Tender story reaches beyond lesbian issues to universal love and loss
Gertrude Stein and a Companion takes the audience back to the Paris of Hemingway where major artists gathered
There are so many current and urgent concerns for SA women, such as the corrective rape and other brutalisations of lesbians in the townships. So why bother watching an old-school play about two, white, older lesbians from back in the day?
Gertrude Stein and a Companion is a period piece and therefore must be true to a specific time — one of the most extraordinary eras for artists. Stein and her life partner and secretary Alice B Toklas arrived in the Paris of 1903 which writer Ernest Hemingway described as “a moveable feast”.
Paris was a magnet for some of the world’s major creatives — painters, composers, dancers and writers. The couple befriended and collected many experimental works of the time, particularly Picasso, Matisse and Braque. Stein and Toklas survived two world wars, the German occupation of France and the Great Depression.
Win Wells’s play doesn’t draw attention to the couple’s sexual orientation, women’s suffrage, refugee status, migrancy or the risk Jews faced living in Paris at the time. It also makes no mention of the allegations in Janet Malcolm’s book, Two Lives, regarding Stein’s close friendship with Bernard Faÿ, a top figure in France’s pro-Nazi Vichy government.
Malcolm writes that Faÿ apparently asked the Vichy chief of state Philippe Pétain to protect Stein and Toklas — and their art collection — during the war. She also writes that Stein admired Pétain and translated his anti-Semitic speeches into English.
But this nonlinear play points to something universal. The old 19th century of one size fits all no longer applies. In its place is the recognition of peoples’ unique differences and responses. And yet, the desire to be loved, no matter your gender orientation, is a universal drive.
Actors Shirley Johnston and Lynita Crofford are adamant that the subject of Gertrude Stein and a Companion is not homosexuality. At its core, it’s a play about primary relationships featuring love and inevitable loss.
“For me it’s about companionship, relationships. So, it doesn’t matter that they are two women who fall in love no matter what their orientation. That’s why it’s important,” says Crofford.
Johnston didn’t “think at all” about it being about two lesbians. “I just thought about that period and I just love that period,” she says.
Unlike many lesbian-themed films with corny characterisation, dismal dialogue, pathetic plots and silly stereotypes that come across as an excuse for eye candy and fantasy for heterosexual males, Gertrude Stein and a Companion has a tight, snappy, script generously scattered with peppery, witty repartee suggestive of Stein’s quirky writing style.
The audiences are never allowed to drift. The direction by Chris Weare is tight, unmawkish and the acting inspired and true.
The title, which gives one woman a name and the other just a role, immediately informs about the hierarchy between the women. Stein is the overt sun and Toklas the covert moon and the power behind the throne.
The title is a reference to the macho but marshmallow-hearted writer Hemingway, who was in love with Stein. He was jealous of Toklas’ place in Stein’s life and her role as gatekeeper. So Hemingway punished Toklas by refusing to use her name.
After 40, many women complain that they become invisible. Men instinctively and unconsciously intuit they are no longer fertile and turn their gaze to those with fresher eggs.
Crofford wasn’t going to be held back by this. Recognising that few directors were going to come banging at her door offering parts, she became proactive. She had acted in her own creation, Violet Online and Love Me Tinder, about online dating, and more recently played a man in Taming of the Shrew at Maynardville.
Johnston’s last role was in Death of Colonialist — a play “steeped in realism”. Crofford asked friend and director Marthinus Basson if he could recommend a two-hander as she didn’t want to do another one-woman show. He suggested Gertrude Stein and a Companion.
She offered the second part to Johnson as a birthday gift. They hadn’t acted together for 30 years and Johnston was delighted. They asked Weare if he would direct. “We took quite a chance, as this play is not the kind of work major theatres are doing now,” Crofford says.
She enjoys the detail Weare brings to the script and acting. “He knows how to guide you,” she says. One of the difficulties for Crofford was the physical aspect of ageing and, in particular, the nonchronical way her character moves between ages.
Johnston’s highlight began as a difficulty. The script contains unusual turns of phrase. Initially, she says, she found it difficult but once she mastered it, she grew to love the style.
Johnston admits to wondering quietly to herself who would come and see the play. But Crofford points out that audiences have been very varied — including heterosexuals, couples, singles, religious people and conservatives.
Johnston’s husband brought his rugger-bugger mates, some of whom were profoundly moved and loved the play’s historical references. One of Johnston’s second-year students “totally understood it” as a play about loss. A very conservative audience member referred to it as a “tender story”.
There is talk of taking the duo travelling to the Gay Irish Festival in Dublin if funds can be found.
* Gertrude Stein and a Companion is at the Alexander Theatre in Cape Town until October 20.