chapter  12
8 Pages

‘When This You See Remember Me’: Three Plays by Gertrude Stein

Gertrude Stein has been institutionalized as one of the mad women in literature’s attic. A writer who is remembered as much for her eccentricity and self-proclaimed stature as a ‘genius’ as for her literary work, her œuvre is usually represented by the 1933 The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas (1966)—which characteristically constitutes an instance of self-mythologization. The commercial and critical success of Toklas can be attributed in part to its accessibility and to Stein’s teasing literary and artistic anecdotes and cameos. The comparative disregard of her other work-prose fiction, poetry, literary theory and drama-may be due to its capricious, idiosyncratic inaccessibility. In particular, despite the fact that she wrote over a hundred plays, Stein’s drama has until recently received remarkably little critical attention, apart from some articles and chapters and a few full-length studies. 1 Similarly, Stein’s plays have been as absent from the theatre. However, there are signs that she is beginning to be rehabilitated by the operations of experimental theatre practitioners such as Judith Malina and Robert Wilson. In terms of Wilson’s postmodern theatrical project of ‘splaying the unitary subject’ (Savran, 1993, p. 26), 2 Stein’s plays may well be appropriated as explorations of a world of fragmented identity, rampant intertextuality and anarchic disintegration, but in this paper I wish to offer an alternative route into her drama, via the minefield of autobiography. In her early, more ostentatiously and provocatively experimental work (examples of which are found in collections such as Geography and Plays, 1922), Stein abandoned narrative, character, the semblance of dramatic dialogue and scenic form in pursuit of an arbitrary, non-representational dramatic technique, throwing out the baby of the self with the bathwater of realist dramaturgy. And yet questions of autobiography and authorship, which are central to the rest of her work, continually resurface throughout Stein’s plays. I focus here on several key later works where these concerns become most acute: Four Saints in Three Acts, Doctor Faustus Lights the Lights and The Mother of us All, written in 1927, 1938 and 1945 respectively.