Assessing Expectations and Gertrude Stein

Photo by Erik Carter

Photo by Erik Carter

Five minutes into David Greenspan’s hypnotically lovely performance of the first of three texts by Gertrude Stein in Target Margin’s Composition … Master-Pieces … Identity, a question entered my mind that remains unanswered.

Why perform verbatim literary texts?

I raised the question to myself this past January after seeing Daniel Fish’s piece at Under the Radar in which actors athletically expelled David Foster Wallace texts they were hearing in real time piped through headphones. The audience reacted to Wallace’s wry humor and mind-boggling rhetoric, but I couldn’t for the life of me figure out what the performance had to do with it. I did not answer the question that day. On the other hand, I’ve heard wonderful things about the work Elevator Repair Service does with shows like Gatz and The Sound & the Fury, neither of which I’ve seen.

As Greenspan meticulously performed the text “Composition as Explanation” from his seat on the stage of the Connelly Theater, I turned the question over again. I first wondered if I wouldn’t rather be reading the piece. And this is no remark on Greenspan – he is a master of his craft. I would watch him recite the dictionary – gladly, eagerly. He is so precise, takes such great care of the words and even better care of the audience. He will never let you be lost.

BUT. I am a constant reader, and have enjoyed reading Stein on the page. It may be that because I find Stein’s writing – her circular, repetitive, quirky sentences – less frustrating than others seem to, I fail to see the importance of drawing it out, stretching it, carrying it like Greenspan does.

In fact, I noticed myself getting comically defensive of old Gertrude when my audience-mates chuckled or let out an “ah” of recognition or agreement at Greenspan landing a point. She wrote the words after all, and it seemed that they weren’t “ah”-ing at her words so much as they were “ah”-ing to congratulate Greenspan for understanding her. For helping them to understand her. I mean there is something illuminating to the gesture and expression that accompanies a performance, and there is something engaging about hearing the words from a living, smiling person. But I couldn’t help but feel like turning around in my seat and shouting “GUYS! He didn’t write that! He didn’t even think of it!”

Why?! Why on earth is that my response? Of course they know that. They are equipped with the same information I am, which is that Greenspan selected and memorized (largely) and rehearsed and performed these texts originally written by Stein to bring another element to them.

Which I suppose brings me to the larger question of: what do I expect when I go to the theater? What about this production doesn’t match my expectation, and why is my expectation what it is? I expect (completely personally, by the way, not as a measure of this or any production’s overall success) to be transported, to be moved, to escape. Not necessarily to escape reality – I don’t require fiction, per se. But to escape the way we normally take in and explore ideas. To instead turn to storytelling, to dance, to song. Theater, to me, means experiencing something that could not happen were it not for the combination of myself witnessing it at a particular moment in time, and whatever is happening on stage (be it a conventional stage or not) enveloping me as I do so, and as my audience-mates do so alongside me. There’s something missing when I know I could read the experience by myself.

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