background and lead-up to the project
Gertrude Stein wrote her first play, What Happened. A Five Act Play, in 1913, not long after a key transition in her writing. During the previous decade she had written her thousand-page novel, The Making of Americans, as well as more than a dozen portraits in a repetitive prose style that consisted of long sentences filled with gerundive forms. This was the style of two other books written at this time, Many Many Women and A Long Gay Book, which included depictions of small groups. In the last few pages of A Long Gay Book Stein discovered a new technique: the lucid, opaque poetic style that she would use in Tender Buttons. The plays that she began writing in the 19-teens combined this new style with overheard conversation in an effort to portray the dynamics of groups.
Stein partly explains this transition in her lecture “Plays” (written in 1934):
I had before I began writing plays written many portraits. I had been enormously interested all my life in finding out what made each one that one and so I had written a great many portraits.
I came to think that since each one is that one and that there are a number of them each one being that one, the only way to express this thing each one being that one and there being a number of them knowing each other was in a play.
Stein’s plays are portraits of aggregates of individuals in epistemological relation or, to put this another way, they are experiments in group psychology. Her plays depict relations of dynamic knowing among a (generally small) number of people.
It turns out that the best way to explore these plays and the tricky terrain of group psychology is to stage them, or to imagine their staging. I happened on this idea in a graduate seminar on Stein that I ran at the University of British Columbia in 2004. When the students found her plays particularly challenging, I suggested that imagining their staging might help us to approach them critically. One of the students (Heather Arvidson) took up this idea and completed an MA thesis that combined interpretation with a theatrical staging of scenes from A Play Called Not and Now. The performance she directed demonstrated that staging Stein’s lesser-known plays could help readers to understand and enjoy them.
In addition to teaching Stein, my collaborative work on musical audiodrama or “melodrama” has led to the Radio Free Stein project. As I understand the genre, melodrama integrates dialogue or spoken word with music in a manner that maintains an equivalence between verbal and musical registers. Stein’s plays are ideal vehicles for continuing this experiment. Her landscape poetics insist on an equivalence between all theatrical elements.
Radio Free Stein follows from these various efforts. It consists of a series of group attempts to understand Stein’s lesser-known plays, keeping in mind how necessary, enjoyable, and fundamentally frustrating such collaborations, and group experiences generally, tend to be.
- For more information on this project, please see a short paper published in The Capilano Review 3.22 (Winter 2014).
- For a technical reading of Stein’s lecture “Plays” by way of a handful of theories of emotion, please see my essay “Loose Coordinations: Theater and Thinking in Gertrude Stein,” in Science in Context 25.3 (September 2012). A revised version of this essay appears in Transferential Poetics, from Poe to Warhol (Fordham University Press, 2015).