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.
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.
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.
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.