When confronted with apparently transcendent genius, the predictable mere-mortal inclination is to concentrate attention and fascination on the person anointed with this luminous intellectual and artistic blessing and to ignore, or to try to explain away, character deficiencies – minor or monstrous. Sometimes the deficiency may be as much a part of the genius’ character as the super-human talent itself, and in some cases leaves the genius Caesar-like with the good interred with his bones.
It is painful to be slapped in the face with a monster reality so enormous that it completely changes one’s perception of genius and challenges one’s belief in his or her own capacities to make judgments. One way to deal with such a revelation is with drastic intellectual and equivocational surgery, a means of separating monster from genius as if he or she were a conjoined and morally antagonistic twin.
27, rue de Fleurus – The Salon
On Saturday evening, Opera Theatre of St. Louis focused once again the spotlight of truth on a situation of extraordinary moral complexity, this time in a new opera called “27.” The opera orbits around the dynamic character of Gertrude Stein, a woman who was indeed a special sort of genius, an evangelist for the art of our time, and a writer of enduring – if obscurantist – novels and poetry. Generations of intellectuals – lost or not – have regarded her as god of capital “A” Art, one enthroned high in the pantheon. And given the chance, we the worshippers would have scurried to 27, rue de Fleurus, where she and her wife, Alice B. Toklas, held forth in their secularly sacred salon.
The confounding truth that emerges, however, reveals Miss Stein’s monster side. In the powerful electrical and metaphorical light of the opera stage, “27” directs us to revise completely our notion of her place in history and to send her packing. A rose is a rose is a rose, she said, and that is evident here: Certainly Miss Stein was a genius, but a Nazi collaborator is a collaborator is a collaborator.
The Stein Family
Stein was a member of a gifted and cultivated family that bounced back and forth between the United States and Europe and back to the United States where it eventually settled in Palo Alto, Calif. Not incidentally, they were Jewish.
Gertrude Stein emerges historically as the most famous and probably the most eccentric and powerful of the bunch. Although her brother Leo was the most aesthetically perspicacious (at least in the beginning), Miss Stein herself was a bold and intuitive collector of modernist art -- and of artists themselves -- again, like her brother, in the important and first part of her career as an acquisitor.
She was an heiress, but thrifty too, and spent her money creatively and with an eye to artistic and human capacities. She was a poet and novelist, an extraordinary saloniste and with Alice Toklas trailblazing prototypical gay marriage partner. She was loyal when it suited her ambitions or her fancy, but if she were crossed, the miscreant would be cast into permanent outer darkness.
The Misses Stein and Toklas lived as married folks in France, mainly in Paris in an apartment at 27, rue de Fleurus, in the intellectually fertile earth of the Sixth Arrondissement, off the rue Guynemer, thus steps away from the Luxembourg Garden.
Miss Stein fulfilled the traditional husband role in this household; Miss Toklas was the wife. The couple managed to survive the First and Second World Wars mainly by ignoring them – or so maintains the myth. Given the obvious mayhem of World War I and the inescapable knowledge of the atrocities of the Second World War, and from information passed on conversations in their drawing room, it would be impossible to ignore the conflicts, especially since Miss Stein and Miss Toklas both were Jewish. Could simply existing in some sort of genius bubble, ignoring the realities of the 1920s and ‘30s, protect them?
Questions finally asked
In 2011-’12, a magnificent exhibit of modernist works collected by the Steins was shown at the Grand Palais in Paris, at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art and the Metropolitan Museum in New York. It was called “The Steins Collect” – “L’aventure des Steins” in French. I saw it in San Francisco. The show was a dizzying and challenging display of works, exhibited in all-stops-out strength, by Picasso, Matisse and Cezanne, to name the three greatest artists represented.
Gertrude Stein and Alice Toklas were magnetic and they welcomed and enticed the most luminous geniuses of the visual arts, and later, the most influential writers of the 20th century, into their drawing room for salon evenings (and sometimes to run errands for them). Their patronage was glamorous and wonderful and important – the Steinische imprimatur virtually assured success, both critically and financially. Those blessed with it gained in admittance to 27, rue de Fleurus.
As suggested above, the very ugly truth of collaboration has been swept under the oriental carpets of history chez Stein et Toklas. Although not a secret exactly, but due to the fact that the salon and the Misses Stein and Toklas have been idealized if not apotheosized, individuals and institutions such as the Met were loath to bring it up any such damning unpleasantness.
That was the situation as “The Steins Collect” began its prestigious odyssey.
Soon Truth intervened.
In May 2012, The New Yorker magazine published a story by Emily Greenhouse: “Gertrude Stein and Vichy: The Overlooked History.”
- “… Our collective public imagination seeks to inhabit the Parisian avant-garde milieu that the Steins did much to create; but in idealizing it, we often gloss over the unpleasantness of Fascism brewing in the 1920s and ‘30s. The seduction of nostalgia might also help to explain the Met’s peculiar omission of an important fact in the exhibition’s accompanying catalog and text. ‘The Steins Collect’ leaves out any mention that Gertrude — easily the best-known of the collecting Steins, and a transgressive, lesbian Jewish writer famous in her own right — did work on behalf of France’s Vichy government, which collaborated with the occupying Nazi forces. This is troubling, since the show goes beyond the impressive collection to present the family itself, its history and cross-Atlantic hoppings, and its eminent position within le Paris des artistes. American visitors may not know of Stein’s affiliation with Bernard Faÿ, director of the Bibliothèque Nationale under the collaborationist Vichy government, whom Stein’s partner, Alice Toklas, called Stein’s ‘dearest friend during her life.’ In 1941, at Faÿ’s suggestion, Stein agreed to translate a set of speeches by Marshal Philippe Pétain — 108 pages of explicitly anti-Semitic tirades — into English. (She hoped that they would be published in America, although they never were.) In her preface to the translation, she compared Pétain with George Washington as “first in war, first in peace and first in the hearts of countrymen.”
27, rue de Fleurus – The Opera
All of this catapults us to Opera Theatre of St. Louis, where, on Saturday evening, the searing “27” was given its world premiere. The opera, in five brief acts, is by Ricky Ian Gordon (the music) and Royce Vavrek (the words).
Stephanie Blythe is Gertrude; Elizabeth Futral is Alice. Individually and together, they are brilliant, as is the rest of the cast. Michael Christie’s conducting of the St. Louis Symphony Orchestra was commendable.
Opera Theatre’s artistic director James Robinson is the director. The staging is poignant at times, and the love of the two women is a powerful one.
There’s a sense of moving toward some sort of Armageddon, so while at times the show is funny, this is classic comic relief, a pause on the road to disaster. Funny thus serves the story’s forward motion and is revelatory, as when Hemingway appears with a trophy rhinoceros, and Scott Fitzgerald pulls a child’s wagon filled with bottles of booze into the drawing room of the apartment. The music has echoes of Leonard Bernstein, Leo Delibes and Aaron Copland.
In “27” and in two recently produced works, Opera Theatre has distinguished itself by a bold decision to confront controversies surrounding the human condition, controversies that might more conveniently be left alone because of the confounding and disturbing nature of them.
These operas operate in two spheres, and an orthodox aesthete might consider them incompatible, weaving together as they do the dedicatedly artistic and the deliberately political.
In 2011, the company brought to its stage the “The Death of Klinghoffer” and last year “Champion.” Both drove artistic steamrollers into walls of controversy. Both met with roaring success. In each instance, deft and deliberate attention was paid to bringing various interested parties together to discuss these works of art. To the credit of the opera company and its leadership as well as to men and women of good will in this community, this educational process involving minds and souls was successful. And it has spun off other efforts to promote understanding between groups traditionally suspicious of – and sometimes extremely antagonistic toward – each other.
These three operas serve to reveal to us clearly the human moral dyad, that is the collisions of homicidal cruelty, greed and hatred with the ethic of reciprocity, and with compassion, generosity and empathy.
The grand myth of 27, rue de Fleurus and of Stein and Toklas, is given a sound articulation – the magic of art and vivid conversation is realized beautifully as famous characters occupy the stage. Pablo Picasso is there, and in the opera presents Stein with her famous 1905-06 portrait, now in the Met. And again we meet Henri Matisse and Hemingway and Fitzgerald and poor Man Ray, whom Gertrude Stein mocks as being a mere photographer and squashes like a bug. Leo Stein, rather cruelly caricatured, makes his furious exit from this milieu and takes Matisse with him. Homages thus are paid, and slanders are effected, but in the end, as pretty as it was to think all this was heady and charming, the moral boom is lowered.
Art, personified, emerges from its frames and asks Miss Stein “How does Gertrude Stein stay safe, safe, stay safe?”
Toklas interrupts and sings:
She owes no answer.
She is Gertrude Stein.
In those two sentences, “27” moves from a revelation of a moment in the history of art to an examination of access to and abuses of power, to entitlement and privilege, to the havens provided by wealth and the cover provided by the careful constructions of myth. “How does Gertrude Stein stay safe, safe, stay safe?”
Art matters and holds the mirror of truth, sometimes distorted to be certain, but revelatory nevertheless. And in this opera, it exposes not only the duplicity of the protected person of Gertrude Stein and the apparent inviolability of 27, rue de Fleurus, but an altogether more universal human culpability.
How, in the face of gross and often criminal inequities at home and increasing and apparently intractable genocidal horrors abroad, how is it that we – smug and comfortable in our seats in life’s theater, or fretting and strutting our own moments on the simile’s stage – stay safe, safe, stay safe ourselves?