Gertrude Stein & Alice B. Toklas forever
by Richard Dodds
The late playwright Win Wells had considerable resources from which to draw as he wrote Gertrude Stein and a Companion, a play that imagines a reminiscing reunion between Stein and Alice B. Toklas shortly before Toklas' death in 1967 and 21 years after Stein had died. Beginning performances Dec. 28, Wells' play is the third offering in Theatre Rhino's season.
Toklas and Stein knew they were living important lives as they were happening, realizing that the world they had made for themselves was a once-in-a-generation confluence of art, literature, lifestyles, and the larger-than-life personalities behind them. As early as 1937, Stein was in contact with Yale University offering, upon her death, all manuscripts as well as "correspondence with Picasso, Matisse, Ernest Hemingway, Juan Gris, William James, Mildred Aldrich and others." The Yale Library happily accepted, and after Stein's death in 1946, cartons of material began making their way from Paris to New Haven.
"Miss Stein had not exaggerated when she described the papers as being 'in a good deal of mess,' and a corner of the Yale Collection of American Literature room looked for many days like a wastepaper collection center. Gradually the incredible wealth of the material was revealed," Yale Library curator Donald Gallup wrote in 1947. And there was a second chapter to this legacy, as further material passed to Yale upon the death of Toklas in 1967. Among these were love letters between Stein and Toklas that were first shunted into a cabinet forgotten until the Yale Library opened a new building dedicated to its rare book and manuscript collection.
In a foreword to the published edition of Gertrude Stein and a Companion, literary doyenne Blanche Marvin writes, "This is the love story of Gertrude Stein and Alice B. Toklas told with congeniality." The dialogue, according to Marvin, comes from Stein and Toklas' own words taken from published works and the hundreds of letters they wrote to each other and to contemporary figures of great renown. Where Wells has supplemented the dialogue, the goal was to capture the quotable Stein's style.
"But most of all," Marvin continues, "this work is about Alice – the unsung heroine. The outside world was led to believe that her personality was that of a mousy woman who took second place to the vibrant Gertrude. The play reveals her as she really was – a witty woman with a sharp brain and cutting tongue. Without Alice, Gertrude without have remained undiscovered."
That the title of the play doesn't mention Toklas by name emphasizes the misunderstood status in the Stein-Toklas relationship. And it plays off Ernest Hemingway's insistence on referring to the couple as "Gertrude Stein and a companion" to show his disdain for this strange Toklas figure, whom he considering "frightening."
Conflicting feelings over Hemingway remain a prime topic in Gertrude Stein and a Companion, as Toklas is still rankled by this dismissal as she converses with the spirit of her long-dead partner. Wells wrote the play for two cast members to occasionally speak in the voice of various characters who passed through their lives, including, of course, Hemingway.
In Theatre Rhino's production, Kathryn L. Wood is playing Gertrude and Elaine Jennings is playing Alice. Haley Bertelsen has the role of a young woman, and while the original New York production had only two performers, the play's licensors are open to expanded casts. Wood is co-directing the upcoming production with Rhino Executive Director John Fisher.
Unfortunately for playwright Win Wells, he died of cancer just as Gertrude Stein and a Companion was beginning to attract attention. He had worked on several second-tier movies before that, including writing the story for the 1979 Bloodbath, directed by his longtime partner Silvio Narizzano (who had made himself in 1966 with Georgy Girl ). Information on Wells that could include how he came to take on Stein and Toklas as a subject is hard to come by. We do know that he wrote a play about Federico Garcia Lorca in 1981 that was produced in Los Angeles, and that he lived his final years in Mojacar, Spain, with Narizzano.
A short bio of Wells included in the script for Gertrude Stein and a Companion reports that he was born in Arkansas, where, "perched on his father's shoulder, he witnessed a lynching." He declared himself a poet at age 12, moved north, and would tour 47 states as an early beat poet. Wells was working on a new play about the eccentric avant-garde poet Edith Sitwell when he died at age 48.
Gertrude Stein and a Companion will run Dec. 28-Jan. 8 at the Eureka Theatre. Tickets are $15-$40. Call (800) 838-3006 or go to therhino.org.