Tuesday, June 9, 2015


Gertrude Stein (1874-1946) wrote seventy-seven plays and operas between 1913 and 1946, however, her literary talents were so diverse that her work as a playwright is sometimes forgotten or considered less significant.  While some of her later plays and operas were produced in the theatre, her early plays were not.  It is two of her World War One plays that are the subject of this post.  Please Do Not Suffer: A Play (1916) and Accents in Alsace: A Reasonable Tragedy (1919).  Since Stein’s works have been widely studied, I would not be surprised if these two plays have had more readers than most of the World War One plays I have written about in my past posts.  Stein’s early plays are experimental pieces written during a period when many young playwrights were striving to break out of the old mode of romanticism and even the newer realistic style.

Please Do Not Suffer: A Play does not attempt to deal with a sense of time. It is random thoughts, sometimes reflecting a character’s situation.  Other speeches appear to be a trigger for the following comments made by a male or female named character, however, the overall effect is the play is built on interior monologues without a break in the action or different moments in time.       

“Please” is a short play with a variety of characters from different social ranks. Their mundane discussions are punctuated with a sentence or two relating to the war: “She has a brother who is fighting.”  “I ask do you believe that the French are winning.”  Stein was back in France when she wrote this play and it illustrates how daily conversations can appear to be normal, but war is always an intrusive element in the daily life lived in an occupied country.  I would like to hear a reading of this play since the different voices would be clearly distinguishable in social rank, in age and in the manner of how the allusions to the war are mixed with the other revelations that shape the discussions. I once heard a recording of Gertrude Stein reading in the Greek language the section of her 1913 poem Sacred Emily with the sentence starting “A Rose is a rose is a rose” and I believe it is that memory that guides me to think this play could make a good audio drama.

Accents in Alsace: A Reasonable Tragedy, a very short play, teases with the idea of structure and character in what seems to me to be a playful manner.  There are no named characters in this play. The play starts with Act I and within three speeches moves to Act II.  After six lines there is a heading “Scene” followed after ten lines by a division titled “Another Act.”  This scramble of acts and numbers happens every few lines.  My favorites are “Act 425.” and “Act in America.”  Only a reader would appreciate these whimsical divisions. This type of structure helps me realize these are plays upon the page instead of plays upon the stage, but they breathe with an essence of immediacy that is theatrical.    

Sometime in 1917, Stein learned to drive an automobile. She and Alice B. Toklas delivered hospital supplies for the American Fund for French Wounded.  Following the conclusion of the war in 1919, they delivered civilian relief supplies in Alsace. This region was occupied by Germany throughout the war; however, it had been French prior to the conclusion of the Franco-Prussian War (1871).  The language in this area was distinctly different from either French or German.  The Alsatians spoke their own form of German. There are undoubtedly nuances in the speeches Stein incorporated that most contemporary readers would not comprehend without further study. 

While Stein and Toklas were traveling in the area after the war, they obviously heard stories and learned about the conditions during the war and immediately following the armistice saw for themselves the results. Stein’s brief speeches in the play give glimpses into some of the conditions during the war and following. They also reveal some sense of the feelings and thoughts of the particular people in this region.  Their unique identity is inherent in Stein’s work and it imparts a different set of voices from World War One.

If you have not read these two short plays, I hope you will since the perspective is unusual and the form may charm you or else present a fascinating puzzle.

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