She’s been called the Mother Goose of Montparnasse but understanding the work of Gertrude Stein is no child’s play. Her prose is dense and repetitive, her theories on art and literature can sound like gnomic pontification and her insights on cultural and social topics are often flatly inscrutable. Stein reigned over a generation of artists and writers at her Parisian salon, but she loved to get out on the lecture circuit and spread her ideas to whoever would come and listen, whether they understood her or not. What if her particular language – which sometimes sounded like a foreign tongue anyways – just needed the right sort of interpreter to make it all clear?
That interpreter has arrived, and he is David Greenspan, the Obie-winning actor and writer with for his own, original language of being in words and gestures (demonstrated this season in his abstractly nostalgic I’m Looking for Helen Twelvetrees). This makes him perfectly suited to his latest project, part of Target Margin Theater’s season-long Stein Lab, a series of earnest forays into her famously off-putting oeuvre. Greenspan’s contribution to TMT’s experiments is a monologue in three parts, Composition…Master-Pieces…Identity, that is much more engaging than its title would suggest. Greenspan is a mesmerizing performer, and his chosen program of two of Stein’s Oxford lectures and a poem for puppets (probably the first and only of its genre) is no match for his talent. Lightly bounding up onto the stage at the beautifully restored Connelly Theater, he launches just as effortlessly into as challenging a piece as “Composition as Explanation.”
“The composition is the thing seen by every one living in the living they are doing, they are the composing of the composition that at the time they are living in the composition of the time in which they are living,” Stein would like us to know. Greenspan, on the other hand, would like to show us how this might be so.
He does this, as an interpreter does, using his understanding of the language he is provided and giving it a new form, in this case a physical one: more specifically, a language of signs. In addition to introducing the cubist principle that composition takes place in the eye of the viewer as well as demonstrating a keen appreciation of context – “time-sense” – in the development of art, “Composition as Explanation” is notable for Stein’s firsthand account of the genesis of her style, one that would help usher in modern literature. Yet, in Stein’s written prose, her intentions can become lost, and the reader too:
“So then I as a contemporary creating the composition in the beginning was groping toward a continuous present, a using everything a beginning again and again and then everything being alike then everything very simply everything was naturally simply different and so I as a contemporary was creating everything being alike was creating everything naturally being naturally simply different, everything being alike.”
Wading into that flow of words, Greenspan uses distinct gestures to keep himself afloat: the “continuous present” summons up a series of quickly mimed pushes moving from left to right, for example, while “everything being alike” is summed up by the “c” formed by thumb and forefinger that designates something small. This sign-language proves very useful to the listener also, acting as a series of visual signposts that help us recognize the elements of her conceptual framework every time they arise.
Still, the technique could become a crutch, and Greenspan rightly abandons it in the program’s second piece, “What are Master-Pieces, and Why are There So Few of Them?” This time, he imitates Stein “reading” from the written text she told her audience at Oxford she had prepared to avoid “talking” about art. And Greenspan “reads” his source quite expertly, in that he recovers the oral qualities of her run-away prose, finding just the right pauses, cadences and emphases to structure it for the purposes of grasping it. This essay is remarkable for explaining a concept Stein shared with T.S. Eliot (outlined in his essay, “Tradition and the Individual Talent,” in 1921) regarding originality, or art, versus personality, or the self. Stein refers to these as the human mind as opposed to human nature; whereas the one is fertile ground for creation, the other destroys it, and it is fascinating to listen to Greenspan make sense of the differences.
In case we are in any doubt as to what these could be – and probably more than a few in the audience will still be scratching their heads – Greenspan finishes with “Identity A Poem”, which is a series of “plays,” each consisting of a smattering of lines, that practically explore the question just introduced: the problem for creation of the existence of the self. Stein sums up the impossibility of avoiding the problem: “I am I because my little dog knows me.” Who can argue with that?
Stein tries, however, and Greenspan obliges, this time in a kind of acting master-class, where the actor takes on all the possible situations Stein throws out. She is at her most prickly here; non sequiturs are legion, second only to the repeated refrain of the self seen through the eyes of the dog. Greenspan keeps pace, jumping into each new scene like a prize fighter jumping into the ring, his stance at times even seeming to mimic the boxer’s crouch. But by exploring the question in the context of the dramatic act, where “an audience never does prove to you that you are you,” Stein admits that she might not have the answer to everything.
The ambiguity suits Greenspan just fine. As Stein’s interpreter par excellence, he strikes a fine balance between her imperiousness on the one hand, and her quest for understanding, on the other; between Stein as a writer and again as a person, unique but not so unlike us. We like and understand Stein better for being both, as rendered through Greenspan’s language. But as Stein observes so rightly, “An end of a play is not an end of a day.” So also in Composition…Master-Pieces…Identity, there are no firm conclusions; art, like the artists who create it, is a mystery, and Greenspan’s interpretation of these foundational Stein texts offers much to contemplate for days to come.