REPORT A PROBLEM
I'm looking at Gertrude Stein's short play "White Wines." What does it mean? Does it have a meaning? If you apply the title to the beginning of the first act then it's about being drunk or perhaps just being at a party where you're not having the best time or maybe how alcohol fosters a sense of community even if the thoughts that are shared thoughts don't really make sense outside the influence. I've always assumed everyone thinks white wine is inferior to red wine but better than rose or pink wine. I've never liked wine except for maybe champagne.
Note to self: "White Wines" is written for five women, or at least the "House to house" section is (if you're trying to extract direction from Stein's stage directions in this "stage at your own risk" cryptogram). That final chunk, the third act if you will, is my favorite part of "White Wines." It's where Stein starts to meditate on habit, change, possibility and in a weird way, classification. Is this short post a meditation on her meditation? Am I putting the meta in meditation? Well, as long as I'm not putting the shun in it, I'm fine with whatever.
Gertrude Stein has often been accused of writing nonsense so I thought I'd look at some of the stranger word pairings in "White Wines" to see if I could find a logic inside the least logical pairs. Touching spoon. Safe smooth. Lean bark. Out of context, that first phrase reminds me of spooning someone since that's a spoon that touches. Suddenly, that doesn't feel so out there. The second one is missing a noun unless that's the point, like there's no ellipsis because the thought is being aborted. The last one could be an angry reply from a famished man.
Ever since I first heard "Four Saints in Three Acts," Virgil Thomson's first and better opera with a Gertrude Stein libretto, it's hard for me not to consider Stein's stage directions as possible dialogue. ("St. Teresa enters!") There's not much of that type of text in "White Wines." The only time it occurs -- albeit repeatedly -- is to designate the three acts: All together, Witnesses, and House to house. Because it's Stein and the play has neither lines assigned to characters nor a setting, I hear those headings spoken aloud in my head. But by whom? God himself over the loudspeakers?
I looked up the word "cunning" since it repeats seven times in the first few sentences of "White Wines" and that word has a number of definitions of which I wasn't totally aware. Aside from "deceptive" and "crafty," cunning can also mean "ingenious," "cute" or "clever." I wonder if an actor repeats the same word (in an abstract sentence) but applies a different meaning each time the word is said, can the audience decipher the various meanings? Is there a natural evolution from "cute" (lightly flattering) to "deceptive" (heavily insulting)? If you strip the word of meaning, what meaning emerges?
Words I don't know -- if they're real, that is -- from "White Wines": ulster, didy, clut, pil, and cooning. I also don't know if Charles Louis Philip is anyone noteworthy either. So some research... Ulster is an ancient kingdom in Northern Ireland. Didy is an alternate spelling of didie which means baby talk. Clut is British slang for a clumsy person. Pil. is how they abbreviate pill for prescriptions. I couldn't find cooning or coon as a verb but as a noun, coon is slang for both raccoon and black person. Charles, Louis and Philip are all names for Spanish kings.
When I think about white wines, I think about art gallery openings, classical music concerts, old fashioned theater fundraisers, in short the kind of highbrow events at which you're supposed to get buzzed but never outright drunk. When I think about the music associated with these type of cultural events, I think of Satie, Chopin, maybe Beethoven on piano. But the idea of staging Gertrude Stein's "White Wines" to such kind of background music makes me cringe. Perhaps a better tactic would be to consider the sounds of Kenny G. or more interestingly, the jazz-fusion output of Miles Davis.
A couple of random thoughts this morning about that damned little play, "White Wines." The title sounds exactly the same as "White Whines." What would "White Whines" look like? "White Wines" rhymes with "Gertrude Stein" so you could interpret the play as a poem. (Now that sounds deadly.) "White Wines" could be played by a trio of white winos. I don't know why three came to mind. Seems more vaudevillian, I guess. Along those lines, the direction "three acts" could be interpreted as three approaches or three novelty acts which could be a juggler, a magician, and a tightrope walker.
I suspected that "White Wines" was written in 1911 and I was not far off. (Why I thought that year I have no idea.) Gertrude Stein penned her queer anti-play in 1913. That was the year that saw the invention of the modern zipper, the introduction of Camel Cigarettes, and the return of the Mona Lisa from Italy to France. That was also the year, Ford started his first assembly line (cars, cars, cars, cars) and Stravinsky premiered his "The Rite of Spring" in Paris. Automation, first; riots, second! The Mexican Revolution was also in full swing. Pancho Villa.
I'm having a fantasy of five fat Gertrude Stein lookalikes onstage. Or five actually pregnant women. Or five flaming gay men in tight pants with shiny polyester shirts unbuttoned. Or five geishas with blackened teeth and Mr. Microphone sets strapped over their shoulders. Or five broken dolls living in a steel briefcase toted about by a severely depressed businesswoman. Or five giant glasses of white wine that actually talk in bubbles, their voices emerging from heads that float in the wine like olives. Or five holograms of presidents Jefferson, Lincoln, Franklin Delano Roosevelt, Nixon, and Obama. Or five of me.
A play, a very play that spindles in a rope whatnot. Nonsense comes to nonesuch and anon. No sir. Noser. She did come to understand what was there before her. Oh, yes she did.
Remember your lines
. What lines.
The tines you said.
Who said when. Whoever said it repeated it. We all repeated. Ever, that is. Which isn't as easy as it looks in bright satin.
One hopes for a complete irreverence devoid of showy. Press down the meaning in serious wax. Puzzle thirty percent. Think like yourself not Gertrude Stein.
In her 1996
Modern Fiction Studies
essay "Cousin to Cooning," grad student Lorna Smedman uses "White Wines" as a launching/landing pad for an examination of Gertrude Stein's largely failed attempts to defuse racist slang. It's interesting to note that derogatory terms like "coon" and "chink" aren't as easily divorced from original meaning as words like "rose" and "Caesar" but Smedman's interpretation of abstract texts, products of the unconscious, as ideological tracts seems misguided. The issues are right. No argument. The framework in which Smedman throws around big words like "paronomasia" (which means "pun") and "morpheme" is wrong.
Confession: I believe Gertrude Stein believed in the typo. By this I mean that I think she embraced the accident, that she was open to the hidden meaning in mistakes, and that she can be excused for regular sloppiness because she stayed true to the unedited moment. "Puzzle anybody," she writes early on in "White Wines" and I bet she included herself in that anybody too. I highly doubt, she could deconstruct a sentence like "Punish the grasshopper with needles and pins are plenty." There is no singular meaning when you're discovering, uncovering and recovering words. Why pretend there is?
So here's the plan (which I've had for a year and a half and which has gone nowhere). Enlist three to four directors to helm their own versions of Gertrude Stein's "White Wines" then have wine tastings for the audience, tastings in which the wine is paired with the appropriate theatrical interpretation. Hence, there'd be a dry version, a fruity version, etc. What needs to be done to make that happen? Secure the rights to the play. Rent a theater. Find four directors. And if I'm going to direct one myself, find a cast. Plus, hook up with a winery.
Words that can describe a play or performance as well as a glass of white wine: dry, sweet, fruity, nutty, sparkling, spicy, tart, smooth, crisp, clear, warm, refreshing, exotic, acidic, vibrant, delicate, earthy, cheap... Alternate meanings of wine: something that exhilarates, the color of red wine, and a party -- especially one held by university students -- where wine is consumed... I contacted two directors today about possibly participating in Steinese Sommeliers, Four Steins of White Wine, Stein/Wine or whatever this piece ends up being called. The good news is both of them responded quite promptly. So the ball is rolling.
Dear Gertrude, I've been having images of people in wet surgical scrubs, of an animated woman speaking rapidly while seated in a folding chair, of a large projection of a handheld video of that woman talking in slow motion, of a pregnant lady playing with handsized dolls on her exposed belly, of a sturdy wooden chair on a bare stage, of futuristic tunnels of light coming down from above, of silent waiters in tuxedoes who carry plastic silver trays holding plastic champagne glasses filled with -- what else? -- white wine, of course. Sometimes, I see a fat man speaking rapidly too.
I can't remember whether it's folk lore or an old
episode, but I once learned that a spirit survives only as long as someone remembers it. Furthermore, spirits get stronger based on how many people are remembering. That could be what they mean by "keeping a dead writer alive." I've spent enough time with Gertrude Stein's thoughts to feel as though I know some part of her. Now that she's dead, are there few enough people thinking about her that she might somehow know me too? Gertrude, if you do, please visit me in a dream!
On the subway ride home, I got to wondering who are the people who've played Gertrude Stein. I know composer Al Carmines did. I saw his production of
The Making of Americans
. Pat Carroll had that one-woman show
Gertrude Stein, Gertrude Stein, Gertrude Stein
. The Ridiculous Theatre's Lola Pashalinksi (
Gertrude and Alice
) took a turn as did Brit Linda Bassett (
Waiting for the Moon
with Linda Hunt as Alice Toklas). Even I played Stein in a reading of a stage adaptation of Monique Truong's novel
The Book of Salt
"Shall we go home." That's the first sentence in Gertrude Stein's "White Wines" that isn't all cryptically fragmentary. I scoured through the rest of the script to see if I could find any other lines that didn't require major deciphering. I did! There were nine in all although some, like "No forethought is removed," are only partly all there. I do like that she ends this freaky antiplay with "This is not a claim it is a reorganization and a balance and a return." That seems pretty straightforward if a bit odd. There's guidance therein. So how to follow it?
I meant to write to the Gertrude Stein estate about the rights to produce the play but failed to. I also failed to reach out to any other directors. I spent no time with the "White Wines" script. I didn't investigate any possible theater venues. Or come up with any ideas about casting or design. In short, this weekend was a total washout. Gertrude Stein once said (or wrote), "A real failure does not need an excuse. It is an end in itself." But I think she was referring to the type of failures that have some effort behind them.
It's dumb to get puffed up about my directorial experiences with Gertrude Stein's work because in reality I've directed very little. Four plays to be exact: "Three Sisters Who Are Not Sisters," "Yes is for a very young man," "Ladies' Voices" and "Curtain Raiser." I'm a little embarrassed by the oversimplification I brought to my stage adaptation of her story "The World Is Round" and don't know that the loopy audio I did of "Reflection on the Atom Bomb" is much better. Actually, I take that back. I really did like that recording and the dance that went with it.
I was trying to discover whether Stein penned other plays around the time that she wrote "White Wines" and came across a brief online mention (in a footnote from
The Letters of Gertrude Stein and Carl Van Vechten
) where the script is paired with "What Happened," Stein's first play. Evidently, "White Wines" is one of Stein's earliest, perhaps her second, and she showed it to friends alongside the former which is equally short despite its five acts. Who is Van Vechten? He's the first American dance critic, a Harlem Renaissance patron, a photographer and Gertrude Stein's literary executor.
Well, I didn't dream of Gertrude Stein last night but I did dream of researching her plays at the New York Public Library for the Performing Arts. After using an online catalog (orange text, black background), I scribbled two titles on a paper scrap with a pencil stub, then went in search of said articles. First, I had to find my shoes which were next to dirty ceramic casserole dishes left under nearby shelves. Both articles had to do with experimental theater during the Kennedy era. I passed a man with a fungal growth on his face at one point.
Not sure where this idea came from but I awoke today thinking that I'd like to create a Wikipedia citation for "White Wines" on the Gertrude Stein entry. Then I thought, "Why not take it further? Why not create a Wikipedia page for the play." And then I thought, "Hell, you could even alert certain people online that the 'White Wines' Wikipedia page exists and see if they could help flesh it out." So far I've taken the first step. Tomorrow (Christmas Day) perhaps I'll try the second which looks quite a bit more complicated. The third seems the iffiest.
Why do I feel as if Gertrude Stein's "White Wines" would be more approachable if she'd designated sections as Act One, Act Two and Act Three instead of All together, Witnesses and House to house. Why am I looking for the conventional in something so insistently experimental? I keep trying to picture a person saying the script -- Who's speaking? To whom? Wearing what? Where? It's utterly preposterous. This isn't dialogue. Yet I don't think I want to turn it into a chorus like I did for "Ladies' Voices" or a robot's chant like I did for "Curtain Raiser." What then?
I had two vivid dreams last night and tried to go back to sleep after each and force Gertrude Stein into one of them. Alas, I failed. At best yesterday, after looking at her "White Wines" and during a run where I listened to gospel music via my iTouch, I had recurring thoughts about the relationship between seemingly unconnected bits of text and evangelical outbursts while handling snakes. I also keep coming back to her very short piece "One" which I don't think is a play but which Tom DiMenna and I once joked about performing like a preacher's sermon.
"A habit that is not left by always screaming..." So begins Act Three of Stein's "White Wines." It's not a hard line to connect to. In my opinion, our worst habits are never ended by the screams of exasperation. Usually, it takes a much colder impulse than rage to end an unwanted behavior. Looking back at my own life, the few times I was able to really change how I act, and maybe therefore who I am, I had to engage in a hardhearted deliberateness that had a touch of masochism to it. Only that finally made "quiet quite quiet."
In Bryant Park right behind the main branch of the New York Public Library is a small bronze sculpture of Gertrude Stein looking like a Buddha. I've often wondered if people passing through that park stop to rub her belly for good luck, not knowing who she is or knowing very well but having never read. I don't think I've ever touched it myself. Last night, at a Thai restaurant in Windsor Terrace, Brooklyn, the second, smaller menu says White Wines on top and while there's nothing remarkable about that, it did feel like a reminder. There's work to do.
Imagine if you will, grafting the performance style of the sitcom "The Gilmore Girls" onto Gertrude Stein's "White Wines," of having every non sequitir delivered like a wry zinger, of having each sentence spoken in quick succession without pause, reflection or a breath in which the audience could assess what's truly being said or why. Would it shape the text into some sort of party banter, a lighthearted frivolity that escaped ponderousness by way of weightlessness? How quickly would the whole show pass by? Could you do those four pages in five minutes? How powerful is speed coupled with bemusement?
Titles for an evening are always fun to consider. Options like "Mein Stein of Wine" or "White, White, White, White Wines" or "Gertrude Glug Glug Glug" or "Wit, White, Wine, Why" or "Sapphic Four Play" or "And then she came in" or "An Early Piece Repeated" or "Drinking Sense Into Gertrude Stein" or "Wine Flight, Stein Night" or similarly "Stein Night With Wine Flight" or "White Stein, Gertrude Wine" or "Steinese Sommeliers" or "Steinese Wines" or "Fill 'er up" or "Repeated Drinking" or "Play Wine Pairing" or "Pairing White Wines" or "Four White Wines for Play" or "Stein's White Wines."
"I am I because my little dog knows me," Gertrude Stein wrote in her philosophical book "The Geographical History of America or The Relation of Human Nature to the Human Mind" (which she actually went on to reference for her poem "Identity a poem" and then her puppet play "Identity a play"). I wish I could teach my own dog Silas to move his mouth on command, if not speak English, and simply put him onstage with a glass of wine while someone offstage miked in the text for "White Wines" at a breakneck speed that ended with Silas barking.
The Tip Jar