Scene4 Magazine — International Magazine of Arts and Media
Scene4 Magazine-The Steiny Road  To Operadom
with Karren Alenier

The Presence of Names

Throughout her massive collection of writings, Gertrude Stein had a lot to say about people’s names. In her lecture on poetry and grammar, she said, “People if you like to believe it can be made by their names. Call any body Paul and they get to be a Paul call anybody Alice and they get to be an Alice perhaps yes perhaps no, there is something in that…” In To Do: A Book of Alphabets and Birthdays, she used the structure of a child’s primer to catalogue names and relate anecdotes about the characters she had named. For example, she wrote, “Q is Quiet, Queenie, Quintet and Question. It is hard to have names like that. Very very hard, it makes anybody troubled to have names like that, very very troubled but all the same they had them.” Here, Stein notes that unusual names cause people problems.


Before the Steiny Road Poet launches into why a new play about Gertrude Stein that she saw recently at Duquesne University has named Stein inappropriately, the Poet wants to go on record to say she noticed some unusual things about the names of the politicians running in 2008 for the offices of president and vice-president of the United States. Three of the candidates have family names passed down from their fathers: Barack Hussein Obama, Jr., Joseph Robinette Biden, Jr., and John Sidney McCain III, but none of them promote themselves in this way, choosing to separate association with their male parent. Also, all of the candidates have first names that are Hebrew in origin: Barack (a variation of Barak or Barrack) means “Flash of lightning,” Joseph means “God (Jehovah) will multiply,” John means “the Lord is gracious,” and Sarah means “princess.” In the case of the three men, each of them has a middle name that might have elicited taunts at one time or another. Sidney is a name for a boy or a girl. Was John McCain ever taunted on the playground for having a sissified middle name? Robinette is a family name, but the name Robin like Sidney is both a girl’s or boy’s name and the suffix “ette” means small, female, or imitation. Hussein is an Arabic name meaning “good” or “small handsome one.” It’s an uncommon name in the United States with a current day association to an evil man—the former dictator of Iraq—Saddam Hussein. And, yes, Barack Obama's first name in the Arabic world means "blessing" as in "baraka" and may be related to the Hebrew Beracha (a girl's name) or Baruch (the boy's name equivalent). Still, the Steiny Road Poet thinks that given the issue of the Hebrew and Arabic alphabets versus the Roman alphabet, sound dominates and therefore Barack is closer to the Hebrew boy's name spelled Barak or Barrack and meaning "lightning." What people call you and how you call yourself matters in how well you get along during the whole course of your life.


On September 12, 2008, in Pittsburgh which is now Stein’s place of birth (Allegany, the suburb where she was born is officially part of the great city of steel), the Steiny Road Poet saw the new play An Evening with the Mother of Us All: A Tribute to Gertrude Stein and Alice B. Toklas by John E. Lane, Jr., Director of Theater Arts for Duquesne University. The play was commissioned by the organizers of the academic conference “Lifting Belly High: A Conference on Women’s Poetry Since 1900.” The play is set on the day of Stein’s (played by Susan McGregor-Laine) sixtieth birthday and Alice Toklas (played by Nancy Love), Stein’s lifelong partner, has invited an unusual list of people to join them in this celebration. What’s interesting about those who show up is that a number of them, such as Ernest Hemingway and Stein’s heart-breaking first flame May Bookstaver, would have never passed muster with Toklas. Reality is not operative in this drawing room comedy. In the tradition of Stein mixing up characters from history, imagination, and real life, the people Toklas invited to the party was fine by the Steiny Road Poet, even if Alice serves them the infamous hashish brownies, a recipe sent to Toklas after Stein died and which Toklas was not likely to have ever made.

For historic clarity, the Poet should also mention that Stein turned 60 in 1934. 1934 is the year that Stein hit the popularity charts in the United States with the publication of The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas and the wildly successful production of her first opera with composer Virgil Thomson Four Saints in Three Acts. By 1934, Stein and, least of all, the jealous Toklas were no longer friends with Hemingway. In fact, Stein had said through the narrating voice of Toklas in The Autobiography that Hemingway was “yellow, just like the flat-boat men on the Mississippi river as described by Mark Twain.”


What bothered the Poet about An Evening with the Mother of Us All was that Toklas kept calling Stein “Mother.” Here the Poet needs to drop back and say what she expected the title of Lane’s play to imply. First, a little background is necessary. Gertrude Stein wrote the libretto The Mother of Us All and the opera with music by Virgil Thomson was premiered after Stein’s death in 1947. The mother of this title was Susan B. Anthony, the leader of the Suffragettes, fighting for the right for women to vote in the United States. Because 2008 is a U.S. election year where women such as Hillary Clinton and Sarah Palin have figured prominently, the Steiny Road Poet expected a play offering some kind of surreal political romp in the tradition of Stein’s opera with Thomson and featuring Susan B. Anthony.  

To be fair to John Lane, the Poet wants to acknowledge that in the opera, but not in Stein’s libretto, Thomson created a character named Gertrude S, who is a stand-in for Stein. In the libretto, Stein created a character named Virgil T who is a stand-in for Virgil Thomson and Thomson, for balance, felt he needed a Stein character so he divided up the Virgil T lines and gave some of them to Gertrude S. Stein populated her libretto with real life people she knew, historical characters such as Daniel Webster and John Adams, and supernatural characters like Angel Moore. In the opera, one sees a correlation between Anthony, who failed to see women get the vote in her lifetime, and Stein, who failed to get the recognition she deserved as a cutting-edge thinker and writer.  


However, in Stein’s nuclear families, she was known as the baby. She was the youngest living child of five produced by Daniel and Amelia Stein.

Yale Collection of American Literature, Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library

Furthermore, she liked being the baby of the family. She said in Everybody’s Autobiography, “One should always be the youngest member of the family. It saves you a lot of bother everybody takes care of you.” In her most important adult relationships with Alice Toklas and Carl Van Vechten, who became who literary executor, she played baby in what the three of them jokingly called the Woojums family. And it was Alice who was Mama Woojums. Begrudgingly, the Poet also notes that Stein was pejoratively called the Mama of Dada. (Stein was not a Dadaist though she knew Tristan Tzara, who was partially credited with coining the word Dada and she mentions him in The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas.) Stein was also called the Mother Goose of Montparnasse (based on her writings for children). So many across the expanse of Stein’s life tried to call her mother, but Stein was not open to that name and it did not become her.


Now, that said, what favorably sticks in the mind of the Poet was how Lane had May Bookstaver (Gail Hofbauer), Mabel Haynes (Kait Burrier), and Grace Lounsbury (Elizabeth Glyptis)—these three were college friends of Stein’s—perform Stein’s tiny play “Ladies Voices.” This performance as entertainment in honor of Stein’s birthday was delivered well by three students of Duquesne’s Red Masquers theater company. The play within the play did a lot to ground Lane’s play from the posturing of such characters as Ernest Hemingway (Eric Mathews), Pablo Picasso (Jarrod Joos), Fernande Olivier (Hillary Prekop), Edith Sitwell (Rachel Noderer), Mina Loy (Lisa Cummins), Jane Heap (Megan O’Neill), and Henri and Amelie Matisse (Justin Sines and Nikki Cervone). Still, the posturing of the Red Masquers was what added charm and energy to the play. The Poet also enjoyed the performances by the senior cast members Susan McGregor-Laine as a credible Gertrude Stein and Nancy Love as an impossible Alice Toklas. ko931e02-crLove neither approximated what Toklas looked like in real life nor behaved anything like the tough Toklas that kept watch over her partner’s life and work. However, Love’s performance is what made Lane’s play move forward. Favorite among the scenes was Love as Alice persuading Gertrude to write a poem for her.

When the Steiny Road Poet entered the Duquesne building by a back door to find the Peter Mills Auditorium where Evening with the Mother would be performed, she accidentally ran into the cast and director John Lane who were building a circle of energy for their performance. Kindly the cast let the Poet pass through this force field and, upon illo_acad_lanecrreaching the other side, the Poet carefully pushed that awesome level of emotional energy back into their circle. The early encounter with the costumed cast made the Poet curious about the director and playwright John Lane. After the performance, she spoke with Lane who said that before Linda Kinnahan, the leader of the Lifting Belly High conference, approached him to write a play about Stein, he knew very little about this Modernist writer. In fact, he added, he was a medievalist.


Of course learning that Lane was a specialist in medieval literature set the Poet’s cerebral cogs in motion since she had come to Duquesne to deliver her paper exploring whether Stein was a medievalist, futurist or both. So suppose Lane had written a modern day allegory where Susan B. Anthony, Gertrude Stein, and Alice Toklas came as ghostly advisors to a woman like Hillary Clinton, who was trying to advance Anthony’s cause beyond the basic rights of equal treatment for women to the lofty role of president of the United States? Hmm, maybe all that was necessary for Lane to do was to make a parody of Stein’s libretto, substituting Hillary Clinton for Susan B. Anthony. Take these lines spoken by Anthony close to the end of the The Mother of Us All and imagine them spoken by Hillary Clinton:

“Yes, but what is man, what are men, what are they. I do not say that they haven’t kind hearts, if I fall down in a faint, they will rush to pick me up, if my house is on fire, they will rush in to put the fire out and help me, yes they have kind hearts but they are afraid, afraid, they are afraid, they are afraid. They fear women, they fear each other, they fear their neighbor, they fear other countries and then they hearten themselves in their fear by crowding together and following each other, and when they crowd together and follow each other they are brutes, like animals who stampede, and so they have written in the name male into the United States constitution, because they are afraid of black men because they are afraid of women, because they are afraid afraid. Men are afraid.”

Most people think names are potent entities. Talking about nouns, which are the names of things, Stein said in her lecture “Poetry and Grammar,” “A name is adequate or it is not. If it is adequate then why go on calling it, if it is not then calling it by its name does no good.” Humbly the Poet thinks that Stein loved an exponential chain of new names for people and things that correspond to how people or things present themselves in the current moment.  So the Poet suggests a new name for Gertrude Stein—the Presence of us all.  


©2008 Karren LaLonde Alenier
©2008 Publication Scene4 Magazine


Scene4 Magazine — Karren Alenier
Karren LaLonde Alenier is the author of five collections of poetry and, recently, The Steiny Road to Operadom: The Making of American Operas
and she is a Senior Writer and Columnist for Scene4.
For Prior Columns In This Series Click Here
For her other commentary and articles, check the
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november 2008

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