- Mama Dada: Gertrude Stein's Avant-Garde Theater
Late in her book Mama Dada: Gertrude Stein's Avant-Garde Theater, Sarah Bay-Cheng describes an older Gertrude Stein living in the French countryside and, for the first time in her life, working to put food on the table. No longer the center of the social elite in her famous Paris salon, this Stein is a sobering figure of frailty and hardship in 1944. It was at this time that Stein, living with her partner Alice B. Toklas amid their country neighbors, wrote Yes Is for a Very Young Man (1944–45), which describes common French peasants dealing with the ramifications of war-torn life. It was her most personal and humane drama, crafted in the style of the well-made play and filled with succinct storyline and character motivations. Thus it was a major departure from the avant-garde aesthetic of the woman that Bay-Cheng refers to as "Mama Dada." Yes Is for a Very Young Man is also largely regarded as Stein's worst play. These final years of Stein's life and work—a period that could be read as anticlimax—becomes, in Bay-Cheng's hands, the riveting dénouement of a modern avant-garde master. The reader is, by that point in the book, so deeply involved with Stein and the genre that she helped to create, that the otherwise facile explanation that Bay-Cheng leaves us with seems downright enlightening: "On the basis of this play alone, one could perhaps argue that Stein is truly an avant-garde playwright, if only because she writes so poor a realistic play" (105).
To reach that point, Bay-Cheng takes a detailed look at many of Gertrude Stein's plays and uncovers new insights into the work of one of the least understood American playwrights. Beginning with Four Saints in Three Acts (1927) and ending with her final opera The Mother of Us All (1946), Bay-Cheng outlines three basic cultural and artistic trends of the twentieth century and uses them to examine Stein's major dramatic works. First, the rise of the historical avant-garde—with its focus on nihilism, attacks on God and power, assaults on audience/reader, and its absence of moralizing—is shown to permeate Stein's own work. Second, Bay-Cheng points to the development of film and its aesthetic of collage, fragmentation, and repetition as an influence on Stein's avant-garde output. Finally, the emergence of homosexuality as an identity in the twentieth century is used as a basis for understanding cinematic and theatrical queerness. Bay-Cheng writes about the effects of duplicitous and fragmented avant-garde tactics that keep the audience/reader perpetually off-kilter and questioning the male/female dichotomy. [End Page 347]
The introductory chapter of Mama Dada is focused primarily on the first of these cultural trends and is an excellent overview of the avant-garde movement in general. Bay-Cheng's second chapter, "Eyes Are a Surprise," examines cinema and Gertrude Stein's conflicted relationship with the genre. Stein wrote two screenplays, A Movie (1920) and Film: Deux soeurs qui ne sont pas soeurs (1929), and yet insisted she was an amateur screenwriter, ill-suited to the medium. Bay-Cheng disputes that assessment by dissecting the works and calling attention to the author's intimate understanding of and experimentation with filmic language, textual framing, and a mise-en-scéne that accentuated the Steinian "continuous present."
After highlighting film and demonstrating that it provided a base for Stein's avant-garde, Bay-Cheng devotes three core chapters to the theatrical output of Mama Dada. She uses Four Saints in Three Acts (1927), They Must. Be Wedded. To Their Wife (1931), and Listen to Me (1936) as reference points in her discussion of Stein's playfulness with words and skewing of reality. Stein disrupts audience expectations by erasing her individual identity and using her language to "rupture the fixed relationship between signifier and signified . . . names and...