style includes more than rejecting traditional narrative structures. A Circular Play (1920) epitomizes Stein's experiments with word play by using rhyme, repetition, alliteration, and homonyms. A List (1923) emphasizes the spatial relationships of words, featuring characters with names that start with “M” and arranging the dialogue to create visual order. Beginning in 1920 Stein worked at developing a concept of drama as “landscape.” These plays include As in Lend a Hand or Four Religions (1922), A Village Are You Ready Yet Not Yet (1923) and Capital Capitals (1923). These plays illustrate Stein's struggle with syntax and the relationship between sight and sound. One of the most-talked about theatrical productions of the Depression years as well as one of her few plays to be staged during her lifetime, Four Saints in Three Acts features the writing process as an integral part of the allegory punctuated with interruptions by the playwright's persona. Primarily set in sixteenth-century Spain, the play concerns St. Therese of Avila, St. Ignatius of Loyola, and two fictional saints, St. Settlement and St. Chavez. As the drama unfolds, the “plot” of the play is elaborated in terms of a garden plot. The Mother of Us All (1947), Stein's second collaboration with Thomson, concerns the woman suffrage movement of the late nineteenth century and early twentieth century, centering on the life and work of Susan B. Anthony.

Critical Reception

Stein's plays have often challenged critics. Initially attacked by those who did not accept the validity of her artistic methods, Stein has gradually been treated with more temperate discussion of her work as her innovations have been mainstreamed by succeeding generations of writers. Because much of her drama violates basic formal and thematic conventions, certain interpretive methods, such as the close textual analysis favored by New Critics, have been of little use in approaching her work. Most of the commentary on Stein during her lifetime was evaluative rather than interpretive, either arguing her artistic merits or deriding her radical innovations. With the rise of structuralism and deconstruction in the 1960s and 1970s, critics have found a critical method suited to understanding Stein's work as she conceived it. Feminist critics have also provided a fresh perspective on Stein, discussing such issues as her treatment of human sexuality and her defiance of patriarchal literary traditions. Another topic often raised by commentators is Stein's relationship to post-impressionism and cubism. Consequently, many critics have called Stein a “literary cubist” for her ability to project a reality beyond visual reality. Some scholars have suggested that Stein's true worth as an artist is best indicated by her influence on other writers, both contemporary with her own era and subsequent to it.

Principal Works

A Curtain Raiser 1913

Old and Old 1913

What Happened. A Five Act Play 1913

He Said It. Monologue 1915

Captain Walter Arnold 1916

Every Afternoon. A Dialogue 1916

For the Country Entirely. A Play in Letters 1916

I Like It to Be a Play. A Play 1916

Ladies' Voices 1916

Turkey and Bones and Eating 1916

Counting Her Dresses 1917

An Exercise in Analysis 1917

A Circular Play. A Play in Circles 1920

A Movie 1920

Reread Another 1921

Accents in Alsace. A Reasonable Tragedy 1922

Objects Lie on a Table 1922

Saints and Singing 1922

Am I To Go or I'll Say So 1923

Capital Capitals 1923

A List 1923

A Bouquet. Their Wills 1928

A Lyrical Opera Made by Two 1928

At Present 1930

Film: Deux soeurs qui ne sont pas soeurs 1930

Louis XI and Madame Giraud 1930

Madame Recamier 1930

Civilization 1931

The Five Georges 1931

Say It With Flowers 1931

They Must. Be Wedded. To Their Wife 1931

Operas and Plays 1932

Four Saints in Three Acts [scored by Virgil Thomson] 1934

A Play Called Not and Now 1934

Doctor Faustus Lights the Lights 1938

Yes Is for a Very Young Man 1946

The Mother of Us All [scored by Virgil Thomson] 1947

Three Lives (novellas) 1909

Tender Buttons: Objects, Food, Rooms (prose poems) 1914

Geography and Plays (prose and plays) 1922

The Making of Americans (novel) 1925

Composition as Explanation (essays) 1926

Lucy Church, Amiably (prose) 1930

How to Write (prose) 1931

The Autobiography of Alice Toklas (autobiography) 1933

Lectures in America (lectures) 1935

Everybody's Autobiography (biography) 1937

The World Is Round (novel) 1939

Brewsie and Willie (prose) 1946

Selected Writings of Gertrude Stein (prose) 1946

Unpublished Works of Gertrude Stein (prose) 1951

Lucretia Borgia (novel) 1968

Criticism: General Commentary

Richard France (essay date 1986)

SOURCE: France, Richard. “Virgil Thomson/Gertrude Stein: A Correspondence.” Theatre History Studies 6 (1986): 72-86.

[In the following essay, France discusses Stein's relationship with composer Virgil Thomson, featuring a series of selected letters to each other.]

In December of 1925, Gertrude Stein (1874-1946) invited the American composer, George Antheil, to visit with her and Alice B. Toklas at 26, rue de Fleurus. Antheil, in turn, invited fellow composer Virgil Thomson (b. 1896) to accompany him. Thus began a friendship between Thomson and Stein that would last, despite its frequent tensions and several interruptions, until her death on 27 July 1946.


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James R. Mellow (essay date 1987)

SOURCE: Mellow, James R. “Foreword: The Word Plays of Gertrude Stein.” In Operas and Plays, pp. 7-9. Barrytown, NY: Station Hill Press, 1987.

[In the following essay, Mellow examines the writing style and structures of the plays in Operas and Plays.]

The theater of Gertrude Stein is as radical today as it was seventy or more years ago when, in the course of her early experiments, Stein started writing her odd word plays. These theatrical exercises—which began, she tells us, with What Happened: A Play; a play in which nothing happens—soon developed into a dramaturgy stripped bare of the essentials: plot, character development, scenery, stage directions....

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Beth Hutchison (essay date 1989)

SOURCE: Hutchison, Beth. “Gertrude Stein's Film Scenarios.” Film Literature Quarterly 17, no. 1 (1989): 35-8.

[In the following essay, Hutchison contrasts the forms and meanings of A Movie and Film.]

In “Portraits and Repetition” [1935], Gertrude Stein related the carefully aggregated details characteristic of her word portraits to the raw material of film, the frame: “In a cinema picture no two pictures are exactly alike each one is just that much different than the one before, and so in those early portraits there was … no repetition” (177). Rather than repetition, a film shot consists of a vast number of almost duplicated images which combine in...

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Dinnah Pladott (essay date 1990)

SOURCE: Pladott, Dinnah. “Gertrude Stein: Exile, Feminism, Avant-Garde in the American Theater.” In Modern American Drama: The Female Canon, edited by June Schlueter, pp. 111-29. Cranbury, NJ: Associated University Presses, 1990.

[In the following essay, Pladott assesses Stein's contribution to American drama in terms of her “exile” as an expatriate American woman, a Jew, and a lesbian.]

How does one live and create while in exile? The life and work of Gertrude Stein, exiled several times as an expatriate American woman, a Jew, and a lesbian, make the question especially pressing. Her decision to experiment with unprecedented forms of writing gives resonance to...

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Marc Robinson (essay date summer 1992)

SOURCE: Robinson, Marc. “Gertrude Stein, Forgotten Playwright.” The South Atlantic Quarterly 91, no. 3 (summer 1992): 621-43.

[In the following essay, Robinson evaluates Stein's plays in the context of her unique voice in the evolution of twentieth-century American theatrical conventions.]

While Gertrude Stein was quietly bringing out her first plays with an obscure Boston publisher in 1922, The Hairy Ape began performances in New York, establishing Eugene O'Neill as the nation's most serious, “difficult” playwright. A year later, Elmer Rice would announce his own reputation with The Adding Machine. Both plays were anxious efforts, written by...

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Bonnie Marranca (essay date September 1994)

SOURCE: Marranca, Bonnie. “Presence of Mind.” Performing Arts Journal 16, no. 3 (September 1994): 1-17.

[In the following essay, Marranca provides an overview of Stein's life and career.]

A few years ago, in the newly redesigned Bryant Park, adjacent to the New York Public Library in mid-town Manhattan, a statue of Gertrude Stein was set in place. The New York Times account of the event, not without a humorous aside, noted that, except for the monument to St. Joan of Arc further uptown at Riverside Park, this was the only sculpture of a woman in a New York City park, not counting Alice in Wonderland and Mother Goose. The bronze statue of Stein, in which she...

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Allen S. Weiss (essay date September 19, 1996)

SOURCE: Weiss, Allen S. “Stein's Stein: a tale from The Aphoristic Theatre.The Drama Review (19 September 1996): 23-24.

[In the following essay, Weiss recounts incidents from Stein's life as a Radcliffe sophomore studying under noted American psychologist William James.]

Gertrude Stein was already one of William James' favorite students by the time she enrolled in Hugo Münsterberg's laboratory experimentation course during her sophomore year at Radcliffe in 1894. James, having just published his monumental The Principles of Psychology, was at that moment particularly interested in the relations between conscious and unconscious states of mind....

(The entire section is 952 words.)