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.


(The entire section is 6607 words.)

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....

(The entire section is 1220 words.)

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...

(The entire section is 2170 words.)

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...

(The entire section is 8638 words.)

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...

(The entire section is 9031 words.)

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...

(The entire section is 8902 words.)

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.)

Criticism: Accents In Alsace

SOURCE: Giesenkirchen, Michaela. “Where English Speaks More Than One Language: Accents in Gertrude Stein's Accents in Alsace.The Massachusetts Quarterly (spring 1993): 45-62.

[In the following essay, Giesenkirchen describes the multilingual dimension of Stein's style in Accents in Alsace, contrasting her famous preference for the English language with her sensitivity to the conversational aspect of other languages exhibited in the play.]

Gertrude Stein's central relationship was with the English language. She called English her “only language,” the first language she learned to read, the only language she ever learned to speak and write...

(The entire section is 6675 words.)

Criticism: Four Saints In Three Acts

Richard Dana Skinner (review date 9 March 1934)

SOURCE: Skinner, Richard Dana. Review of Four Saints in Three Acts, by Gertrude Stein. The Commonweal 19, no. 19 (9 March 1934): 525.

[In the following review, Skinner discusses the writing style and casting decisions of the 1934 New York City production of Stein's Four Saints in Three Acts.]

Deeply imbedded in the cryptograms of Gertrude Stein's alleged prose “cadences,” there is a consistent pattern binding together the many parts of Four Saints in Three Acts. Virgil Thomson's music, which is far from modernistic, and Miss Stein's libretto, which is so modern as to be almost psychopathic, would, of themselves and in combination mean little or...

(The entire section is 1134 words.)

Theatre Arts Monthly (essay date April 1934)

SOURCE: Review of Four Saints in Three Acts, by Gertrude Stein. Theatre Arts Monthly (April 1934): 246-48.

[In the following excerpt, the critic comments on the linguistic dimension of Four Saints in Three Acts.]

The pleasantest event of the month, and the most harmonious, was undoubtedly Four Saints in Three Acts, called “an opera to be sung”, with words by Gertrude Stein and music by Virgil Thomson. If, after saying that, you add that the words were only partially successful, even judging them by their own intention, and that the music was at best happily reminiscent and well-adapted to the form of the performance, and if you go on to say that...

(The entire section is 794 words.)

Harry R. Garvin (essay date 1954)

SOURCE: Garvin, Harry R. “Sound and Sense in Four Saints in Three Acts.The Bucknell Review 5, no. 1 (1954): 1-11.

[In the following essay, Garvin analyzes the dramatic action of Four Saints in Three Acts in terms of Stein's so-called “portrait” style and the play's relative significance among the playwright's other works.]

The delight of Broadway audiences with the two productions of Gertrude Stein's Four Saints in Three Acts was enthusiastic, genuine, but superficial. The spectators were blithely free of any prior notions about the plot and the meanings of the opera. The program notes for the second production, by not giving even...

(The entire section is 3965 words.)

Jane Bowers (essay date 1986)

SOURCE: Bowers, Jane. “The Writer in the Theater: Gertrude Stein's Four Saints in Three Acts.” In Critical Essays on Gertrude Stein, edited by Michael J. Hoffman, pp. 210-25. Boston: G. K. Hall & Co., 1986.

[In the following essay, Bowers demonstrates how Stein made the writing process a part of the performance of Four Saints in Three Acts.]


Gertrude Stein approached drama as she did every genre: She examined the genre's conventions, found them inadequate, and proceeded to redefine the genre as she worked within it. By the time she began writing Four Saints in Three Acts in 1927, Stein had grappled with the redefinition...

(The entire section is 7522 words.)

Bonnie Marranca (essay date January 1994)

SOURCE: Marranca, Bonnie. “St. Gertrude.” Performing Arts Journal 16, no. 1 (January 1994): 107-112.

[In the following essay, Marranca examines the significance of Stein's sense of geography and space to the structure, themes, and language of Four Saints in Three Acts.]


“Through a window with a grate covered by a veil, I spoke with those who came to visit me,” St. Therese of Avila described convent life in her Book of Foundations. The sense of a framed life would appeal to Gertrude Stein who brought together the painterly and the literary, changing nouns to verbs. In her Four Saints in Three Acts, in which St....

(The entire section is 3046 words.)

Meg Albrinck (essay date 1995)

SOURCE: Albrinck, Meg. “‘How can a sister see Saint Therese suitably’: Difficulties in Staging Gertrude Stein's Four Saints in Three Acts.Women's Studies, Special Issue: Studies in 20th-Century American Literature, Criticism, and Art 25, no. 1 (1995): 1-22.

[In the following essay, Albrinck analyzes how the scenario written for the 1934 production of Four Saints in Three Acts manipulates the meaning and themes of Stein's libretto by showing how the scenario's framework compromises both the “fluidity” and “powerful female vision” of the original.]

Most critical studies of Gertrude Stein's opera Four Saints in Three Acts have either...

(The entire section is 9547 words.)

Criticism: Doctor Faustus Lights The Lights

David Savran (essay date January 1993)

SOURCE: Savran, David. “Whistling in the Dark.” Performing Arts Journal, no. 43 (January 1993): 25-7.

[In the following review, Savran assesses a 1992 New York City production of Doctor Faustus Lights the Lights in terms of director Robert Wilson's contemporary associations with the play's critique of Western rationalism.]

Doctor Faustus Lights the Lights has an immaculate pedigree in the American theatrical avant-garde. Although originally written as an opera libretto on the eve of World War II, in 1938, Gertrude Stein's text was first performed in the United States in 1951 as the inaugural production of the Living Theatre. In 1979, as directed by...

(The entire section is 1021 words.)

Shirley Neuman (essay date 1988)

SOURCE: Neuman, Shirley. “‘Would a viper have stung her if she had only had one name?’: Doctor Faustus Lights the Lights.” In Gertrude Stein and the Making of Literature, edited by Shirley Neuman and Ira B. Nadel, pp. 168-93. Boston: Northeastern University Presses, 1988.

[In the following essay, Neuman details the historical and literary circumstances surrounding the composition and staging of Doctor Faustus Lights the Lights.]


‘[I]n a kind of a way novels are still a puzzle to me',1 Gertrude Stein explained as she began Ida a Novel. The puzzle proved difficult. Between mid-May...

(The entire section is 10855 words.)

Criticism: The Mother Of Us All

SOURCE: Winston, Elizabeth. “Making History in The Mother of Us All.Mosaic 20, no. 4 (fall 1987): 117-29.

[In the following essay, Winston explains the metaphorical implications of the proper names, literary allusions, and historical quotations that Stein used in The Mother of Us All to reflect her development as a literary woman.]

Gertrude Stein's last major work, The Mother of Us All (1946), is an opera about Susan B. Anthony, the champion of woman suffrage.1 Yet like other writing by Stein, it is also “disguised autobiography.”2 In dramatizing Anthony's campaign to win the vote for women, Stein relives her own...

(The entire section is 6670 words.)

Further Reading


Albright, Daniel. “An Opera with No Acts: Four Saints in Three Acts.Southern Review 33, no. 3 (summer 1997): 574-604.

Gives a positive assessment of the writing style in Four Saints in Three Acts.

Brinnin, John Malcolm, ed. Introduction to Selected Operas and Plays of Gertrude Stein, by Gertrude Stein, pp. xi-xvii. Pittsburgh: University of Pittsburgh Press, 1970.

Provides an overview of Stein's career and works.

Fifer, Elizabeth. “Rescued Readings: Characteristic Deformations in the Language of Gertrude Stein's Plays.” Texas Studies in Literature and Language...

(The entire section is 271 words.)