A combination and not a contradiction

29/08/2006 § Leave a comment

A combination and not a contradiction
Gertrude Stein’s performative aesthetics

Uddrag af en artikel af Laura Luise Schultz

In her plays, Gertrude Stein explored a performative mode of writing
essential to her work in all genres. Her approach to the play as
a literary genre was informed by a notion of play as the performative
aspect of all writing and language. In Gertrude Stein’s aesthetic
thinking, play is almost a philosophical concept very close to modern
theories of performativity. In this essay, I shall focus on the interrelatedness
of Gertrude Stein’s plays, her concept of theatre, and
her performative poetics.

One of the basic problems of performance studies is how to
account for the relationship between performance art as a specific
artistic genre and other performative modes of artistic expression and
theoretical thinking. Gertrude Stein’s work can help us understand
how performance art relates to theatre, why the emergence of performative
modes of expression is from the beginning an intermedia
and cross-cultural phenomenon, and what, on a theoretical and
aesthetic level, is at stake in this transgressive practice.

Gertrude Stein’s performative plays
Gertrude Stein’s rethinking of the play involved a completely new
concept of theatre. In her dramatic writings, she deconstructs the
idea of a mimetic relation between text and performance. She undermines
the idea of performance as an illustration of the text, but
unlike most later performance art and avant-garde theatre, she does
so from within a dramatic tradition, without giving up the classical
notion of the play as a literary work of art in its own right.
In fact, her fundamental rethinking of the play as both a literary
genre and an aesthetic concept led Stein to develop a notion of
theatre that comes very close to the post-dramatic and experimental
performance theatre that has emerged from the 1960s and up until

By reconsidering the basic aesthetic qualities of the play, Stein
was able to overcome the strange division in modern western theatre
between a literary or dramatic theatre on the one hand and an
experimental or performance theatre on the other – an impasse from
which theatre is only recently beginning to emerge. As early as the
beginning of the twentieth century, Gertrude Stein anticipated a
theatre beyond this contradiction when she began to write plays
that were no longer dramatic in any psychological or naturalistic
way. Rather, her plays were performative; she wrote plays that were
themselves a kind of literary performance.
While avant-garde artists like the Italian futurists, Antonin Artaud,
and others, groped for a theatre of an absolute and immediate
physical presence, they often condemned the dramatic text in order
to be rid of a constricting dramaturgical logic associated with the
narrative hegemony of the naturalistic drama.

Gertrude Stein understood the crisis of theatre not as a conflict
between spoken or non-spoken theatre, but as part of a general crisis
of representation. As a writer, she focused precisely on the dramatic
text and its relation to the performance. If the relation between art
and reality was not simply that of a mimetic representation, then the
transformation from text to performance must also be considered
in other terms. Stein, as a result, wrote plays suited for a modern
performance theatre beyond a linear or ‘literary’ dramaturgy.
Stein’s reconception of the relation between text and performance
as a complex and multi-layered interrelation depends on a shift from
a mimetic to a performative notion of art, which in turn implies a
seminal reconsideration of the relation between representation and
reality. Instead of focusing on mimetic similarity, Stein conceived
of the work of art as a fi eld of interaction and exchange between the
representational and the real. Her paradigmatic model of this new
performative aesthetics was precisely the play in which the words
on the page are meant to generate the acts on the stage.

Gertrude Stein wrote her first plays in 1913. These early plays
were one of the most significant effects of the major artistic breakthrough
accomplished with Tender Buttons, her collection of prose
poems written in 1912. But before she wrote her first real play, presumably
What Happened A Five Act Play, Stein was experimenting
with small pieces and portraits that approached the dramatic genre in
different ways. In following this experimental process, one becomes
aware of the far-reaching aesthetic implications of Stein’s investigations
into a whole new genre of writing.
The one basic question that Stein’s plays raise is this: if the relation
between the dramatic text and the performance is not simply a
mimetic one – how then is the performance related to the text? One
way to examine this question is to pose it the other way around:

How is a text like a performance?
This question is an important part of Gertrude Stein’s investigation
into literature and drama. The text Play, which was probably written
in 1911, shows how the notion of play as an aspect of writing was
important to Stein even before she wrote her first real plays.

Play, play every day, play and play and play away, and then play the play
you played to-day, the play you play every day, play it and play it. Play
it and remember it and ask to play it. Play it, and play it and play away.
Certainly every one wants you to play, every one wants you to play away,
to play every day, to play and play, to play the play you play every day, to
play and remember it and ask to play it and play it and to play away and
to play every day and to-day and all day. That’s the way to play, to play
every day…. (Stein 1993: 147).

The play continues like this throughout the two pages of the text,
with slight variations of the word ‘play’ as a noun and a verb in the
same few constellations with other words. What we see – and hear
– is a literal wordplay. We follow the word ‘play’ literally being
put to play and set in motion down the pages. Most of the other
substantial words in the text rhyme with ‘play’. Words like ‘day’,
‘way’, ‘away’, ‘always’ and ‘all day’ all look and sound very much
like ‘play’, and the effect is that both graphically and audibly every
element of the text seems to be part of one material texture of letters
and sounds, which then at certain points assemble to form larger
motives and meanings. For instance, there is a sort of narrative
progress indicated through some more substantial changes in the
text. From the imperative and the infinitive at the start of the text,
the word ‘play’ moves through different processual verbal forms like
the present participle in order to finally arrive at the simple presence
of the last three paragraphs.

Like a painting by Cézanne, Stein’s text oscillates between the
texture of the surface and the illusion of depth. In Cézanne’s paintings,
every figure is modulated from a dense tissue of brushstrokes.
The same few colours are used in every figure, and every element
is thus bound to the surface, e.g. through a bluish tone covering
every part of the painting or through the use of passage: openings
in the contour, which is otherwise quite bold, thus adding to the
two-dimensional flatness of the figures.
In Stein’s text, we see the same oscillation between texture and
fi guration. The word ‘play’ is made to resonate in all its possible
meanings, from games and children’s play to theatrical and musical
performance. As Ulla Dydo says in her introduction, Play is “a
grammatical and musical happening of one word” (Stein 1993a: 147).
What is being staged in this text is a kind of concrete continuity
between the text and its subject. Stein is literally playing with the
word ‘play’.

Play, in its structure and texture, its slight permutations and
modulations, is typical of Stein’s early portraits. And though her
portraits were usually of people, not of words, the literal wordplay
is always part of her effort to achieve a kind of equivalence between
the text and the model. Stein’s portrait of the famous American
dancer, Isadora Duncan, written in 1911-12, is called Orta Or One
, and in this title she plays with the dancer’s name, bringing
the sounds and syllables to move in rhythmic patterns on the page,
similar to the dancer’s choreographed movements on stage.

Most of Stein’s early portraits are portraits of artists in which a
few sentences are modulated and brought to move in rhythmic patterns
relating to the person portrayed. The portrait does not really
describe the portrayed person; rather the analogy between text and
model is a complex relation between the character’s personality and
the rhythmic patterns of the text. The repeated phrases usually relate
to the person in ways which are not primarily descriptive, but more
allusive, and which can be modulated through different relations
and stages of the person’s life to encompass even confl icting aspects
of that person’s personality. In the portrait of Isadora Duncan, we
read the lines “She was one dancing and she was one not dancing.
She was one not dancing. She was one dancing.” (Stein 1993a: 130).
In this portrait, as in others, even different identities merge in the
rhythmic variations of pronouns throughout the text.
Stein herself described this method as a cinematographic

I was doing what the cinema was doing, I was making a continuous succession
of the statement of what that person was until I had not many things
but one thing. (Stein 1971: 106).

Through repetitions with slight variations, Stein managed to give a
portrait of one person, a portrait that was not static or referential in
any conventional way, but was a varied and shifting, and therefore
more adequate, rendering of that person’s being. Stein’s key term
to describe this mode of writing is insistence: it is the variations in
insistence that make a person as well as a text come alive through all
repetitions. Insistence is a kind of rhythmic essence or expression of
the living quality in any human being, expressed, for example, in the
rhythmic patterns of talking and writing. As long as the emphasis of
the expression is different, there is no real repetition but insistence.
Insistence is the variation of emphasis, the difference in the repetition:
“That is what makes life that the insistence is different, no
matter how often you tell the same story if there is anything alive
in the telling the emphasis is different.” (Stein 1971: 100).

For Stein then, the verbal rhythm of the text performs a kind of
fusion or material continuity between the written portrait and the
“rhythm” of the living person. Stein’s break with the idea of a mimetic
likeness as the founding principle of portraiture leads her first
of all to emphasize the material quality of language and insist on a
kind of material continuity between text and model achieved, for
instance, through the rhythmic modulations. Just as she can merge
identities and contradictions in the rhythmic flow of the portrait,
there is a merging of different levels of representation and reality
going on in the textual unfolding of the portrait. The deconstruction
of the mimetic impact of the portrait involves a performative mode of
writing: the relation between the portrait and the person portrayed
is an effect of language itself. One cannot summarize a Stein portrait,
since the subject gradually unfolds during the reading process.

The characters are not being described or characterized in Stein’s
portraits; rather, the rhythm of their being is transposed or absorbed
into the patterns of language. It is a kind of performative or creative
language that does what it says, produces its own meanings and
referents, and produces its own mimetic effect. It is not that there
is no likeness between the portrait and the model, but the relation
is an effect of the writing, not a precondition of it.

About her later portraits of the twenties, Stein says in her lecture
Portraits and Repetition:

I made them contained within the thing I wrote that was them. The thing
in itself folded itself up inside itself like you might fold a thing up to be
another thing which is that thing inside in that thing.
Do you see what I mean.
If you think how you fold things or make a boat or anything else out of
paper or getting anything to be inside anything, the hole in the doughnut
or the apple in the dumpling perhaps you will see what I mean. (Stein
1971: 120).

What Stein describes here is an asymmetrical relation between the
portrait and the model: both a likeness and a material continuity. The
boat is made out of paper, like the portrait is made out of language.
The boat is at once (like) a boat and a paper; the portrait has at once
a representational and a material quality that determine its relation
to the real, i.e. to the person portrayed.

A world of words
Stein reached a major breakthrough in her writing in 1912, most
prominently expressed in the collection of prose poems called Tender
. Tender Buttons contains three sections called Objects, Food
and Rooms. While Rooms is written in one flow, the first two sections
consist of short pieces each with a title written in capital letters.
These headings, with a few exceptions, refer to either articles of food
or physical objects from the domestic sphere, like A BOX, A RED
HAT, A TABLE. But the texts are in no way ordinary descriptions
of those objects.

Artiklen er et bidrag til antologien

Performative Realism
Interdisciplinary Studies in Art and Media

Edited by
Rune Gade & Anne Jerslev

© 2005, Museum Tusculanum Press and the authors
All rights reserved

Museum Tusculanum Press
Njalsgade 94
DK-2300 Copenhagen S

Læs resten af artiklen i Gade og Jerslev (red): Performative Realism – Interdisciplinary Studies in Art and Media


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