Gertrude Stein (1874-1946) wrote Doctor Fautus Lights the Lights in the spring of 1938 and called her work an “opera”, though it would be more correct to call it a libretto – intended as a musical work. “Opera” only really means “work” and “works”, but perhaps with that word she wanted to set her piece against the great Faust operas of Berlioz, Gounod and Busoni? “Opera” – an epithet with a pre-existing cultural aura, but for Stein it has a playful, ironic twitch and a streak of aesthetic nihilism and upheaval. More operation than music, and at the same time an embezzlement of the concept of genre. As in Öyvind Fahlström’s long, narrow comic-like drawing “Opera”, from his first solo exhibition in 1953.
An opera without music, an opera of just words. But it didn’t take long before it was brought to the stage and became a small mountain to climb, especially for the avant garde performing artists in the United States. It was first performed in 1950 at an American university theater, then by The Living Theatre in 1951, to inaugurate their Cherry Lane Theatre in New York City. La Mama Experimental Theatre Club performed it in 1972, Richard Foreman staged it in 1982, Robert Wilson in 1989 and 1992, The Wooster Group presented its version in 1999 and Duende Theatre Company at the New York Fringe Festival in 2001. To name just a few.
The story of Faust and his infamous pact with the devil goes back hundreds of
years. Collected in 1578 in the German folklore book The Story of Dr. Johann Faustus, tells of a learned seeker of knowledge who takes help from the Evil One in order to transcend the limits of ordinary knowledge:
“Now have I Doctor Faustus, to the hellish Prince of Orient, and his messenger Mephostophiles, given both body and soul, upon such conditions, that they shall learn me, and fulfill my desire in all things as they have promised and vowed unto me, with due obedience unto me according to the articles mentioned. Further, I covenant and grant with them by these presents, that at the end of 24 years next ensuing the date of this present letter, they being expired and I in the meantime, during the said years be served of them at my will, they accomplishing my desires to the full in all points as we are agreed: that then I give them all power to do with me at their pleasure, to rule, to send, fetch, or carry me or mine, be it either body, soul, flesh, blood, or goods, into their habitation.“ A measured time after which the heretical doctor does not escape his hellish punishment and God's order is restored.
The story of Dr. Faust was told again and again, and the English playwright Christopher Marlowe (a contemporary of Shakespeare) wrote a version that became enormously influential in his sympathy for the rebel Faust - the doctor's arrogance, still bold.
And so, Faust ended up in a family tree with many ancient and future transcendental descendants: the ancient Prometheus, the biblical Job, Pygmalion, Don Juan and Dr. Frankenstein, are some of them.
Marlowe's version was played for many years, diligently performed in markets and squares as a Punch and Judy show, and it was in this way that Johann Wolfgang von Goethe was introduced to the Faust drama for the first time, as a child.
The violent puppet show between Faust and Mephisto made an indelible impression on him, and he came to engage in his own Faust play for most of his life, from the youthful Urfaust to the Faust II of old age. With Goethe, the old folk tale grew into a magnificent drama with universal claims. It applied to everything: culture, civilization and humans - which for Goethe was a "Faustian" being, fated to restlessly explore the mysteries of existence, while she (though with Goethe it is a male), equally restless, seeks reconciliation in the pure innocence, symbolized by the woman Margareta, Gretchen.
In the German-speaking culture, Goethe's Faust became an identifying figure, a humanistic enlightener, tormented by the tragic and insurmountable distance between, on the one hand, the will to know and to live and, on the other hand, the possibility of fulfilment.
But when the German director Michael Thalheimer (b. 1965) staged Goethe's Faust I & II in 2004 and 2005 at the Deutsches Theater in Berlin, all idealism vanished. On stage stood a lone desperado, perpetrator and destroyer, and Mephisto was no metaphysical tempter but rather Faust's own inner devil.
"I see despair, haughtiness, arrogance, vanity," Thalheimer said in an interview.
"Faust is not a figure I would like to identify with. There is something very German about him. He is, so to speak, our national hero. France has Jeanne d’Arc, Spain has Cervantes’ Don Quixote, already there you can see the differences. Faust, the eternally dissatisfied, constant egocentricity, claims to totality, nowhere to really stop for some peace of mind. But no matter how German it may be - in principle, it characterizes all societies in today's western world."
And Gertrude Stein, then? What does Faust look like in Doctor Faustus Lights the Lights?
To begin with, it is striking that her Faust does not have much left of the unwavering will to live and know, found in Goethe's hero. Here, the title role is not a transgressor, but at most a tired revealer, fed up precisely by his own transparency. As for the enlighted man, only the light bulb inventor remains, in single combat with the dark Mephisto. And in the artificial light of this lamp, the name of man flares up, radiating illusion and hubris. Electricity spreads throughout the world, not as God's creative ray of light but as the hallucinatory power of modernity, embodied in the advertisement of light.
Maybe I'm over-interpreting. In any case, it will soon be time for Gertrude Stein to let a woman take the stage to challenge Dr. Faust. She is hardly a figure of reconciliation, on the contrary, a kind of confusing figure in cheerful alliance with the Evil One. Gertrude Stein leaves her four-headed, she is Margareta and Ida, Helena and Annabel, with names and identities taken from both ancient fairy tales and her own writing. Behind the scenery lurks the old ideas of an original matriarchy, characterized by an early wisdom that was then annihilated by the patriarchy of civilization. But Gertrude Stein's women are not the angels of antiquity sent to restore old times, but rather gang of contemporary disruptors of prevailing orders - and not even their identity seems to be certain, possible to establish or maintain:
”I am I and my name is Marguerite Ida and Helena Annabel, and then oh then I could I could begin to cry but why why could I begin to cry”, ”Would it do as well if my name was not Marguerite Ida and Helen Annabel and it is not well that I could tell what there is to tell”. And if they stop to address someone, it's the Evil One himself - the snake itself, he who is called Mr. Viper, named and addressed by them with the words: "You are as you are not".
We are left with these negations and evasions in Doctor Faustus Lights the Lights. A number of small roles are added in varying degrees of instability - "The Boy", " The Girl", "The Dog", "I", she ", he" and "you", described with varying epithets and merging with each other, depending on the moment.
Is there any moral lesson in Doctor Faustus Lights the Lights? Is it the light or the darkness that wins in the end? Is there even an end? What is the invented light to be used for? And where is the devil? Yes, who really is the devil? "The devil what the devil what do I care if the devil is there?"
The reader/listener/spectator gets a feeling that Gertrude Stein is responding to the canonical Faust story not through interpretation but by emptying, dissolving its components. Maybe it can be called an attempt at liberation.
An early photographic portrait from her student days - she is 24 years old - shows her tightly corseted in a dress that is equipped according to the feminine rules of the time. The corset laces and lifts the bust, the lines of the shoulders are nicely marked, the legs held modestly together, the head and gaze softly tilted.
Fifteen years later, in 1913, she is photographed in the apartment of Rue de Fleurus 27 in Paris. It is an emblematic portrait that captures the future image of the author. She lets Alvin Langdon Coburns portray her frontally, looking straight ahead, she sits wide-legged and is draped in a very knobbly velvet fabric. It’s a carefully planned portrait, as when a famous actress portrays herself as Lady Macbeth or Kassandra - but what role does Gertrude Stein play here? Perhaps an imposing princess from the East, during the heyday of Japanese woodcuts? Yes, but also a powerful butch who, just at the moment of exposure, becomes a model for future generations of queers.
In other words, the opposite of corseted. She invents and presents herself, preceding Warhol. It looks massive, and the bodily massiveness reappears in the following years’ descriptions of her, often even in a devout reverence for her obesity - associated with excess and greed, but also with a Buddha-like calmness. The draping velvet emphasizes the corporeality but is also a theatrical curtain that at once hides and promises. As a portrait, it does not intend to be "similar", rather it plays with categories, while avoiding categorization. The apartment’s famous art collection is not visible, nor are the writers and artists who visited her there - she was a collector, not just of art.
Gertrude Stein liked to talk a lot with people and listened to the everyday rhythm of speech. In her writing, she grasped the vocabulary and twists of spoken language, tore it down and rebuilt it into the song-writing that was all hers – immediately recognizable but not easy to imitate: rhythms, repetitions with minor differences, a precision disguised as chance. No word lasting in its meaning, always transitions and new directions. The superficial was her domain. In Cezanne, she found the unbound materiality of simple objects, liberated from use and definition, physical signs in their own kingdom.
She really liked Picasso’s famous portrait, where he painted her face like a mask mounted in front of her face. What’s behind the mask, inside it? For her, consciousness (the psyche, the soul) was more situation than essence. What is inside comes from outside. But what is the connection between inside and outside? That was the mystery for her. But writing became the connection.
She safeguarded herself against memory, against the heritage of history and society and against the discomfort she experienced in her own past ("There is no there there"). In her words and sentences there is no clear beginning, middle or end, no definite before or after. What is written is a suddenly emerging and equally suddenly transient situation, a fate with no history or future, only existing in the present.
With her, identity was mostly similarity: you are similar to what you like, what you like is like you, you are what your gaze stops at. In the duality of the English word "like", she found the right expression. ”Like that is like that it is like that I am going to like that. I am going to like that. Which first.” (A Comedy like That, 1924).
One of Gertrude Stein's longtime friends in Paris was Bernard Faÿ, professor of American literature at the Collège de France. They met in 1926 and maintained a close friendship until her death in 1946. He translated her work, was her main patron and helped prepare her successful tour of the United States in 1934-35. According to Alice B. Toklas, he was the dearest friend of her life.
Bernard Faÿ was a political reactionary - anti-Semitic, a royalist and arch-Catholic - and he dreamed of a France that would one day become "La France" again, as the nation had promised before the revolution of 1789 and the rise of modern liberal democracy. Gertrude Stein, of Jewish descent, shared his extreme conservatism. Modernist aesthetics, yes - but modernity, no. She stood up for General Franco in the Spanish Civil War, and in her home country of the United States, she viewed President Franklin D. Roosevelt's political and economic reforms as a symptom of a catastrophic and unfortunate desertion of 18th-century heroic individualism.
During the conspiring Vichy regime of the Nazi occupation, led by the then head of state Marshal Philippe Pétain, Bernard Faÿ was appointed director of the Bibliotheque Nationale - a very prestigious position. He was also given overall responsibility for the repression of the French Freemasons - the Masonic-Jewish conspiracy was an anti-Semitic postulation. By the end of the war, about a thousand of them had been deported to the camps.
The friendship with Bernard Faÿ and his connection with Pétain gained Gertrude Stein and Alice B. Toklas a privileged position under the Vichy regime. They stayed in France despite their friends' stubborn insistence that they leave, and were able to move about during the whole war, relatively freely in the south of France. The art collection in their Paris apartment escaped confiscation thanks to Picasso who alerted Bernard Faÿ.
In recent years, biographical research has studied this period more closely, so that the image of Gertrude Stein has become increasingly complex. She - the avant-garde genius, the humorous liberator of all conventions in both life and writing, her bold and open role model lesbian relationship with Alice B. Toklas - proves to have sides that are difficult to deal with, for those who have declared her a cult modernist saint. Ezra Pound's infatuation with Mussolini is one thing, but Gertrude Stein?
She paid tribute to Marshal Pétain, as many in France long praised the great victor of the First World War at Verdun - and around the turn of the year 1941-42, she began translating about thirty of the marshal's speeches: a collected manifesto of his patriotic and authoritarian ideology. The planned American edition was however never published, but the manuscript is preserved, including her introduction in which she explains her desire to seek American support for her new country and Marshal Pétain, as its new leader.
At the end of the war her attitude changed, but she remained faithful to Bernard Faÿ. Shortly before her death in 1946, she testified in support of him, when he was put on trial as a collaborator.
Research on Gertrude Stein's Vichy-time began in the 1970s and continues today. Some want to re-evaluate her work on ethical-political grounds. Others see her actions as understandable survival tactics, motivated by her life as a lesbian Jew in Nazi-occupied France. What is clear is that the image of her and her writing has broadened and become more complicated.
Translation Dana Johnson