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PRESENCE OF MIND Bonnie Marranca few years ago, in the newly redesigned Bryant Park, adjacent to the New York Public Library in mid-town Manhattan, a statue of Gertrude Stein was set in place. The New York Times account of the event, not without a humorous aside, noted that, except for the monument to St. Joan of Arc further uptown at Riverside Park, this was the only sculpture of a woman in a New York City park, not counting Alice in Wonderland and Mother Goose. The bronze statue of Stein, in which she is seated in one of her long skirts, probably brown corduroy, legs wide apart, shoulders slightly hunched over, was made in 1923 by her friend Jo Davidson who admitted he had made her into a modern Buddha. Perhaps such female companions are not so extraordinary for a woman who loved saints and, well, lived in a kind ofwonderland with her own Alice. Besides, as the "Mother Goose of Montparnasse," she never hesitated to sprinkle a few nursery rhymes into her writing. If city parks tend to be peopled with statues of the great men of history, so literary biographies are filled with the great men ofletters. Still, when one looks out over the vast field of twentieth-century literature, Gertrude Stein inhabits a landscape all her own. Provocation and confidence claim equal measure in her declaration that "the most serious thinking about writing in the twentieth century has been done by a woman." Herself. Gertrude Stein had come to Paris to live in the early years of the new century and never stopped writing, completing her masterwork of almost one thousand pages, The Making ofAmericans, by 1911, though it was not published until the midtwenties . By that time she had already written Three Lives, Tender Buttons, and A Long GayBook, and many, many portraits, plays, and stories. Since major publishers for the work were in short supply, and she suffered frequent rejection throughout her career, Stein published several books in her own Plain Edition, set up with proceeds from her sale of Picasso's Girlwith a Fan,and elsewhere when she could find the support in independent literary magazines and presses in America, England, and France. It was in 1913, in Mallorca, where Stein and her beloved Alice B. Toklas would later return to escape the First World War, that she began to write plays. What Happened 0 1 was the first of a long list that would number perhaps eighty by the time she completed The Mother ofUs Allin 1946, the year she died. Only a small selection of her plays has ever been produced, and Stein had to wait twenty years before she saw one of them on the stage, the now legendary production of FourSaints in ThreeActs. She was sixty years old. Stein's first triumph in the theatre coincided with her return to America in 1934 after an absence of three decades. By now she was a well-known figure in progressive artistic and intellectual circles, her reputation enhanced by the best-selling AutobiographyofAlice B. Toklas, published in America the year before her arrival. FourSaints had its premiere at the Wadsworth Athenaeum in Hartford, Connecticut, before moving on to Broadway, then Chicago where she saw it. She and Toklas were met at the dock by scores of reporters who had come to cover the event for the New York dailies. The famous Gimbel's department store featured a window display of "Four Suits in Two Acts." Stein herself marveled that cab drivers and shopkeepers recognized her on the street. The New Yorker, among several newspapers and magazines, featured a cartoon of the opera, and the New York Times building announced "Gertrude Stein has arrived in New York" in revolving lights. Four Saints, which was to become a starting point for the American art theatre tradition, brought together the ingenuity of Virgil Thomson, who composed the music, the producer/director John Houseman, Stein's painter friend Florine Stettheimer, who designed the sets and costumes, and the young choreographer Frederick Ashton. Thomson chose an all-black cast to sing the opera, for which Maurice Grosser had written a libretto, based on the Stein original. Stark...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1537-9477
Print ISSN
1520-281X
Pages
pp. 1-17
Launched on MUSE
2018-01-03
Open Access
No
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