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Gertrude Stein’s “Historic Drama” (1930)

Dismembering the Past; Remembering the Present
Emeline Jouve


Le présent article propose une analyse de la mise en scène de la dialectique entre le passé et le présent dans les trois « drames historiques » de Gertrude Stein. Cette trilogie fut publiée en 1930 dans le recueil Last Operas and Plays. Auteure du « présent continu » elle actualise le passé qu’elle renouvelle en se jouant des traditions pour inventer de nouvelles formes dramatiques. Le style de l’auteure est emblématique de sa tentative de faire ressurgir un passé perdu dans le présent de l’action d’où des voix paradoxalement absentes/présentes émergent. Cette étrange incarnation de « voix pures » dans les « drames de la mémoire » de Gertrude Stein engendre une réflexion ontologique sur ce qu’ « être dans le présent » signifie.

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“I do know what a genius is, a genius is someone who does not have to remember the two hundred years that everybody else has to remember”
—Gertrude Stein, Everybody’s Autobiography (121)

The actual present of historic plays: introduction

  • 1 In Matter and Memory, Henry Bergson writes “memory, inseparable in practice from perception, import (...)

1“The business of Art,” Gertrude Stein explains in 1935, “is to live in the actual present, that is the complete actual present, and to completely express that complete actual present” (“Plays” 65). A writer of the present, of the “continuous present” as she refers to it, Gertrude Stein gives life to the words of the past which take on new meanings, sensorial, physical meanings. The words perform in Gertrude Stein’s writing which is theatrical. The art of the “here and now,” theatre is the art of the “actual present,” of the past brought to life in the present of the spectators. Theatre “presents” the past on stage. Memory being for Henri Bergson the incarnation of the past in the present, theatre—which “imports the past” of the diegesis or of the writing “into the present” of the performance—is thus memory.1

  • 2 Despite Stein’s interest in theatre whose ghostly presence can be felt in her early writings, she d (...)

2Gertrude Stein explores the theatrical dialectic between the past and the “actual present” in her 1930 “Historic Drama” trilogy: An Historic Drama in Memory of Winnie Elliot; Will He Come Back Better. Second Historic Drama in the Country; Third Historic Drama revisit the tradition of the history plays.2 The 1930 trilogy published in Last Operas and Plays dramatizes, as this paper hopes to show, the dismembering of the past and the remembering of the present. The past in Gertrude Stein’s plays is subject to distortions, alterations, reinterpretations from which the present emerges, triumphant. She stages memory as the triumph of the present, of life over the old. To support my thesis, I will first focus on Gertrude Stein’s reinterpretation of the dramatic norms in a part entitled “The Haunted Text” after Marvin Carlson’s theory. In “The Aesthetics of Amnesia,” I will then show that Gertrude Stein’s style is emblematic of the quest to revive a lost past in the “now” of the action. Finally, the ontological consequences of this quest will be considered in “‘A Being Here’: Of Voices and Presence,” a part devoted to the absent/present characters.

The haunted text

  • 3 The original French version reads: “Ce style “pulvérulent” répond au même refus de la mémoire, au d (...)
  • 4 Throughout this paper, I will use Marvin Carlson’s typology of stage directions. Carlson distinguis (...)

3In his seminal 2001 book, The Haunted Stage. The Theatre as Memory Machine, Marvin Carlson argues that “every play is a memory play”: “it is the repository of cultural memory,” he writes, “the present experience is always ghosted by previous experiences and associations while these ghosts are simultaneously shifted and modified by the processes of recycling and recollection” (2). Drawing on reception theory and Hans Robert Jauss’s concept of the receptor’s “horizons of expectation,” Marvin Carlson affirms that “we are able to ‘read’ new works … only because we recognize within them elements that have been recycled from other structures of experience that we have experienced earlier” 3. Intertextuality is thus central in our reception of works. Gertrude Stein plays with this notion by seemingly adopting some of the traditional codes of the dramatic genre to inform the readers that they are dealing with a play. The playwright, in the image of the iconoclast modernist artist, quotes the dramatic conventions of the past to humorously dismantle them. At first glance, the first play of the sequel appears as a conventional piece with the introductory didascalia of characters and location:4

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4The layout of the dialogue seems conventional with the names of the characters before their lines. Resorting to their knowledge and thus memory of past forms, the credulous readers may thus expect a traditional play. Yet, their horizons of expectation are challenged as they get into the text and discover that the characterizations in the character lists break away with the expected physical or psychological descriptions of the characters and that the lines attributed to the characters do not read as a dialogue but as a series of non-sequitur statements.

5Contrary of what is expected of plays introduced as “historic,” the three works do not tell the stories of great historical figures. The first play is introduced as a tribute to the anonymous Winnie Elliot who is never mentioned in the body of the work. In fact, the titles of the plays are early paratextual evidence of Gertrude Stein’s playful reinvention of the past. The category “historic drama” is an invention from Stein. The traditional phrase is indeed “history play.” The phrase “historical drama” is also used but the adjective “historic” is never used to define a play. By calling her pieces “historic drama” or rather “Øistoric drama”—since the article “an” instead of the normative “a” before the phrase is used—, Stein announces from the start to her readers/spectators that she will twist the traditional Shakespearean dramatic history pattern. The adjective “historic” is also a humorous note on the part of the playwright who presents her work as exceptional, “historic,” important in the history of literature as if to underline the originality of her pieces in the literary canon which she playfully turns inside out. The play on words can be read as the expression of Gertrude Stein’s desire to enter the literary history from which—she argues in an interview she gave near the end of her life—she was ostracized on account of the very “newness” of her art which—contrary to James Joyce’s fiction—did not “smell of the museums:”

You see it is the people who generally smell of the museums who are accepted, and it is the new who are not accepted. You have got to accept a complete difference. It is hard to accept that, it is much easier to have one hand in the past. That is why James Joyce was accepted and I was not. He leaned towards the past and in my work the newness and difference is fundamental. (Stein qtd. in Caramelo 198)

6The tension between the familiar and the unfamiliar—which is specific of the uncanny—, the references to the dramatic conventions and their distortions create a feeling of alienation from the receptors who feel they have entered a foreign universe which, at first glance, had however looked familiar. Stein’s interest in dramatic alienation may be explained by her own past as a spectator. She was influenced by her memory of her first experiences as member of an audience. In “Plays,” one of her “Lectures in America,” the writer remembers her impressions as she attended a Sarah Bernhardt’s performance in San Francisco:

I must have been sixteen years old and Bernhardt came to San Francisco and stayed two months. I knew a little French of course but really it did not matter, it was all so foreign and her voice being so varied and it all being so French I could rest in it untroubled. And I did. It was better than the opera because it went on. It was better than the theatre because you did not have to get acquainted. The manners and customs of the French theatre created a thing in itself and it existed in and for itself as the poetical plays had that I used so much to read, there were so many characters just as there were in those plays and you did not have to know them they were so foreign, and the foreign scenery and actuality replaced the poetry and the voices replaced the portraits. It was for me a very simple and direct and moving pleasure. (71)

7The show was “better than the theatre,” that is traditional theatre, because of the moving and pleasant sense of alienation it awoke in Stein. The scenery and the voices were foreign to the teenager. Pleasure derived from this impression of alienation, of novelty which is at work in Stein’s “historic drama.” Breaking away from the past, from the conventions which the writer quotes to better transgress them is the quality of the modern artist, of the artist of the present who—unfortunately according to Stein—will be recognized only after his or her death when he or she becomes an artist of the past, a classic. In “Composition as Explanation”—which she wrote in the winter 1925-1926 and delivered as a lecture at the Cambridge Literary Club and at Oxford University that summer—, the author writes:

Those who are creating the modern composition authentically are naturally only of importance when they are dead because by that time the modern composition having become past is classified and the description of it is classical. That is the reason why the creator of the new composition in the arts is an outlaw until he is a classic, there is hardly a moment in between and it is really too bad very much too bad naturally for the creator but also very much too bad for the enjoyer, they all really would enjoy the created so much better just after it has been made than when it is already a classic, but it is perfectly simple that there is no reason why the contemporaries should see, because it would not make any difference as they lead their lives in the new composition anyway, and as every one is naturally indolent why naturally they don’t see. (22)

8Composition becomes appreciated by the art critics when they have become “memory,” a position Stein rejects as she works against the tide of memory to reinvent the past in the present.

The aesthetics of amnesia

9Not a theme, as it could have been expected from history plays, memory is first and foremost an aesthetics in Stein’s “historic dramas.” As we will first see, the receptors are deprived of their memories. The absence of memory in the present is also represented by the text itself which unconventionally mimics forgetfulness. Stein’s writing is the writing of amnesia.

10Even if it seems that a general loose theme emerges from each play—the theme of “coming to a place” in the first drama, “being or not being in the country” in the second drama, and “danger” in the third one—, the three dramas do not make sense in terms of plot line. As Gertrude Stein explains in her lecture “Plays,” “anything that was not a story could be a play” (73). An Historic Drama in Memory of Winnie Elliot, Will He Come Back Better. Second Historic Drama in the Country and Third Historic Drama do not tell stories. Stein plays with the structure and the semantic to construct sentences which are grammatically unconventional and semantically opaque to the readers/spectators who cannot rely on their memories of the conventional logic which governs the making of a speech, a sentence, as we learnt it. As the following quote from the opening of Will He Come Back Better. Second Historic Drama in the Country shows, the classic rules of communication are disrupted:

Ashley: Will be respected.

Amelia: They will call.

Harry: Has by her name

Nuňa: This one for all. (189)

11A brief study of the deictics—the pronoun “they”, the articles “her,” “this”—shows the author’s negation of the basic linguistic conventions on which a receptor relies to understand a text. The readers/spectators have learned that deictics point to specific elements of the action which they need to take into consideration to understand to what they refer. The linguistic memory of the receptors is however of no use since Stein’s writing is alien from any situation of enunciation. Only the “here and the now” of the performance matters; the “when and where” of the story is not an issue. The receptor is, therefore, in the dark as regards the identification of the pronoun and the articles which refer to no reality previously introduced in the play. In “Des écrits modernistes aux chroniques: temps et mémoire chez Gertrude Stein,” Claude Grimal coined the phrase “style pulvérulent” to define Stein’s distortion—or “explosion” of language as she calls it—of the normative sentence. For her, this style implies a negation of memory, a desire to get out of time:

This stylistic explosion of language is another response to the negation of memory, to the desire to be out of time. The conventional sentence is based, indeed, on the reader’s ability to keep in mind all the elements which make this very sentence in order to construct its meaning: the substance of the words depends on the construction of meaning, on memory. (120)—my translation4

12The negation of memory is also conveyed by the multiplication of the tenses. The past, present, future tenses and the present or past perfects in their simple or continuous forms are alternatively used in the three texts. The interweaving of tenses creates a sense of temporal uncertainty which is reinforced by the use of modals as illustrated in the excerpt from Third:

Historic Drama:

Harry. Should all of it be taught to be writing.
              Having left the country where they were
Harry. Just why they change the chance.
Harry. Just why they change the chances.
                       Coming back again.
Nuňa. Will two be know
Ashley. But two be here.
Harry. But two beside
Amelia. But two but two and know beside
Humphrey. For them a welcome.
                      Having gone back.
Humphrey. With for them.
Harry. That they declined a part if it.
Nuňa. That they will wish for it.
Amelia. Just by chance.
Amelia. Just by chance.
Ashley. May can they remain always.
Amelia. In whether they can
                      They go away from danger.
Amelia. Could they ever believe it.
Nuňa. Here she is.
Ashley. Is it
Harry. Mine it is
Humphrey. When. They met.
                      They are in danger.
                      Made precious by danger.
Humphrey. Be ever present at a time.
Harry. All like it.
Nuňa. With whom they come
Amelia. By which they like.
Ashley. Added to make it is not mine.
Humphrey. But at present to be pleasant
Ashley. Once for them. (195-196)

13No temporal references can be found in this excerpt or in any other passages from the three plays. The time of the story and consequently the historical period of the plays are unknown. The readers/spectators have no information as regards the past event or events reconstructed on stage. Their only temporal reference mark is the present of the action, the “now” of the performance.

14The importance of the present is stressed in the passage previously quoted from Third Historic Drama when the characters explicitly use the word “present” in “Be ever present at a time” and “But at present to be pleasant” but also in the line “May can they remain always.” The adverbs “ever” and “always” express a desire to fix the present time, to capture it and live in it which is the very essence of theatre. Stein writes in the “continuous present.” As she went on with her career, the author realized that her writing was dealing with the “continuous present” breaking away from the conventional “past, present and future.In her essay “Composition as Explanation,” she writes:

In beginning writing I wrote a book called Three Lives this was written in 1905. I wrote a negro story called Melanctha. In that there was a constant recurring and beginning there was a marked direction in the direction of being in the present although naturally I had been accustomed to past present and future, and why, because the composition forming around me was a prolonged present. A composition of a prolonged present is a natural composition in the world as it has been these thirty years it was more and more a prolonged present. I created then a prolonged present naturally I knew nothing of a continuous present but it came naturally to me to make one, it was simple it was clear to me and nobody knew why it was done like that, I did not myself although naturally to me it was natural. (25)

15The prolonged present was natural to Stein, somehow instinctive: “nobody knew why it was done” but there it went. The continuous present props up onto the page and the stage notably—but not only—because of the multiplication of tenses. In “Composition as Explanation,” Stein also explains that her impulse to write in the continuous present led her to lists: “lists naturally for a while and by lists I mean a series” (26). Stein’s writing in lists and series is illustrated in her serialized “historic dramas.” In Stein’s dramatic sequel, triology, each piece is autonomous from the previous one even though the plays are presented as a unit because of the chronology in the titles—“second,” “third”—but also of the plural “Finis” at the end of the second and third pieces which comes as a conclusion to the diptych and triptych. This independence, autonomy, within the unit inscribes the play in the present of the performance: the appreciation of the piece does not require previous knowledge. The oxymoronic series written in “autonomous sequels” shows that the “now” takes over the “before” which can be forgotten without hampering the pleasure of the text, of the performance of one piece. We can therefore conclude that Stein’s plays perform Humphrey’s line in Third Historic Drama: “at present to be pleasant.”

16The loss of memory is also conveyed in the plays by the repetitions as also illustrated in the quote from Third Historic Drama. As Stein asserts in “Portraits and Repetition,” “remembering is repetition anybody can know that” (103). Characters repeat lines, either their own lines or that of another character. The reiteration of the lines can be seen as an attempt to retrieve lost memory. The past is forgotten and re-emerged in the present to be forgotten once again before being reiterated in the present which becomes continuous. Through the repetitions, the present reaffirms its predominance over the past again and again. The aesthetics of amnesia also results from the tempo of the performance, the delivery of the lines. The repetitions may be interpreted as the evidence that the characters do not hear one another and deliver their lines simultaneously which not only reinforces the effect of the present but also the “effect of presence,” the presence of the voices, of the lives on stage.

17Amnesia is not symptomatic of a tragic ending as Isabelle Alfandary argues in “Page-Landscapes in the Theater Of Gertrude Stein”: the author’s “idiosyncratic mode of writing … gives access to a sense of permanence … [,] a non-tragic sense of time” (255). The passage of time, as the scholar demonstrates in her study of Gertrude Stein’s landscape plays, is not ominous of a fateful ending. Indeed, as we are going to see in “A being here”, life rather death is celebrated in her Historic dramas which magnify presence. “A being here”: of voices and presence

18In her historic dramas, Stein reminds us that being is not a given but a complex ontological quest as the repetitions of the verbs “come” and “go” and of the deictics “here” and “there,” through the three works, show: the characters are torn apart among the past, the present and the future. Modals, interrogative structures are used and both affirmative and negative assertions are intertwined to convey the intellectual uncertainty of being through semantics. This semantic uncertainty which dramatizes the intellectual cogito through the conflicting dialectics of absence versus presence is however thwarted by the incarnation of the voice, as this final part aims to demonstrate.

  • 5 The original French text reads: “Le problème de la voix hante et informe l’écriture de Gertrude Ste (...)
  • 6 French director and actress, Emma Morin, speaks beautifully of the physicality of Stein’s dramatic (...)

19As we saw, Stein’s historic drama introduces us to characters who challenge traditional characterizations in that they precisely lack characterization. No information is given about their physical appearances, their relationships, their psychological specificities. Only three characters—Ashley, Harry, Nuňa—are introduced in the opening didascalia of character description when six characters are involved in the three works—Ashley, Harry, Nuňa plus Humphrey, Abel, Amelia. The didascalia of attribution introducting Ashley, Harry and Nuňa focus on money when money is not a theme tackled in the scenes that follow: these details are thus informatively worthless. Contrary to many other plays from the author, it may be noticed, Stein gave names to her characters in spite of giving them fully-fledged identities: the onomastics is all the more disquieting as the naming logically hints at the introduction of a clearly identified person but the expectations of the receptor are once again defeated. Rather than characters, Gertrude Stein stages what Isabelle Alfandary calls “pure voices” who “haun[t] and infor[m] Gertrude Stein’s writing”—my translation.5 Disembodied figures, the characters are absent in the traditional modern dramatic conceptions as they are deprived of a distinctive identity but they are paradoxically fully present physically through the words which perform on both the page, visually, and the stage, vocally.6

20As we also saw, repetition is a key feature of Stein’s writing in the three plays which visually and vocally perform the reiterations as the three examples from the three historic dramas show:

1.An Historic Drama in Memory of Winnie Elliot
Humphrey. Why I arrange or give away.
Harry. Oh yes.
                      Partly at the door
Humphrey. I have been not amused but very well able to be careful.
Nuňa. Just at one.
Humphrey. It is obtained.
Nuňa. Or there clearly.
                      At the door
Nuňa. They will mean.
Ashley. In words or prose.
Harry. Or well-attended.
Humphrey. With them nor especially.
Harry. It is not easy.
                      Before a building.
Ashley. They will be moved about
Nuňa. By chance.
Humphrey. By force of circumstances.
Nuňa. With each one at a time.
Harry. Just as plainly.
                      At a corner building.
Humphrey. I should be back at five.
Humphrey. And so I will. (184)
2.Will He Come Back Better. Second Historic Drama in the Country
Amelia. Just why not.
                      Near the country.
Humphrey. Do you mean near the country they come near the country they come.
                      In the country.
Harry. Should it be shown.
Ashley. Could it have gone.
Amelia. Would it be known.
Nuňa. Or would it have come
                      In the country.
Humphrey. They know ninety-nine just as well.
Ashley. Should it be an antagonism
Nuňa. They may play
Amelia. With him and with me.
Harry. They may be here just as I am.
                      Near the country.
Humphrey. We are welcome by their choice this why they are as we know.
                      In the country. (191)
3.Third Historic Drama
Harry. Just made at once
Ashley. In three or two.
                      In danger.
Harry. Should they be with and without which they should be with as much.
Nuňa. Names be faced.
Amelia. May be they like.
Ashley. What they have in there which they are nearly more than they like to.
Humphrey. They will account of course.
                      In danger.
Ashley. She may or sooner they can be known
Harry. Just with them
Nuňa. Only be where with them
Amelia. Just like it.
                      In danger.
Nuňa. Who can or may they know riches now.
Amelia. It is a day to learn.
Ashley. Just may he join.
Harry. Just as arranged and might they.
Humphrey. Every day in danger.
                      In danger.
Harry. They may be sound to find.
Ashley. Just when they do.
Nuňa. Who do
Amelia. All ours who can do more than they can do
                      More danger.
Humphrey. It is well known
Amelia. That they will all come here with them. (198-199)

21The reiterations are visually performed on the page as the layout mimics the vocal echo which sounds like a chorus (“Partly at the door”/“at the door”; “Before a building”/“At a corner building”; “Near the country”/“In the country”/“Near the country”/“In the country”; “In danger”/“In danger”/ “In danger”/“In danger”/“More danger”…). The musicality of the pieces is also conveyed by the phonic call and response effect created by the rhymes and repetitions in the lines (“By chance.”/“By force of circumstances.”; “Should it be shown”/“Could it have gone.”/”Would it be known.”; “Just with them”/“Only be where with them”/“Just like it”). The layout and the musicality generate a spatial effect: the voices are physically materialized and their effects of presence are therefore highlighted in Stein’s “performative plays” as Laura Luise Schultz defines them in “A combination and not a contradiction” (235).

  • 7 “Ashley. She will determine some day./ Harry. It will be better that they came./ Nuňa. With whom th (...)

22Presence in Stein’s writing is, in the image of the voices, pure. The purity comes from the negation of identity. Like memory which is negated, identity as a construction—that is the palimpsest of past experiences—is also negated. We do not know anything about the voices and, on account of Stein’s amnesiac style, the very nature of their existence appears as volatile, mutable. Indeed, the pronoun “he” in the title Will He Come Back Better was a “she” which shifted into a “they” in the previous play.7 This volatility, mutability brings to mind Stein’s vision of cinema in “Portraits and Repetition”: “by a continuously moving picture of any one there is no memory of any other thing and there is that thing existing” (104). Like in movies, scenes swiftly change and even collide into one another in Stein’s historic drama which is not interested in creating realist characters whose personal history unfolds in front of the audience. Being is not a social construct in the author’s historic drama and in Stein’s plays in general. Being is not memory seen as the building of the past into the present of the self. Being is memory in the sense of the physical trace left by the voices on the present of the page and of the stage. The graphic and vocal materiality of Stein’s voices exists as memory of the present. Physicality is metaphysical in Stein’s drama which goes back to the very essence of “presence” that is “a being present” in the original Latin etymology of the word.

Memory of the present: conclusion

23To conclude, Gertrude Stein dis-members the past by distorting the traditional conventions of genres, structures and semantics to reinvent new patterns which are brought to life in the present of the reception. She re-members materials together in the present to create a physical object, the play itself, which invites us to reflect upon our very relation to the “here and now.” Because of this dialectics between past and present, we can define the playwright’s “historic dramas” as memory plays, but not in the way Tennessee Williams used the phrase he coined. If Stein’s memory plays adopt this “unusual freedom from conventions” which characterizes Tennessee Williams’s staging in The Glass Menagerie, Gertrude Stein does not dramatize the theme of memory as her descendant did (7). On the contrary, her plays perform memory which is indeed not a theme but a writing mode. She reproduces on the page and on the stage the mechanics of memory, of the past brought to life in the present, a present which turns out to be the ultimate locus of sensory and ontological experiences. Gertrude Stein’s historic drama stages thus the memory of the present.

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Alfandary, Isabelle. “Page-Landscapes in the Theatre of Gertrude Stein.” Reflective Landscapes of the Anglophone Countries. Ed. Pascale Guibert. Amsterdam: Rodopi, 2011. 257-270.

Alfandary, Isabelle. “Voix et responsabilité dans le théâtre de Gertrude Stein.” Tropismes [En ligne], 0.17 (2011): 1-10. Web. 20 dec. 2016. URL :

Bergson, Henry. Matter and Memory. Trans. Nancy Margaret Paul and W. Scott Palmer. London: George Allen and Unwin, 1911.

Caramello, Charles. Henry James, Gertrude Stein, and the Biographical Act. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1996.

Carlson, Marvin. The Haunted Stage: The Theatre As Memory Machine. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 2002.

Carlson, Marvin. “The Status of Stages Directions.” Studies in the Literary Imagination 24.2 (1991): 37-48.

Grimal, Claude. “Des écrits modernists aux chroniques: temps et mémoire chez Gertrude Stein. ”Mémoires Perdues, Mémoires Vives. Eds. Lemardeley-Cunci, Marie-Christine and Carle Bonafous-Murat, and André Topia. Paris: Presses Sorbonne nouvelle, 2006. 115-130.

Savinel, Christine. Gertrude Stein. Autobiographies intempestives. Paris: Editions Rue d’Ulm, 2017.

Stein, Gertrude. Everybody’s Autobiography. 1936. New York: Vintage, 1973.

Stein, Gertrude. “Composition as Explanation.” Look at Me Now and Here I Am. Selected Works 1911-145. Ed. Patricia Meyerowitz. Chester Spring: Peter Owen, 1967. 21-30.

Stein, Gertrude. An Historic Drama in Memory of Winnie Elliot. Last Operas and Plays. Ed. Carl Van Vechten. New York: Rinehart, 1949. 182-188.

Stein, Gertrude. “Plays.” Look at Me Now and Here I Am. Selected Works 1911-145. Ed. Patricia Meyerowitz. Chester Spring: Peter Owen, 1967. 58-81.

Stein, Gertrude. “Portraits and Repetition.” Look at Me Now and Here I Am. Selected Works 1911-145. Ed. Patricia Meyerowitz. Chester Spring: Peter Owen, 1967. 98-122.

Stein, Gertrude. Third Historic Drama. Last Operas and Plays. Ed. Carl Van Vechten. New York: Rinehart, 1949. 195-199.

Stein, Gertrude. Will He Come Back Better. Second Historic Drama in the Country. Last Operas and Plays. Ed. Carl Van Vechten. New York: Rinehart, 1949. 189-194.

Schultz, Laura Luise. “A combination and not a contradiction.” Performative Realism. Eds. Rune Gade and Anne Jerslev. Copenhagen: Museum Tusculanum Press, 2005. 235-267.

Jouve, Emeline. “Entretien avec Lise Avignon et Emma Morin, Gertrude Stein au théâtre : Le monde est rond (G. Stein, L. Avignon) ; Listen to Me (G. Stein, E. Morin)”, Miranda [Online], 13 (2016). Web. 20 dec. 2016. URL :

Jouve, Emeline. Geography and Plays: Spaces in Gertrude Stein’s Early Plays (1913-1919).” South Atlantic Review 76.4 (2014): 101-116.

Williams, Tennessee. The Glass Menagerie. New York: Dramatists Play Service, 1976.

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1 In Matter and Memory, Henry Bergson writes “memory, inseparable in practice from perception, imports the past into the present” (27).

2 Despite Stein’s interest in theatre whose ghostly presence can be felt in her early writings, she did not experiment with the dramatic genre before 1913. In her lecture “Plays,” Stein identifies “What Happened, a Play” as her first play. She writes: “And so one day all of a sudden I began to write Plays. I remember very well the first one I wrote. I called it What Happened, a Play, it is in Geography and Plays as are all the plays I wrote at that time” (73).

3 The original French version reads: “Ce style “pulvérulent” répond au même refus de la mémoire, au désir de sortir du temps. En effet la phrase conventionnelle repose sur la capacité du lecteur à garder à l’esprit tous les éléments qui la composent en vue de construire son sens : les mots y existent subordonnés à la construction de sens, aux souvenir.” (120)

4 Throughout this paper, I will use Marvin Carlson’s typology of stage directions. Carlson distinguishes five types of stages direction which he refers as “didascalia”: the didascalia of attribution, the structural didascalia, the locational didascalia, the didascalia of character description and the performance didascalia.

5 The original French text reads: “Le problème de la voix hante et informe l’écriture de Gertrude Stein.” (Voix et responsabilité”) Isabelle Alfandary also writes: “Stein’s theatre breaks away from the principle of the identification of the voice… The eclipse of the character is however not the mark of the modernist’s attempt to withhold or restrain, as scholar Martin Puchner suggests it, but it is instead the condition to make possible to emergence and exploration of a voice which I would define as pure”—my translation. / Le theatre steinien rompt avec le principe d’identification de la voix … l’éclipse du personnage n’est pas cependant la marque d’une réticence moderniste comme le critique Martin Puchner a pu le suggérer mais la condition de la possibilité de l’émergence et de l’exploration de la voix que je qualifierais de pure.” (“Voix et responsabilité”)

6 French director and actress, Emma Morin, speaks beautifully of the physicality of Stein’s dramatic and theatrical voices. Emma Morin staged and performed Listen to Me in 2008: her artistic approach consisted in giving life to the voices; rather than embodying a character or characters, she had the voice-s vibrating on stage. For more details about Emma Morin’s performance, see “Entretien avec Lise Avignon et Emma Morin, Gertrude Stein au théâtre : Le monde est rond (G. Stein, L. Avignon) ; Listen to Me (G. Stein, E. Morin).”

7 “Ashley. She will determine some day./ Harry. It will be better that they came./ Nuňa. With whom they came.” (188)

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Emeline Jouve, « Gertrude Stein’s “Historic Drama” (1930) »Sillages critiques [En ligne], 24 | 2018, mis en ligne le 01 juillet 2018, consulté le 21 juillet 2024. URL : ; DOI :

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Emeline Jouve

INU Champollion / Université Toulouse-Jean Jaurès

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Le texte seul est utilisable sous licence CC BY-NC-ND 4.0. Les autres éléments (illustrations, fichiers annexes importés) sont « Tous droits réservés », sauf mention contraire.

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