When Gertrude Stein’s contemporaries said of the portrait Picasso painted of her that she did not resemble it, the painter responded “She will”. And she did — as Stein herself would have said. It’s difficult to know whether or not the Stein we see portrayed by Miriam Margoyles in GERTRUDE STEIN AND A COMPANION resembles the sibyl of Montparnasse Picasso knew so well. I think it’s likely that the character and the person are in fact quite dissimilar. Nevertheless, in this performance of Win Well’s play Picasso’s prophecy has been fulfilled. And it is a mark of the real profes-sionalism of this production, directed by Sonia Fraser, that his portrait serves as a model for Margoyles’ expansive, Falstaffian Stein: she wears the same capacious, ochre-coloured robe that inspired her companion Alice B Toklas to describe her as “a golden brown presence.” She also wears an orange brooch like the one Stein wore the first time Toklas met her in the rue de Fleurus apartment; Alice was so overawed by the voice greeting her that she was convinced Stein’s rich voice actually emanated from the brooch.
Stein’s bosomy bulk dominates the orange-lit Parisian studio set. She sits centre-stage in a high-backed armchair facing the audience, her elbows leaning on her parted legs, a monumental posture clearly also modelled on the Picasso portrait. The physical likeness of Margoyle’s stumpy Stein to the 200-pound original is confirmed by other contemporaries who described her as having “the face of a Roman emperor on the body of an Irish washerwoman” and “legs like stone pillars.”
It was Hemingway, Stein’s one-time friend, rumoured lover, then bitter enemy, who ex-pressed his dislike of Alice B Toklas by dubbing her Stein’s “companion”. And many of the best known stories about Stein have guided Wells in his scripting of Stein; it has also led him to avoid any overt reference to the companions’ lesbianism. The script is based for the most part on The Autobiography of Alice B Toklas, denounced by certain of its readers at the time as “sordid anecdotes” and “hollow, tinsel bohemianism and egocentric deformations.” While the book is in fact Stein’s own megalomaniac autobiography, the play can be seen as the first detached portrait of Alice B Toklas.
Pamela Rabe‘s stylish interpretation of the more challenging role of Toklas makes her to my mind the more interesting of the two characters. Her Toklas provides a convincing counter to the legend that has inscribed this woman merely as Stein’s shadow, anonymous and often ridiculed. Perhaps because Wells had less documentary evidence to go on he has created a more personal, private image of Toklas, as opposed to his more public, declamatory Stein. Rabe’s Toklas is nonetheless remarkably faithful to the few contemporary reports of this mysterious woman’s physical presence: thin and birdlike, with a large hooked nose, drooping eyelids and dark hair in a fringe, she reminded people of a gypsy, or “of something from the Old Testament”. Rabe has captured her waspish aggression and stubbornness, mixed with a quirky, biting sense of humour and an appealing awkwardness. Her tall, wiry body and clipped, high-pitched voice — contrasting with Margoyle’s appropriately sonorous contralto declamations — make her the Costello to Margoyle’s Abbott, their dialogue melodiously underscored in this production by Richard Percival’s playing of Peter Jarvis’s saxophone music.
While Stein is definitely a “mannish” presence on stage, Toklas is not simply a matching “female” figure. Rather, it’s as if her sixty years of devotion to the nourishment of Stein’s massive ego have somehow rendered her sexless. Alice is the provider and Gertrude the consumer. And in this sense Toklas does take on the conventional role of wife and secretary to Stein. The play makes you wonder if Stein would have done such a good job at mothering the artists in her circle if she in turn had not been mothered as if she were a child prodigy — and actually referred to as “Baby” by her “Pussy” Alice. It is the portrait of a successful and loving marriage; although theirs is a relationship that allows for little individual independence. And the two take such pleasure in each other: Gertrude repeatedly pronounces, “She’s delicious!” when Alice quips at her from her desk, or when the latter strides across the stage declaring her latest plan to launch Gertrude to fame and fortune.
In The Autobiography of Alice B Toklas the author has Toklas declare that Gertrude Stein is a genius. Whether she was or not (her writing is too flawed, in my opinion for this to be the case), both the book and the play have Toklas believing it and giving Stein what she craves personally and what she claims all artists need most: “Praise, praise, praise”. “My Life With The Great,” “Wives Of Geniuses I Have Sat With,” “My Twenty-Five Years With Gertrude Stein” are the titles Stein proposes to Toklas for the autobiography she claims her companion should write. In her monologues Alice describes the role she chose: of obeying her companion’s order to keep the wives of ar-tists out of the way while Stein conversed with the husbands. She is “dependented” — her own idiosyncratic term for her total responsibility to Stein.
The play depicts Toklas’ undertaking the publication of Stein’s works in her own imprint, Plain Edition. (She raises the money for this enterprise by selling some of Stein’s paintings by Picasso, Matisse and Co.,) But the play is not primarily concerned with Stein’s literary output, however much it has to depend on it. Instead it concentrates on the different stages of the relationship between these two women, from their first meeting at Stein’s apartment in 1907, until Toklas’s death in 1967. We see their companionship evolving from a tentative attraction to lifelong commitment. And in the second half of the play we see Toklas bent over a stick, a convert to Christianity — alone with her props after Stein’s death.
The action, such as it is, has an even more erratic chronology than The Autobiography of Alice B Toklas: Stein dies at the beginning of the play and much of what happens is seen in ‘flashback’. This conceit must have been devised in order to compensate for the play’s lack of dramatic structure. But Wells has difficulty in sustaining a flow of dialogue, and this is especially apparent in the love scene which is strangled by its contrived and stilted dialogue. Perhaps the problem stems from the fact that the original play was twice as long, with eight characters. It was Margoyles herself who cut the play and Sonia Fraser adapted it for two women. In the current version Margoyles and Rabe demonstrate their excellent powers as mimics by playing a number of other characters, such as Gertrude’s brother Leo or the eccentric American artist Mabel Dodge. The main problem, however, is that the playwright hasn’t managed to translate into dramatic terms the conceit of The Autobiography in which of course Toklas voice is that of Stein. It would have been more effective had Wells worked harder at imagining their domestic scenes and how the two women actually talked together; instead we hear Toklas speaking too often in a version of Steinese. This kind of verbal contagion was no doubt true historically since the partners in any relationship tend to take on each other’s voice, but it doesn’t always work as good drama. Of course it means that Toklas is given some very good lines: in her idiosyncratic vocabulary Picasso is “dollarless”. And the play does recreate the grammatical structure and long, rhythmic repetitions of much of Stein’s prose. It also reminds us how humorous her writing can be, and just how close to speech it is — how speakable.
Gertrude Stein And A Companion
Photos: Robert McFarlane, Doris Thomas
|Venue||Universal Theatre, North Fitzroy, VIC|
|First Date||December 1987|
|Last Date||December 1987|
|Part of a Tour||Yes|
|Description||Stein’s ghost returns to Alice B Toklas and thus portrays the genesis and development of their relationship|
|Primary Genre||Theatre – Spoken Word|