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Theater 32.2 (2002) 1

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Up Front


Three months after World War II ended in Europe, Life magazine published an article by Gertrude Stein, introducing it with this brief note:

Gertrude Stein, whose poetry ("Pigeons on the grass alas.") and prose have been a source of both inspiration and bafflement to three generations of U.S. writers, lived in France throughout the German occupation. At Life's suggestion she undertook the trip through Germany she describes here. Stein admirers will be glad to see that both her literary style and her shrewd insight have survived the war undamaged.

Life was the most popular newsweekly of the period, read by millions: pure mass culture. People who look back with nostalgia or disdain on postwar America as a simple, conformist time should think again—as should those who consider the avant-garde persistently marginalized and oppositional.

Stein's entire article is like the photo caption facing this page, light but triumphant, a bit sentimental, sometimes nicely snarky about the military and sometimes not so nicely bigoted. One of its best moments—which Life emphasized through a subhead—comes when Stein responds to an American general who asks her how the Germans should be re-educated. "I said there is only one thing to be done and that is to teach them disobedience . . . get their minds confused and perhaps then they will be disobedient and the world will be at peace. . . . General Osborne shook his head sadly, you'll never make the heads of an army understand that."

The authors in our Stein section, however, tell us (among much else) that Stein had her obedient moments in occupied France and deeply admired Marshal Pétain, the head of the collaborationist Vichy government. The photo itself could be, at first glance, direly misinterpreted. Though we didn't intend it, such historical contradictions and ambiguities turn out to be at the heart of this issue of Theater, in Shawn-Marie Garrett's essay about minstrelsy and Rebecca Rugg's about American musicals, indeed in Mac Wellman's visions of Antigone, as much as in the Stein forum.

Stein might not like my reasons for ending with one of her soldier-dialogues, or maybe she would. Hard to tell, yet it's too apropos to leave out: "Well said one of them after all we are on top. Yes I said and is there any spot on earth more dangerous than on top. You don't like the Latins, or the Arabs or the Wops, or the British, well don't you forget a country can't live without friends." Publish that now, Life.


—Erika Munk


Enormous thanks to Carrie Hughes, who found Stein's article in Life.



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