Women, Gibberish, and Prom Dresses

Our critic’s take on a New York reading of Gertrude Stein’s whimsical cantata “History or Messages From History.”

by James Marcus
The basement of Manhattan’s Cornelia Street Café is a long, narrow space with colored lights dangling from the low ceiling: you feel as though you’re in a root cellar with red banquettes. It certainly made for a cozy setting on August 10, when a cadre of female poets wrapped up the Finally with Women marathon with a reading of Gertrude Stein’s History or Messages from History. Given the feminist tilt of the festival—which had celebrated Mina Loy, Audre Lorde, Barbara Guest, and Muriel Rukeyser on previous nights—I wondered whether many guys would be in attendance. There were a few, I’m happy to report, including one compulsive shutterbug who observed most of the proceedings through the viewfinder of his digital camera.

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
Originally Published: September 13, 2006


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James Marcus is a writer, translator, critic, and editor. He is the author of Amazonia: Five Years at the Epicenter of the Dot-Com Juggernaut and five translations from the Italian (the most recent being Tullio Kezich’s Dino: The Life and Films of Dino De Laurentiis and Saul Steinberg’s Letters to Aldo Buzzi). He has contributed to the Los Angeles Times Book Review, Salon, Newsday, the Atlantic Monthly, the New York Times . . .

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