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      What is a play.
     A play is scenery.
     A play is not identity or place
or time but it likes to feel it oh yes
it does wonderfully like to feel it.
     That is what makes it a play
GERTRUDE  STEINThe Geographical
History of America

"A play is scenery." In a lecture ("Plays," 1934) she speaks of a play as being a landscape . In either case the usual process of familiarizing oneself with casual patterns of identity, or of place or time, the "progressive familiarity" one gains in reading a novel, is absent—"the actors are there they are there and they are there right away." That, as she says, has "a great deal to do with the nervousness of the theatre excitement," insofar as "the introduction to the characters on the stage has a great many different sides to it." Then there is the fact of her "early recollections . . . One which is in a way like a circus that is the general movement and light and air which any theatre has, and a great deal of glitter in the light and a great deal of height in the air, and then there are moments, a very very few moments but still moments. One must be pretty far advanced in adolescence before one realizes a whole play."

Robert Creeley, Was That a Real Poem & Other Essays , ed. Donald Allen (Bolinas, Calif.: Four Seasons Foundation, 1979).


A little later in the same lecture she speaks very movingly of being adolescent "and going to the theatre all the time, a great deal alone, and all of it making an outside inside existence for me, not so real as books, which were all inside me, but so real that it the theatre made real outside me which up to that time I never had been in my emotion. I had largely been so in an active daily life but not in any emotion." The problem then met with, sadly, was "the great difficulty of having my emotion accompany the scene and then moreover I became fairly consciously troubled by the things over which one stumbles over which one stumbled to such an extent that the time of one's emotions in relation to the scene was always interrupted . . . Could I see and hear and feel at the same time and did I." What then comes as solution is Sarah Bernhardt—"it was all so foreign and her voice being so varied and it all being so French I could rest in it untroubled. And I did . . . This experience curiously enough and yet perhaps it was not so curious awakened in me a desire for melodrama on the stage, because there again everything happened so quietly one did not have to get acquainted and as what the people felt was of no importance one did not have to realize what was said."

These several statements are most interesting to me, just that they locate very clearly her own preoccupations—the possible situations of time , specifically the nature of the present as interior and exterior condition—and the experiential location, so to speak, which the stage per se had to offer. One sturdy fact of existence would seem to me at least that whatever happens in the world, or can be said to have happened or to be about to happen, or eventually, is, by nature of the necessity constituted by the statement itself, happening now . There seemingly is no other 'place' for it to occur. Of course there are endlessly possible patterns of causality, most usefully so very often, but their reality also is dependent on this specific now insofar as they presume a precedent or a consequence for what it is (now ) they are involved with.

Thinking of a "play" and "scenery" and "landscape" (and not of "identity" and "place" and "time," for these are abstractions which accumulate their various meanings rather than possess them by fact of activity or literal substance), all three have the common quality of being primarily a present event. Their significance takes root in their being 'here and now' and their history or consequence seems secondary, despite its possible relevance. In like sense, feeling , as one says, is insistently a present reality. It may be useless to "cry over spilt milk" but feeling will never know it, only thought.


And thought itself may be issue, finally, of feeling. Thus "it likes to feel it oh yes it does wonderfully like to feel it . . ."

In any case, a disjunct can occur in experience when the "inside" existence of any one of us confronts an existing "outside" which is not in phase or 'in time' with our own. The feeling then of dislocation is very unhappy and, understandably, we avoid such circumstance if we can. Reading, the solution is quite simple. We can put the book down despite its already having 'got into' us, and hopefully, reassert our own experiences of 'place' and 'time' and 'identity,' our so-called various 'selves.'

So there is, put mildly, extraordinary power in any present moment, the more so feelings have been powerfully engaged—and by "power" I mean some common sense of energy , presumably a basic quantity in activity of whatever order. Something's happening . I'm attracted by the fact that Gertrude Stein's qualification of literature was, is it or isn't it exciting . It's much like Pound's sense of poetry being language charged to the highest degree of that possibility.

Coming to the opera (physically, or in mind), it is, as an activity, here and also apparently dominant in relation to any one of us here as well. That is, if I get up and start shouting that its activity is not congruent with my own, I'll either find myself flooded with a 'present' equal to my own—thus I'll be on stage , intentionally or not in the act —or else ejected, much as food is by a preoccupied body. I don't think this has to do with a social fact, in the sense of manners. Rather, it seems the situation of reality itself, which the stage is , in its occupation of the common present , and the divers alternatives to that situation which each of us in our own particulars might constitute are not so much yielded as enclosed by the power of that event, that present which theater in all of its modes—music, dance, drama, or their combination—so particularly creates.

It's all a long way round to come to some rather simple point no doubt. But this present is such a true one, gift or given—and she spent her whole life, one might say, insistent upon the nature and condition of its reality. Words. Now. Here. In thought, at least, there would be so much more commodious. But, as a sister poet said, if we're going to be here, let's be here now!

The Mother of Us All is her last work, makes use of narrative (which her earlier collaboration with Virgil Thomson, Four Saints in Three Acts , did not), has personages anachronistically in the same 'time' and 'place,' muses, wisely, on various circumstances of this life (men, marriage, names, women), uses a lifelong acquisition of language's patterns, 'simply' 'elemental':


Where is where. In my long life of effort and strife, dear life, life is strife, in my long life, it will not come and go, I tell you so, it will stay it will pay but

(A long silence)

But do I want what we have got, has it not gone, what made it live, has it not gone because now it is had, in my long life in my long life


Life is strife, I was a martyr all my life not to what I won but to what was done.


Do you know because I tell you so, or do you know, do you know.


My long life, my long life.


Buffalo, N.Y.
September 26, 1975


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