On Stage: surreal vignettes from Gerturde Stein | Calendar | Chicago Reader

On Stage: surreal vignettes from Gerturde Stein 

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"Rose is a rose is a rose is a rose, is a rose" is a familiar example of Gertrude Stein's idiosyncratic way with words. So is "Pigeons on the grass alas." But how about this description of a petticoat: "A light white, a disgrace, an ink spot, a rosy charm"? Or this definition of a sound: "Elephant beaten with candy and little pops and chews all bolts and reckless reckless rats, this is this"? Or this brief comment on gracious eating: "Dining is west"?

These phrases come from Tender Buttons, Stein's first book to attract attention outside her own artistic circle. Tender Buttons was written between 1910 and 1913, about a decade after the American writer and art collector had settled in Paris with her companion Alice B. Toklas, and published in 1914 by the Claire Marie Press, a small vanguard publishing company run by a poet named Donald Evans. Evans had originally wanted to publish some of Stein's unproduced plays, but she refused to let them be issued in book form before they had been performed.

Now Tender Buttons itself has been reconceived as a theatrical text: Still Life With Stein, created and performed by New York-based actor and producer Laura Sheppard. First unveiled as a work in progress in 1986 in the Boston-Cambridge area, where Sheppard was then living, the one-act, one-woman piece has been presented at the Edinburgh Festival Fringe, Italy's Ente Festivale Chieri, and elsewhere in Europe, as well as in New York and around the east coast; its Chicago premiere opens this week under the auspices of Nicole Dreiske's International Performance Studio.

Despite its title, Still Life With Stein is not a portrait of Gertrude Stein (who has previously been impersonated in one-woman shows by Pat Carroll and Pat Bond, among others). "It's nobody's autobiography," Sheppard says. Rather, it's an attempt to evoke the period in which the book was written--a time when the rigid and insistently well-mannered attitudes of the Victorian era were finally collapsing as the world stood poised on the brink of global war.

The title of Sheppard's performance echoes Stein's characterization of Tender Buttons as a collection of verbal still lifes, literary equivalents of the pictures being made by the cubist artists she admired, such as Picasso and Braque. Just as a painter might create on canvas his highly personal visual interpretation of an orange or a room, in her book of prose poems (some quite short) Stein sought to evoke or respond to commonplace objects and notions in a decidedly uncommon way. "She was breaking up sentence structure and grammar the way painters were breaking up images into many different fragments," explains Sheppard. "She was bringing in different perspectives, showing the inside and the outside, and she was exploring the subconscious realm. It wasn't stream of consciousness, like James Joyce; she felt she was putting down on paper a distillation of thoughts."

Cryptic and dense, Tender Buttons was greeted with hostility and ridicule by the condescending American press. In part this may have reflected U.S. prejudice against European modernism as--in the words of Stein's friend Mabel Dodge--"something degenerate & effete & decadent . . . because, hang it all, as long as they don't understand a thing they think all sorts of things." But the book had its followers--among them the composer Virgil Thomson (who said it changed his life), the poet Jean Cocteau, and the short-story writer Sherwood Anderson, who described it as "a sort of Lewis and Clark expedition" of literature. Others have likened the work to an amusement park, Alice's wonderland, Shakespeare's Forest of Arden.

Such elaborate metaphors are ironic considering that the book's fundamental concern is with the imperfections of metaphor making. Deliberately (and, she acknowledged, not with complete success), Stein attempted to describe things not by comparing them to other things but by evoking an experience of them; her tools were words--their sounds, their textures, and the associations they suggested. She used repetition, rhyme, alliteration, allusion, and sometimes cleverly disguised puns to write about, among other things, chicken ("Alas a dirty word, alas a dirty third, alas a dirty bird") and red roses ("A cool red rose and a pink cut pink, a collapse and a sold hole, a little less hot"). Some of the book seems to be a coded description of her domestic and sexual life with Toklas; the writer William H. Gass interprets the entry "Peeled Pencil, Choke: Rub her coke" as a multileveled meditation on sex with men versus sex with women.

For Sheppard, the text is "a series of surreal vignettes," which she seeks to bring to life through a collection of generally comic characters. The basic setting of Still Life With Stein is a formally set dining table in Paris in 1913. Period pieces are a specialty of Sheppard's; the large-scale theatrical events she has mounted include tableaux at the opening celebration for the Metropolitan Museum of Art's Degas exhibition and the Lincoln Center's 1989 Bastille Day Bicentennial festivities.

"The main character whom I play is called the Lady Who Dines," says Sheppard. "She sits down to have this little dinner party to which the audience has been invited. Then things start to--change. Different characters emerge and time and place is suspended. We go to a salon, a German cabaret, a tea party, an Italian restaurant, the table of a military officer. . . . As in cubism, you're seeing different personalities, lives, and perspectives from this one dinner table. . . . I play on figures of speech, conventions of dining. There's even a tango--and I give tango lessons after the show. You see, 1913 was also the year Vernon and Irene Castle introduced the tango to Paris."

Sheppard believes her show will stimulate audiences to consider their own responses to the material. "Which is what Stein was trying to do," she says, by inviting multiple, subjective interpretations to her abstract language. The very title Tender Buttons has been explained as a reference to a woman perusing her button collection (and certainly buttons removed from their usual positions on clothing are comparable to words ripped from their conventional contexts, as they were by Stein), to peyote-induced hallucinations, and to sex. "I did talk to Virgil Thomson once when he was in Boston," Sheppard says, "and I asked him what it meant. All he said was, "Oh, it was considered very risque, my dear."'

Still Life With Stein plays through November 17 at the International Performance Studio at Facets Multimedia, 1517 W. Fullerton. Show times are Thursday through Saturday at 8 PM and Sunday at 3 PM; tickets are $12-$15. For more information, call 281-9075.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/C.M. Hardt.

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