And what was he observing? Eight poets eventually made their way up the aisle and took their places on the tiny stage: Amy Lawless, Angela Veronica Wong, Corrine Fitzpatrick, Erica Kaufman, Jen Benka, Meghan Punschke, Sina Queyras, and Stacy Szymaszek. There was a short salvo of recorded music—mostly to silence the chattering audience—and then the readers launched into the play.
Stein wrote this cryptic, singsong piece in 1930. There’s no discernible plot, no clearly delineated characters. It’s more like a whimsical cantata, with multiple voices answering and overlapping each other. The nonsense quotient is fairly high—many passages sound as if they’ve been run through a Cuisinart—and even the simplest sentences almost dare you to parse them: “A little chicken is not little.” “Houses are multiplied with a hailstorm.” “Money is a flower.” (Compared to most of the play, that last line is straight out of Keats, but Stein is careful to thumb her nose at old-fashioned symbolism along the way. A dollar is a dollar is a dollar.)
At first, the whole thing sounds pretty opaque. Yet there is a method, or at least a polemical thrust, to the author’s madness. “There are two things that are interesting,” we’re told at one point. “History and grammar.” For Stein, clearly, traditional syntax is too creaky a vessel to capture the flux of modern life. To give an honest account of events, you need to break down your sentences into their Cubist constituents, then reassemble them as nursery rhymes.
As Stein admits, however, this can be an awfully hermetic procedure: “History is the learning of spectacular / consistency privately and learning it alone. . . .” At Cornelia Street, the audience slumped over its drinks for the first 10 minutes and waited for a shaft of clarity. Finally, a ripple of laughter greeted one of Stein’s poker-faced quips (“Nuns are made in their own image”), and the performers loosened up. Fitzpatrick, wearing what looked like a prom dress, put an agreeable spin on her lines. Punschke gave the most eloquent readings, even as the other performers kept drifting to the back of the stage for a pull on the Poland Spring bottle. The gibberish drove the audience away; the comedy reeled them back in. And the readers, who had done a noble job with relatively little rehearsal, managed to finish on a nice clean unison: “Finally, with women!”
Photo: Library of Congress, Prints & Photographs Division, Carl Van Vechten collection