Monday, May 1, 2017

Writer/Director's Note - The Marriage of Alice B. Toklas by Gertrude Stein

The program note for my upcoming play, The Marriage of Alice B. Toklas by Gertrude Stein

“What is the answer? Then, what is the question?”

Image by Clinton Corbett
Gertrude Stein’s supposed final words are for me a touchstone of my work in theater. My plays are not about answers, and even the questions can be elusive sometimes. It would be easy to say that this play is about gay marriage, or love, or genius, or art. It is partly about all those things, and I must admit that I was first motivated by the real world consequences of a marriage not yet recognized by law.

But above all it is a play simply inspired by the remarkable lives of two women. As it happens, they are two very important women, to the history of art and writing and theater. They are also just themselves. Their relationship was both radical and extremely conventional, falling into the patterns of heterosexual marriage to such an extent it was almost a parody of male and female roles. Yet simultaneously it was such an iconic lesbian relationship that when Gertrude described them in a poem as “regularly gay,” she inadvertently coined a new popular term for homosexuality. It was a partnership so close that sometimes their identities seemed to merge. Gertrude wrote a book in Alice’s voice, and Alice identified herself as being a mere conduit for Gertrude’s genius.

Much has been written about what makes Gertrude Stein extraordinary. And she was. But just as fascinating to me is Alice, who was content to be ordinary among extraordinary people. Content to be in the other room, entertaining the women, while the geniuses declaimed. Content to be Gertrude’s wife, even in a world where such a status was only implicitly recognized.

I have made a decision to base the portrayals in the show more on the accounts of Stein and Toklas than any other source (The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas, Everybody’s Autobiography, Wars I Have Seen, and What is Remembered). Toklas, for example, is often described as prickly by others, but in their accounts I also saw the softer, more loving side to her. What I am most interested in is who they are in their relationship to each other. I wanted to explore the way that the secret bond between two people can be quite different than the face they show to the general public.

The play is impressionistic, living out of time, in a world defined by words. Structurally, it is inspired not only by Stein, but by Beckett and Ionesco. It is the story of their life, but it is also the story of how I see their life. I wrote it in the wake of my own marriage, as I was first discovering what it means to be married. It is a story about them, it is a story about me, it is not really a story at all, just a whirlwind of moments and ideas. It gave me great pleasure to write play and stage the play, especially with such a talented collection of fellow artists. I hope it gives you pleasure to watch it.