In the era of Modernism, venerable traditions were under attack by the artistic young turks of the then-new 20th century, and Paris was the cultural hub of the universe. Pablo Picasso migrated there from Spain, Alberto Giacometti moved from Italy, Marc Chagall from Russia and many others came from across the globe. These bohemians are now icons in the new establishment's pantheon.
Among the intellectuals who arrived on the banks of the Seine was an eccentric writer named Gertrude Stein. Gertrude Stein and a Companion, recently on the boards at the Marigny Theatre, is the understated title of a fascinating study of Stein and Alice B. Toklas, her lifelong lover and amanuensis.
Stein, who was of German-Jewish heritage, grew up hither and yon as her family moved around, both in Europe and the United States. Her parents died when she was young. Stein graduated magna cum laude from Radcliffe College, attended medical school and eventually followed her brother Leo to Paris in 1903. Leo was a patron of the arts and was studying painting.
Influenced, perhaps, by the radical freedom of the rebellious painters whose work she collected, Stein became famous, or infamous, for Zen-like utterances like 'A rose is a rose is a rose." In the play, Stein claims her redundant phrase makes the redness of a rose visible for the first time in 500 years. Although Stein attracted the friendship of the avant garde, she did not have a warm and fuzzy demeanor. In the play, she criticizes Ernest Hemmingway and his work, 'His books were always the same in the same way his wives were always the same." Nor does Stein lack a boastful confidence. 'Alice's bell rang whenever she met a genius," Stein informs us. 'Me. Pablo."
Modernist paintings dominate Wesley Coder's set: the simply arranged living room of the home Stein and Toklas share. Visually, we can see where Stein is getting her cues, because her collection of paintings line the walls. At the center is the portrait of Stein done by Picasso.
All of the play takes place in this room, and it tells the story of these two women in relation to one another. Nonetheless, Gerturde Stein feels intimate rather than claustrophobic. Under Glenn Meche's direction, Karen Shields (Stein) and Lisa Davis (Toklas) give us two strong-willed though very different individuals who are drawn to one another like the opposite poles of magnets. The play shifts backward and forward through their lives so that it gains variety in time. The actresses briefly take other roles to give a sense of the other people in the drama, including Stein's brother Leo.
The play begins in 1946. Stein sits in an armchair, but she has recently died and been buried, so we're seeing a phantom. Alice enters mournfully. She wishes that she had died as well rather than have to try and put her life back together without her lover. The two reminisce about their first meeting and about their many struggles. Curiously, it was The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas (1933), written mischievously by Stein, that launched her as an author. The publication was serialized in the Atlantic Monthly and became a Book-of-the-Month Club selection. Fame and fortune had struck " albeit in a rare and wonderful way.
Perhaps the most miraculous episode for these two Jewish women was eluding the Nazis by hiding out in the south of France. Eventually, they returned to Paris, where Stein succumbed to illness.
Among the many changes that time had wrought, perhaps none was more astounding than the escalation in value of Stein's art collection. Paintings she bought for a few dollars to help a friend " and because of her faith in the art of the new generation " were worth millions. Stein's paintings ensured Toklas was financially secure. Showing concern for her lost comrade, Toklas could sell a Picasso painting for enough to underwrite the publication of Stein's books.
To Do Productions' Gertrude Stein and a Companion entertains and fascinates. It's well worth the look at the private life behind the legendary writer.
- Gertrude Stein (Karen Shields, front) and her partner Alice B. Toklas (Lisa Davis) collected the paintings of the artists they associated with in Paris.