Alice Toklas Get Her Due

Miriam Margoyles and Pamela Rabe, who star in ‘Gertrude Stein and a Companion’, the play about the American couple who were once the toast of the Paris literati, are keen to set the record straight: Alice B. Toklas, the often overlooked half of the relationship, was no lapdog.

According to Ms Rabe, the Melbourne actress who plays Alice in what the pair believe is the definitive version of the couple’s life: “The public perception is that Gertrude was the forceful one, the mover, the doer, and Alice was just the shadow in the background, hanging off the glory of Gertrude. I think that those that were close to them were aware that the balance was slightly different.”

The willowy Ms Rabe and, in her own words, the “short, fat and Jewish” Ms Margolyes — who have been described as a couple as incongruous as Stein and Toklas themselves — were preparing for the play’s Melbourne opening (tonight, at the Universal Theatre, Fitzroy). after a successful Sydney season. Despite its title, they said ‘Gertrude Stein and a Companion’ was essentially about Alice and her crucial role in the relationship.

Gertrude Stein and Alice B. Toklas’ 40-year relationship began early this century. Gertrude, a writer, would “hold court” with Paris’ “literati and glitterati” — Picasso, Hemingway, T.S. Eliot, “anyone who was anyone” — while Alice, an intellectual in her own right, would entertain the wives.

“Gertrude was a wonderful self-publicist,” Ms Rabe said. “When Alice met her, her bells rang and she made an instant decision that this was someone who needed her and vice versa and she then set about devoting her life to making Gertrude possible; to making Gertrude happy, secure; making it possible for her to write and for her to hold court… the only credit, the only kudos that she needed was from Gertrude.”

The pair were quick to point out that the play was more than simply an intellectual biography. It was, they asserted, a “celebration of marriage”.

The irrepressible Ms Margolyes — whose advertising work in the UK has earned her the title “The Queen of Voiceovers” and who has appeared in a string of stage, television and film productions — said: “It’s also very funny. Everyone has been saying ‘I never knew it was so funny. I thought it’s about two dead dykes, its going to be a bit of a yawn’ and they are rocking with laughter. It’s funnier than most plays that call themselves comedies. It’s richly funny. It’s a delicate and refined script that is also occasionally raucous and bawdy.”

‘Gertrude Stein and a Companion’ was written by the late American writer, Win Wells, and was originally three hours long with eight actors. The director, Sonia Fraser, pruned the cast and the length of the play, creating a compact production with a crew of two and only two actresses and a musician. The result is economical and a challenge for the two actresses, who each play several parts — Ms Margolyes plays, among other characters, Hemingway; Ms Rabe appears as Gertrude’s brother and Alice’s first lover.

The play was first performed at the 1984 Edinburgh Festival, where it was lauded and awarded. It has since gone on to successful seasons in Canada, Britain and the United States, leaving Ms Margolyes wondering how her next project, whatever it may be, could possibly equal it.

The success of the play is a professional and personal victory for Ms Margolyes, who decided to produce it herself four years ago when no one else would look at it.

Ms Margolyes said she never doubted that the play would be a success, but at the same time, never imagined it would be a “worldwide triumph”. “I knew it was a damn good part for me — which was what mattered — and that it was about things which matter to me. It was about love and women and women in love — things that I wanted to see properly represented on stage but I didn’t know that it was going to be the phenomenal success that it is.

“This is an unusual piece of theatre. Australia has never seen anything like it, that I can tell you, because there isn’t anything like it. There is no play like this one anywhere in the world and never has been. It is an extraordinary piece. Really.”

It quickly becomes apparent that Miriam Margolyes’ reputation for straight-talking is not undeserved. ‘Gertrude Stein’, she asserted, was “real theatre” unlike ‘Starlight Express’, ‘Les Miserables’ or ‘Cats’. Such big commercial productions were dismissed by Ms Margolyes as “crap” and by Ms Rabe as “simply blatant marketing exercises”. “You’re Just clapping bits of scenery, you’re not clapping theatre,” Ms Margolyes said.

The pair are similarly direct about the stage portrayal of lesbianism. The play was erotic but not explicit. “It’s about the consumate, full marriage of minds as well as bodies,” Ms Rabe said.

Perhaps surprisingly, no one has taken offence. One English reviewer, Ms Margolyes marvelled, even admitted to being envious of such a love-filled relationship.

“Real love isn’t confined in boundaries of sexual roles; real love embraces everybody and this is a play for every-body, whether they are gay or straight or whatever. Love is love. Love is a bath that everyone can throw themselves into.”

Interview by Ingrid Svendsen
Source: The Age | 04 November 1987

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