Theater 32.2 (2002) 18-20
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Jane Bowers on Gertrude Stein's Theater Landscapes
An excerpt from a larger essay in the forthcoming anthology Land/Scape/Theater, eds. Elinor Fuchs and Una Chaudhuri, 2002: University of Michigan Press
In her 1935 lecture "Plays," Gertrude Stein explains that the theater works collected in her 1932 volume Operas and Plays are landscapes. She goes on to say that they were inspired by the landscape around her summer house in Bilignin, France. I would suggest, however, that when Stein calls her plays landscapes, she is drawing an analogy not, as she seems to claim, to an actual physical landscape but to a genre of art—the landscape painting. By imagining her plays as painted landscapes, Stein was able to free herself from dramatic conventions and experiment with new forms that had their source in contemporary painting, not dramatic literature.
Stein saw the natural landscape itself as a composition simply waiting to be transposed into a play. In Lectures in America she writes:
The landscape has its formation . . . 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. . . . And of that relation I wanted to make a play and I did, a great number of plays.1
This formation or composition of the landscape to which Stein refers is as much a cultural artifact as literature, art, or architecture; that is, landscape is not the same as nature. Landscape is a way of seeing, the imposition of a point of view upon nature. The principles of composition that cause us to contemplate a landscape in a particular way are learned and culturally determined. Landscape is always artificial, always a composition, whether created as such by a landscape architect or organized that way by the eye of the perceiver trained by art to compose the view. As Stein points out in "Composition As [End Page 18] Explanation," it is not the natural world that changes from generation to generation but our way of viewing it and our way of using it: "The only thing that is different from one time to another is what is seen and what is seen depends upon how everybody is doing everything. . . . Everything is the same except composition."2
One might reasonably expect that a play imagined as a landscape would use language sparingly and would instead specify a series of pictures that theater practitioners would be expected to bring into existence. Thinking rather of Stein's plays as "lang-scapes," we can understand why they are never silent and why the air of the theaters in which they are produced is dense with their words, filling the ear as, in print, they fill the eye. These are landscapes made entirely of language, word compositions in the same sense that the experiential landscape is a tree-hill composition.
As for the physical realization of her plays, though Stein intended that they be performed (she was not writing closet dramas), she took only a minimal interest in the staging of the few that were performed in her lifetime. Rather she deferred—in Four Saints, for example—to the collective judgment of producers, set designers, composers, choreographers, and directors, for she had few fixed ideas about how her plays should be realized and she did not provide detailed stage directions. It follows that Stein's plays are not landscapes in the sense that they dictate particular ways of using theater space to those who would stage them or to those whose theater praxis they were to influence. Rather, Stein's plays are lang-scapes in the sense that they showed a new kind of composition for the theater of the twentieth century and suggested that language might play a central role in that composition.
With landscape painting rather than dramatic literature as her model, Stein could release language from the requirement that it tell a story, create psychologically believable characters, or convey sequential thinking. Narration, psychology...