Bumper Cars
The Steiny Road
to Operadom with
Karren LaLonde Alenier

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11Part of the process of convincing a publisher or theatrical producer to bring a creative work into public view is knowing what else has been done with your subject and what the pitfalls are. In the case of Gertrude Stein Invents A Jump Early On, an opera about the life and work of an American literary radical who remains more a notorious figure from our cultural history than a revered author, this question is an ongoing research project as new works appear in public limelight. Pitfalls involve such things as copyright issues and audience receptivity.


Theater about Gertrude Stein's life and work are to this point in time mostly plays without musical landscape. The most well known piece is Gertrude Stein, Gertrude Stein, Gertrude Stein, derived from Stein's writings by Marty Martin, a playwright who has specialized in working with such outstanding actors as Anthony Quinn, Cloris Leachman, and Mickey Rooney. This one-actor play, which won the 1980 Outer Critics Circle Award and played for a year in New York starting in 1979, is a monologue that was commissioned by and for the actress Pat Carroll. The play takes place on the eve of Gertrude and Alice's departure from 27 rue de Fleurus in Paris and is essentially a play of memory. Interesting to note is that the published script is introduced by the Gertrude Stein bibliographer Robert A. Wilson.  

A veteran journalist recently whispered in the Steiny Road poet's ear that Ms. Carroll, who, as rumors say, has no particular devotion to Gertrude Stein, does not grant permission for any theater group to reproduce this play. Furthermore, this person conjectured that Ms. Carroll's reason for not wishing to share this well-received play is because the commissioning actress is saving the piece as an insurance policy. This means when Ms. Carroll cannot move around easily on stage, her fall back play will be Gertrude Stein, Gertrude Stein, Gertrude Stein, because all the actress has to do is sit in a chair and talk.

In 1985, Gertrude Stein and a Companion by Win Wells and starring Jan Miner as Gertrude and Marian Seldes as Alice made its United States premier at the White Barn Theater in Westport, Connecticut, and later that year moved to New York City's Lucille Lortel Theater to run for 54 performances. However, it received the best play award when it was presented in 1984 at the Edinburgh Festival. In 1988, a feature film by the same name was released based on the Win Wells play and starring the original actors Jan Miner and Marian Seldes. The play has been produced many times in the U.S., including recent productions at Minneapolis' Jungle Theater and Denver's Theatre Group in 2001, at Madison, Wisconsin's StageQ in 2002, and at Florida's Sol Theatre Project in 2003.  A friend who follows news about Stein and Toklas said that it's probable this memory play, which opens on the day Gertrude Stein died, gets reproduced a lot because Pat Carroll's play is not available.  

In 1998, San Francisco's Exit Theatre presented Do Let Us Go Away, a play written by Gertrude Stein that depicts Gertrude and Alice's lives together from the trip they took to Majorca during World War I to encounters with German soldiers during World War II. In the production by Exit Theatre, director John Sowle made all seven characters Stein look-alikes because he believed all the voices were really Stein's.

In 1999, the Foundry Theatre of New York premiered Gertrude And Alice: A Likeness To Loving, which was written and performed by Lola Pashalinski and Linda Chapman. The play, about Lesbian love, was inspired by texts from Stein's literary works, her letters, correspondence associated with Alice B. Toklas, and Toklas' cookbook and memoirs. Pashalinski and Chapman got research help from the noted Stein scholar Ulla Dydo. Pashalinski and Chapman toured in 2001 with productions at the Minneapolis' Guthrie Theater, Vermont's Bennington College, and London's Drill Hall theater.

In 2001, two plays about Stein that didn't get much publicity were aired. Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas by nine-time-Obie-winning playwright Maria Irene Fornes was premiered at Davidson College in North Carolina. Director Frédérique Michel created The Gertrude Stein Project by cobbling together fragments from Stein's plays and prose. This play was presented at Santa Monica's City Garage theater.


Besides her collaborations with Virgil Thomson (Four Saints in Three Acts and The Mother of Us All), there are a substantial number of musical plays that use original texts by Gertrude Stein. This information is useful for a theater producer to know because it shows how widespread and current the interest in Gertrude Stein is. This list includes such works as: A Long Gay Book with music by Stephen Flaherty (Chicago, 2003),Careful of Eights with music by Jason Binnick (New York's Polybe + Seats Theater combined three Stein plays under this title, 2003), World is Round, a chamber opera adapted by Scott Feldsher and Pea Hicks with music by Pea Hicks (commissioned and premiered at New York's Skidmore College, 1997. Also in 2002, at San Diego's Sledgehammer Theater), World is Round, an opera with music by James Sellars and libretto adapted by Juanita Rockwell (Connecticut's Wadsworth Atheneum Museum, 1993), Mounting Picasso, instrumental theater adapted by the Blue Rider Ensemble from Stein's two portraits of Pablo Picasso with music by Peter Hatch (Toronto's Maurier Theater Center, 1993), Blood on the Dining Room Floor, adapted by Barbara Vann with music by William Hellerman (The Medicine Show Theater, NY, 1984), Many Many Women with music by Czech composer Petr Kotik's (New York, 1979), Three Sisters Who Are Not Sisters, an opera with music by Ned Rorem (Temple University in Philadelphia, PA, premiered the work in 1971. Recent productions include London's New World Opera Company in 2001 and California's Oakland Opera Company in 2003.), Doctor Faustus Lights The Lights with music by Richard Banks (New York's Living Theatre directed by Judith Malina, 1951) and In A Garden, a one-act children's opera with music by Meyer Kupfeman (New York's After Dinner Opera Company, 1949).  

From 1963 to 1979, award-winning director Lawrence Kornfeld and composer Al Carmines teamed up mostly at New York's Judson Poets' Theatre to create musical productions from six Stein texts.These music theater pieces included: What Happened (1963), In Circles (1967. This piece went on to New York's Cherry Lane Theatre for 222 performances. In 1986, this piece was produced at California's Kaliyuga Arts Theater), The Making of Americans with libretto adapted from Gertrude Stein by Leon Katz (1971 and also in 2001, excerpts from a new version by Leon Katz were performed at New York University by the Gertrude Stein Repertory Theatre), Listen to Me (1974), A Manoir (1977), and Dr. Faustus Lights the Lights (1979).

Less linear theater includes Hashirigaki by German composer Heiner Goebbels. This experimental play premiered in Paris at Théatre Vidy-Lausanne in 2000. It takes excerpts from Stein's The Making of Americans and mixes it with the Beach Boys 1966 album Pet Sounds and with Japanese folk music. Highly successful, productions have been mounted more then 50 times in such places as Paris, London, Edinburgh, Frankfurt, Berlin, Moscow, New York, San Francisco, Rome, and Singapore. Recent productions have been staged in the United States (Minneapolis, 2002) and in Australia (Sydney, January 2004).  


However, there is only one finished musical work that treats Stein's life. This piece is Jonathan Sheffer's Blood On the Dining Room Floor, which premiered in the spring of 2000. Primarily this hybrid piece between music theater and opera is based on Stein's unfinished murder mystery by the same title and such other sources as The Alice B. Toklas Cook Book. The twist is that Sheffer makes this a story about Gertrude suffering writer's block and consequently resorting to writing a murder mystery while Alice busies herself in the kitchen.

Serendipitously, the Steiny Road poet was in New York the day Jonathan Sheffer approached Nancy Rhodes of Encompass New Opera Theatre concerning the production of Blood on the Dining Room Floor, a work neither Nancy nor I knew anything about. Nancy and I were at a centenary tribute for Aaron Copland at the offices of Boosey & Hawkes, the music publisher who published Copland. The exchange with Jonathan created an awkward situation because I was still negotiating a commitment from Nancy and Encompass concerning Gertrude Stein Invents A Jump Early On. In retrospect, Nancy and I think what Jonathan wanted was help only in procuring a stage to present his finished work. This is an ongoing problem for individuals like composer Jonathan Sheffer and for theater groups like Encompass New Opera Theatre who do not have their own theater.

A few months later, several of my friends in New York told me about the premiere of Blood on the Dining Room Floor, which subsequently Nancy and I saw together. The obvious question was did this piece of music theater make Gertrude Stein Invents A Jump Early On redundant? I think not. Although Gertrude Stein Invents A Jump Early On touches on Stein's writer's block and Stein in World War II, Blood On the Dining Room Floor, coming at Stein's life through her unfinished murder mystery and Alice's cookbook, resonates more with Stein's Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas. The result for me was that I was entertained, but not enlightened about or touched by Stein or her work.   


How does one learn about new theater work regarding Gertrude Stein, especially since anything by her or about her tends to appeal to a small group of people who like experimental subjects or have spent years studying her work and her life? There are two helpful books: Betsy Alayne Ryan's Gertrude Stein's Theatre of the Absolute published in 1984 and Sarah Bay-Cheng's Mama Dada: Gertrude Stein's Avant-garde Theater published in 2004. Otherwise, like a pit bull, the Steiny Road poet persists in following the messages exchanged on the University of California, Davis Gertrude Stein list server.  Although many of the messages are generated by college students who ought to open a few books before sending out their questions, occasionally new information comes across the Internet in this fashion. Additionally, noted scholars are listening in and often provide helpful comments. The Steiny Road poet also googles the Internet every several months and relies on friends who know about her interest in Stein. Once in while, she is contacted by a stranger through her web site at Maybe this essay will generate such contacts, because she feels certain there are other plays about Stein that should be acknowledged.

The world involved with Gertrude Stein is fairly small and eventually the estate lawyers catch up with the artists borrowing from Stein. I did my homework going down to the Library of Congress to ferret out copyright information on Stein, which seemed rather complicated. I found the Baltimore estate attorney's name and firm in one of those huge ledger books shelved in the basement of one of the many buildings that make up the Library of Congress. Before I copyrighted the original draft of my libretto and again before the publication of my book Looking for Divine Transportation (this book contains most of my poems about Stein), I contacted Calman Levin, the attorney then handling the Stein estate, to obtain permission for what I was doing. I was also careful to quote Stein sparingly, because, if my libretto became the basis of a successful opera, royalty fees and permissions could be a problem. This was an issue that Nancy Rhodes and I had discussed in our first meeting.  

In a subsequent conversation with Mr. Levin, he told me he had learned about Blood on the Dining Room Floor after the fact and that "Mr. Sheffer and his attorneys said they only used material by Stein that had lapsed into the public domain." In looking through those Library of Congress ledger books, I became aware that Alice B. Toklas held some of the copyrights for Stein's work and many of these copyrights were lapsing into the public domain. Since no one that I can identify is getting rich from the use of Stein's work, it remains unclear how vigorously the Stein estate law firm would pursue an artist who had ignored copyright permissions and royalty payments. What I gathered from Mr. Levin (who died in 2003) was that he expected artists to abide by a code of honor in using Stein's work.  

However, anyone who chooses to write about Gertrude Stein should know that her legal guardians are not the attack dogs to watch out for—rather it is the community of devotees intent on protecting Gertrude Stein's integrity as a serious artist. The Steiny Road poet ventures that those artists who have worked on plays about Stein did better if, in the early development of their work, they reached out to this fierce and smart group who have really read Gertrude Stein.

The lesson in knowing what else has been done on stage related to Stein and her work as well as understanding the pitfalls in staging a new work on this subject is that persistence, networking, and constant learning are vital to the success of any project related to Gertrude Stein.


©2004 Karren LaLonde Alenier

For prior installments, click here

Karren LaLonde Alenier, an award-winning Lindy Hopper,
is the author of five collections of poetry,
including Looking for Divine Transportation,
winner of the 2002 Towson University Prize for Literature.
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