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The Expansion of Setting in Gertrude Stein's Landscape Theater

Gertrude Stein interviewed by William Lundell for NBC Radio, November 12, 1934. Image courtesy of the Beinecke Library, Yale University.

If you’re looking for a theory of modernist setting, you could do worse than to turn to Gertrude Stein’s plays and landscape theater poetics. Recall that in her 1934 lecture “Plays” Stein offers her solution to the peculiar problem of “nervousness,” the emotional syncopation she perceives between audience and events on the stage.[1] Bothered by the inordinate claim that narrative makes on audience attention and, as a result, “the different tempo there is in the play and in yourself and your emotion,” Stein turns away from story to landscape: “I felt that if a play was exactly like a landscape then there would be no difficulty about the emotion of the person looking on at the play” (“Plays,” 94, 122). Like other modernist playwrights (Brecht, say), Stein rejected the Aristotelian hierarchy of theatrical elements in which plot (mythos) and character (ethos) take precedence over speech, song, and spectacle. In her poetics of landscape theater, something analogous to setting or mise-en-scene expands to include these other elements: “the landscape not moving but being always in relation, the trees to the hills the hills to the fields the trees to each other any piece of it to any sky and then any detail to any other detail, the story is only of importance if you like to tell or hear a story but the relation is there anyway” (125). Stein’s plays, in displacing story, become all setting.[2]

How are we to understand this expansion of setting in Stein’s theater poetics? What does such an expansion, out to and including a spectator’s affective and perceptual experiences, have to do with the physical settings (if any) of Stein’s plays? These questions, and many others, have come up in the context of a project I have been pursuing for the last few years called Radio Free Stein, a large-scale critical and dramatic sound project that renders a number of Stein’s plays in the medium of recorded sound. The intentions of this project are at once aesthetic and critical. By producing sonic stagings of Stein’s plays in collaboration with composers (as well as directors, actors, singers, musicians, sound engineers, and other Stein scholars), I have been able to develop interpretations of some of the lesser-known plays and new ways to locate Stein’s theater poetics in the contexts of twentieth-century performance, contemporary music, and radio. My thinking here about setting is informed by the practical contexts of workshops, musical collaborations, and recordings that aim to make Stein’s plays available in and as performance.

At the same time, it is informed by a reading I have done of Stein’s lecture “Plays” by way of several theories of affect and emotion, those of William James, Silvan Tomkins, and, the central figure of this paper, Wilfred Bion.[3] During the 1950s and 60s, Bion, a member of the Kleinian group of object-relations analysts, developed an innovative theory of thinking that evolved out of his clinical experiences. In his attempts to understand schizophrenic disorders of thought as well as the regressive phantasies that accompany much group experience, Bion made use of Melanie Klein’s notion of projective identification, in which an unwanted part of the self is aggressively projected outward and located elsewhere. As Bion understands it, thinking itself emerges from a dyadic relation in which the mother, in a calm state of mind he calls “reverie,” can contain the infant's psychic projections (in particular, its fears and frustrations), modify them, and make them available for reintrojection. As the infant matures it may develop its own apparatus for thinking by introjecting the very capacity to contain what it would otherwise project outward. Thinking, then, involves a constant to-and-fro of projective and introjective identification or a transference of emotional elements (in Kleinian terms, good and bad part-objects); it involves a modification rather than evasion of fear and frustration.

Bion eventually recasts his theory of thinking in terms of a container-contained relation that plays out not only between mother and infant, but also between analyst and analysand, group and individual, thinker and thought, or word and idea. The container-contained relation is fundamentally reciprocal or reversible. A group may contain an individual, but so may an individual contain a group; similarly, a word (or other aesthetic form) may contain a meaning, but so may a meaning (such as a dream, a feeling, a perception) contain words (and other forms).[4] In my reading of her landscape poetics, Stein seeks to compose plays that are reversible containers in Bion’s sense in which experiences of reverie permit thinking to become possible both for audience members and for players on the stage. The problem of narrative theater lies in its failure to accommodate the to-and-fro of emotional coordination that leads to thinking; it leads, instead, to the “nervousness” of emotional syncopation. Stein comes to model her plays on landscapes because they afford “a movement in and out with which anybody looking on can keep in time,” a loose transferential coordination that she sees as necessary for thinking (“Plays,” 131). The play-as-landscape becomes an opportunity for participants to experience new knowledge rather than simply to hear another story (“Everybody knows so many stories and what is the use of telling another story” [118]).  

Landscapes as Group Portraits

Such an approach by way of affect theory can be helpful not only for understanding Stein's poetics but also for staging her plays. For example, consider Stein’s For the Country Entirely. A Play in Letters (1916), which begins this way: “Almond trees in the hill. We saw them today.”[5] The play text offers no indication as to whether these lines—or, indeed, any others—are dialogue, stage direction, or setting description. Reading the play, a handful of lines point to physical settings (“With a view / Of trees and a hill,” “A country and a cup where they sell water,” and others [Stein, Geography and Plays, 227, 228]). In the Radio Free Stein recording we instructed the actors to speak these lines outside the ongoing flow of dialogue to produce specific sonic effects or “landscapes.” For the line “Almond trees in the hill” we set an exercise for the actors that encouraged a close, phonemic attention that aims to evoke an experience of reverie. (Please listen to the first minute or so of our recording of For the Country Entirely.) Generally, in this project affect theory guides decisions that are needed to move from the text of a Stein play to a script or libretto that we can work with in performance and recording.

In its concern with performance, this approach complicates the work of Jane Palatini Bowers whose book treatment of Gertrude Stein’s “metadrama,” published twenty-five years ago, is still among the most thoroughgoing and persuasive accounts of Stein’s theater poetics.[6] For Bowers, Stein’s plays are fundamentally antagonistic to the basic conditions of theatrical performance insofar as they foreground language and writing themselves: “language represents nothing other than itself. Words are the things that are exhibited during the performance of a Stein play. The text-making activity of the poet and her language become a theatrical event” (“They Watch Me,” 132). For Bowers, it seems fair to say, the setting for Stein’s plays is always and only language and the scene of writing. My critical work has aimed to supplement such a poststructuralist theoretical framework with theories of affect, especially those (like Melanie Klein’s and Silvan Tomkins’s) that do not oppose language to affect but offer a complex interweaving or mutual implication. Such an orientation toward affect lets us begin to account for the crucial role for groups in the development of Stein’s theater poetics. Consider this excerpt from “Plays”:

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. And so I began to write these plays. (119)

Cited by Bowers (and others) but never really explained, this excerpt specifies Stein’s playwriting as a form of group portraiture. Stein wrote her first plays in 1913 (What Happened, White Wines, A Curtain Raiser) not long after she completed A Long Gay Book and Many Many Women, prose works that depict small numbers of individuals, mostly couples and triples. I noted earlier that Bion developed his theory of thinking out of his clinical experience, not only with schizophrenic patients, but also with groups. Indeed, Bion coined the term “group therapy” to mean not the therapy of the individual in the group, but the therapy of the group as such. Similarly, for Stein, plays offer a form for exploring aggregates of individuals in epistemological relation. Bion recasts the necessary, productive, but inevitably frustrating relations between the individual and the group in terms of various reciprocal relations between container and contained. It would appear that there is an affective and conceptual link between Stein’s portrayal of group dynamics, on the one hand, and her compositional goal of writing plays that can afford experiences of thinking, on the other. 

In conventionally Aristotelian drama, the portrayal of individuals in relation requires story: plot and character become functions of one another, the dynamics of the various characters in a group emerging from the interplay between these basic theatrical elements. Oedipus wouldn’t be Oedipus if he hadn’t killed Laius, his father, and married Jocasta, his mother; the distressed heroine of any number of nineteenth-century melodramas is characterized by her trials involving the villain and a set of witnesses (including the audience). When Stein chooses not to tell stories in her plays, this does not imply that there is no story to tell, but rather that she seeks to portray intersubjective dynamics without the help of oedipalizing narrative: “in my early plays I tried to tell what happened without telling stories so that the essence of what happened would be like the essence of the portraits, what made what happened be what it was” (“Plays,” 121–22). These group dynamics, I am suggesting, comprise a primary setting for her plays, a setting that expands to include the group nature of theatrical production itself (director, actors, designers, audience members, and so on) as well as all other theatrical elements precisely because of her refusal of narrative, her refusal to subscribe to the dramatic technique whereby plot and character become functions of one another (“the story is only of importance if you like to tell or like to hear a story but the relation is there anyway” [125]). I agree with Bowers that language and the scene of writing are significant settings for Stein; certainly, for some of the plays, they become utterly salient or primary (for example, Four Saints in Three Acts and What Happened). But I disagree with the idea that the plays depict the process of their own writing and nothing else. While Stein’s plays, like all of her writing, make available a reflexive attention to the act of composition (and are, in this sense, metadramas), they are also complexly interwoven with the world that Stein inhabited, and the world that we inhabit as well. If we are to believe Stein, they are compositional recreations of the affective dynamics of an aggregate of individuals, a recreation that is attempted without story.

Parlor Plays

When working with any given play on the Radio Free Stein project, I often begin with the question: what affective group dynamics are being portrayed? It has been most helpful to answer this question in workshops with a number of readers, as if, somehow, it takes a group of readers to arrive at a feeling for the group whose dynamics Stein aims to recreate (group transference, perhaps). These workshops are lively and engaging opportunities to air Stein's words, to grapple with the meanings and feelings that emerge from reading her plays both alone and in company. A workshop usually begins in helpless disarray, with a handful of desultory observations and ideas. By the end, however, we almost always arrive at tentative answers to basic questions that will let me transcribe Stein’s play text into a scenario or libretto that a composer can use. In developing these scenarios and libretti, I have sometimes found it useful to propose theatrical settings in the more conventional sense, and one that has emerged repeatedly is the parlor. Thinking especially of Stein’s early plays as parlor plays has a few benefits. It distinguishes them from “closet dramas,” the unfortunate phrase that Martin Puchner has chosen to describe Stein’s plays but which does not suit the outness (sexually and formally) of her queer theater.[7] “Parlor play” improves on Bowers’s term “conversation play” by retaining the connotations of speech (parler) but specifying an intimate, shared, psychically charged domestic space. Parlor, I suggest, foregrounds the performativity of setting and the compositional continuities between scenes of writing and other scenes of Stein’s everyday life with Alice Toklas and their salon associates in Paris.

Indeed, the parlor serves as setting and meta-setting, as both container and contained, in a way that a naturalist background cannot. For example, in Radio Free Stein’s interpretation of He Said It. Monologue (1915), the parlor setting, and the piano so often found in this bourgeois space, help to resolve an interpretive problem. The play’s subtitle contradicts its sequence of first- and second-person sentences that clearly evoke a dialogue between at least two people. In workshop several of us heard three distinct voices in Stein’s play text, which led us to interpret it as depicting two women (Speaker and Hearer) engaged in the process of recalling and recreating a man’s monologue that they have recently heard. Solo piano, interspersed with the dialogue, offers a musical rendering of the monologue, with the pianist, who is also the Narrator, occasionally commenting on and intervening in its recreation. The play is made more complex since both women accompany their dialogue with quiet subvocalizations that qualify or reinflect their utterances. The parlor and piano, more than background, offer reciprocal relations of psychical containment for this scene of recreation.

Similarly, we set White Wines (1913) in a domestic space undergoing change or crisis. Stein wrote this play around the time her brother Leo moved out of their shared accommodations in Paris. Their close relationship had come under increasing strain as Stein dedicated herself to writing and to Toklas—who, by 1913, had become Stein’s primary partner and support. When Leo moved to Florence the siblings split up their household, including their art collection, finances, and furniture.[8] Stein takes up these intensive reconfigurations of domesticity in White Wines, an unusual text in that it indicates number and gender of players (“Five women”) and distinguishes clearly between consecutive acts (“1. All together. / 2. Witnesses. / 3. House to house.”). We interpreted the play as taking a reader or audience through the process of making new spaces of sexual, emotional, and architectural containment for the work of composition.

In Stein’s landscape theater setting not only expands, it multiplies. The parlor, as a physical space that holds or contains speech, music, writing, and domesticity accommodates these various settings and their interweaving in Stein’s compositional poetics. The parlor also foregrounds the larger media contexts—the technologies and institutions of radio broadcasting—that I take to be an important context for Stein’s orientation toward audience affect but do not have space to explore here. I’ll just note, by way of a conclusion that opens up to broader concerns, that the treatment of setting in Stein’s landscape theater shares something with modernist practices across the arts: with flatness in Cezanne and the cubists; with serialism in European music, and with the lucid yet oblique composition of Erik Satie and (early) John Cage; with an emphasis on parataxis in modernist poetry; with an evenly distributed attention in phenomenology and psychoanalysis. In each of these cases, inherited formal distinctions between figure and ground become labile and reversible. No doubt Bion’s approach to the reversibility of the container-contained relation can be brought to bear on other questions of modernist aesthetics.


[1] Gertrude Stein, “Plays,” in Lectures in America (Boston, MA: Beacon Press, 1985), 95.

[2] For a sense of the significance of Stein’s landscape poetics and its displacement of story for twentieth-century non-naturalist theater, see the essays collected in Land/Scape/Theater, ed. Elinor Fuchs and Una Chaudhuri (Ann Arbor: The University of Michigan Press, 2002).

[3] See Adam Frank, “Loose Coordinations: Theater and Thinking in Gertrude Stein,” in Transferential Poetics, from Poe to Warhol (New York: Fordham University Press, 2015), 96–118.

[4] This is an extraordinarily compressed summary of selected aspects of Wilfred Bion's very complex, nuanced, and changing work in the following books: Experiences in Groups (1961), Learning from Experience (1962), Second Thoughts (1967), and Attention and Interpretation (1970). See the entry for Bion in R. D. Hinshelwood, A Dictionary of Kleinian Thought (London: Free Association Books, 1991).

[5] Gertrude Stein, Geography and Plays (New York: Something Else Press, 1968), 227.

[6] Jane Palatini Bowers, “They Watch Me as They Watch This”: Gertrude Stein’s Metadrama (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1991). See also Bowers’s essay, “The Composition That All the World Can See: Gertrude Stein’s Theater Landscapes,” in Land/Scape/Theater, 121–44. More recent book-length treatments of Stein’s theater include Sarah Bay-Cheng, Mama Dada: Gertrude Stein’s Avant-Garde Theater (New York: Routledge, 2004) and Leslie Atkins Durham, Staging Gertrude Stein: Absence, Culture, and the Landscape of American Alternative Theatre (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2005).

[7] See Martin Puchner, Stage Fright: Modernism, Anti-Theatricality, and Drama (Baltimore, MD: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2002).

[8] For an excellent biographical treatment of their relationship, see Brenda Wineapple, Sister Brother: Gertrude and Leo Stein (Baltimore, MD: Johns Hopkin University Press, 1996).