Gertrude Stein – Fanny Butcher- Alice Roullier – Alice B. Toklas in Chicago 1934

“I have just finished one play about Sweet William and his Lillian it is called Listen to Me, I was worried lest it have too much meaning, but Alice says not, says it’s nice…”
[letter from Miss Stein to Thornton Wilder, March 25, 1936]
“She was – let us admit once and for all – very funny. Her random distribution of labels – Act One, Act Twenty-Three, Scene Four, Scene One, Scene I, Scene One – has become a classic literary joke. The cagey final paragraph of The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas is a masterpiece of wit and nonsense. It is a humor of destruction: a humor which, like that of the Marx Brothers, negates commonly accepted axioms of reality, and leaves the perceiver dangling, reeling, and grateful for the ictus that enables him to agree with organized chaos by the simple act of laughing.”
– Leonard Bernstein [from the original (May 3) draft of a review for of “Last Operas and Plays” for the New York Times, May 22, 1949]


Listen to Me by Gertrude Stein

LTM prologue act 1 – lines assigned Jan 1 24
LTM Act 2 lines assigned Jan 21 2024
LTM Act III – lines assigned Jan 1 2024
LTM act 4
LTM Act 5 plus lines assigned 2 10 24

Stirred by the last rehearsal I made a first stab at a synopsis.
Of course, we will refine it, but it’s a starting point.

LTM Synopsis 2 19 25


  • “I am working a lot, tremendously, a book, and two plays, one is done, I guess it’s pretty good it is about Sweet William and his Lillian and is called Listen to me, I tried to make it like my memories of the Kirafly brothers and the Lion tamer, and then I got worried lest it meant too much…” March 26, 1936  Stein letter to Carl Van Vechten. [DK note: The correct spelling is Kiralfy, pronounced keer-ALF-ee, not Kirafly]
  • “I have just finished a play, I think it partly good, it is called Listen to Me. I had an idea of making an old fashioned thing like Wilson used to do in the Lion Tamer.” March 1936 Stein letter to Bennett Cerf. [Photo of Francis Wilson in The Lion Tamer below, followed by a photo of an arrangement of paintings in Stein’s apartment at 27 rue de Fleurus in Paris)
  • Thornton Wilder’s introduction to Stein’s Four in America (coincidentally or not) identifies the dramatic action that we are trying to get at with Listen To Me. I’ve bolded the part that fits us best, but the whole passage is useful.
    “Four in America is not a book which is the end and summary of her thoughts about the subjects she has chosen; it is the record of her thoughts, from the beginning, as she “closes in” on them. It is being written before our eyes; she does not, as other writers do, suppress and erase the hesitations, the recapitulation, the connectives, in order to give us the completed fire result of her meditations. She gives us the process. From time to time we hear her groping toward the next idea; we hear her cry of joy when she has found it; sometimes it seems to me that we hear her reiterating the already achieved idea and, as it were, pumping it in order to force out the next development that lies hidden within it. We hear her talking to herself about the book that is growing and glowing (to borrow her often irritating habit of rhyming) within her.”

MEMO 2/10/2024

  • GS suggests a topic for improvisation, all the characters offer responses. This way we do not interrupt the rhythm of speech by repeating “First Act” etc, but I think we can get across the idea that there are multiple ideas/responses to “First Act?”EXAMPLE:
    GS: First Act.                      What is a game?
    [One of the Characters as First Act.]                      A game is where they do it again.
    [Another of the Characters as First Act.]                      Oh yes no doubt a gameAnd another example, following from GS’s prompts and different characters responding.
    GS: Second Act.                 What is the earth?
    [Second Act.]                  The earth is altogether with or without water.
    [Second Act.]                 With or without thunder
    [Second Act.]                  No with or without water.
    [Second Act.]                 That is what the earth is with or without water.
    GS: Third Act.                     And what are people?
    [Third Act.]                     People are all over
    [Third Act.]                     Do you mean all over
    [Third Act.]                      No I do not mean all over
    [Third Act.]                      Do you not do you not mean all over.

We will figure out in rehearsal who offers which response to GS’s prompting questions.

  • In certain sections where it says “All the Characters” lines are overlapped. Single lines will emerge from the mass of lines. We will figure out in rehearsals what lines emerge and who says what line.

EXAMPLE:  Overlapped lines are underlined. Bracketed words are printed in the text, but unspoken by performers.

AT: If the earth is everywhere covered all over with people nobody sees them all.
[First Character.]            And if anybody does why not.
GS: All the characters.         After all that is what it is after all.
OVERLAP: [All the characters.]         After all never happens again.
[All the Characters.]   Does it.
[All the Characters.]        Perhaps Character is four syllables.
[All the Characters.]        Perhaps
[All the Characters.]       And so it is important
[All the Characters.]       Perhaps
[All the Characters.]        That there is the earth and that there are people everywhere on it.
[All the Characters.]        Perhaps.

  • Certain sections are silent group action, with GS providing spoken subtitle/explanation/essential summary:
    GS:  So now listen while all the Acts together hear what they say.
    They hear now.
    All the acts together.
[A Soliloquy. – while the actors interact silently] For whether or not
Suppose whether or not
Syllables change
Babies arrange
Any exchange
Whether or not.
As anybody looks they see that it is so.
Think of syllables
That it is so
That is what Acts altogether are.

  • Certain sections are chains of group action sharing the thought. These are underlined with dashes.

GS: The Acts altogether do not say so altogether
although they know altogether that it is so.
[The Acts Altogether.] [a character:] It has come
[a character:] That the earth
[a character:]   Is there

  • Different characters demonstrate/compete to demonstrate what “Sweet Williams is
    [a character:]Sweet William is always careful of their feelings even if he knows that he is very sorry.  He is very sorry he is always careful of their feelings even if he knows he is very sorry.
    a character:]That is what Sweet William is he is very careful of their feelings he is very sorry he is very sorry he is careful of their feelings that is what Sweet William is he is very sorry.
    [a character:]That is what Sweet William is.
  •  An overtone to the many “Curtains”
    “Alice Toklas is at present most interested in the curtains in all the English houses when we come to England that is what she finds most exciting that and everything else done by women.” –from Stein’s Everybody’s Autobiography

MEMO 1/28/202

  • Lou asked (or someone asked) why did they come to the salon? And I said, right at the top of the list, because of the paintings. In doing some research and reading last night I read about how high the walls were in the salon, and how (according to one writer) there was a sort of competition among the painters. I am not interested in the competition, but I am interested in the “Listen to Me” concept (all these “characters” calling for attention) extending to the paintings. So that the idea of Joel as the Boy with Pipe, or (my first idea, Abby!) that Abby might be the young girl of the Saltimbanques.
  • How the number of the characters line up with “who” they are, still needs to be worked out. There are, for now, some parallel couples: GS/Toklas – Hemingway/Fitzgerald – Picasso/Dora Maar- Sweet William/Lillian. Each of these has pairings its own dynamic.
  • “the earth is covered over with people” meaning graves – maybe. Other meanings? See below, an excerpt from Stein’s Everybody’s Autobiography.
  • We have yet to explore the silences Miss Stein seems to call for. We will.
  • EXCERPTS from Everybody’s Autobiography:– I have wanted to write a whole book about words of one syllable. In a play I have just written called Listen To Me I keep thinking of words of one syllable.– Bertie Abdy is not a painter I have made him in my play Listen To Me, he is the Sweet William who had his genius and who looked for his Lillian. He has his genius, his genius is in being that thing, in having his genius and looking for his Lillian, he dislikes with a violence that is disconcerting all modern art and all Americans, and to prove that the exception proves the rule he is very fond of me … when we were in Cornwall together his wife Diana, kneeled upon the eye of the big chalk horse there to wish what there is to wish for and so I have told in the play Listen To Me, I wrote that one after we had been in Cornwall–And so our winter went on and now it is spring, and next Friday we go to London to see [a performance of her play ] The Wedding Bouquet put on. Picabia and I will perhaps do one for the exposition the play called Listen To Me, perhaps it is the son of Renoir who will put it on for us and it is all about how the world is covered all over with people and so nobody can get lost any more and the dogs do not bark at the moon any more because there are so many lights everywhere that they do not notice the moon any more.

MEMO 1/22/24

  1. I’ve assigned lines in Act II and IV as drafts. What’s in brackets is unsaid (but part of the original text).
    GS: But [said the other one] no one can use these words because these words can change.
    ALICE: Oh [said the other] one can
    words change.
    GS: Yes [said the other one]  words cannot change but anybody can put anything away.
    ALICE: Where [said the other one] can they put anything away.
    GS: Why not if they do.
  2. The Salon idea seems to work, that this is a party game for those gathered
    Salon guests talk about and to Lillian and Sweet William and they play the word game. EXAMPLE (from Act 6, where they would all claim to be First Act):
    First Act.                      What is a game.
    First Act.                      A game is where they do it again.
    First Act.                      Oh yes no doubt a game
    First Act.                      Oh yes no doubt a game is where they do it again.
    First Act [very harshly.]               Oh yes a game no doubt a game is where they do it
  • I’d like to explore, for now, these salon guests:
    Picasso, Mr. Liberatore /who perhaps takes on older Sweet William
    Hemingway, Mr. Higgins
    Dora Maar, Ms. Meer
    Scott Fitzgerald or an American soldier, Mr. Copeland
    Cecil Beaton (or perhaps Bertie Abdy), Mr. Winther
    Josephine Baker, Ms. Marie
    Bernard Fay, Mr. DeCandio (the 5th character not being there, but being there)
    Ideas for Ms. Gumpper, must wait for when we are in the room.

3) In Act II, I’m separating FIRST CHARACTER and “The first character” (GS).
I still haven’t thought through what to do with All the characters and Chorus of Characters.

4) We’ll work out Acts V and VI in the room. As part of the playfulness (and one-upmanship) of the game they all take turns being FIRST ACT, etc.

MEMO 1/1/24

About the absent punctuation, from “The Revolutionary Power of a Woman’s Laughter” by Jo-Anna Isaak:
The possessive case apostrophe she refused to use because it spoiled the look of the word. Similarly, question marks, exclamation marks, and quotation marks “are ugly, they spoil the line of writing or the printing …. ” For Stein these were shapes as well as symbols and should be judged accordingly. “The question mark is alright when it is all alone when it is used as a brand on cattle or when it could be used in decoration but connected with writing it is completely entirely uninteresting. ” Periods are liked as much for their looks as for what they do. But the comma, “well at the most a comma is a poor period that it lets you stop and take a breath but if you want to take a breath you ought to know yourself that you want to take a breath”

We will start with what seems to be a Prologue, then Act 1, then most of Act III ( The numbered characters are mostly unassigned so far.)
In assigning lines I’ve started out with a few ideas:

1) Gertrude Stein would recite and Alice Toklas would write down what she heard
I am playing with the idea that Miss Toklas would ask for clarification or offer comments.

GS: And if it were were were.
ALICE: It is.
GS: Were
ALICE: It is. And if it is.
GS: Were.
ALICE: Well if it is.
GS: Were if it is.

2) Sweet William is William Shakespeare
By Sweet William, Miss Stein means William Shakespeare. She aligns what she calls his genius with her own genius and the difficulty of communicating her (and his) vision within the form of a play. Shakespeare must count syllables to fit what he has to say.

Lillian is Shakespeare’s beloved.

GS: Sweet William had his genius.
WILLIAM: Sweet William had his syllables
GS: Sweet William had water and had no water in his pools sweet William had water in his water falls
WILLIAM: Water-fall Three syllables made up a two syllables and one syllable
GS: And so Sweet William came to be about.
WILLIAM: About two syllables
Came one syllable
to be one syllable
be one syllable
ALICE: Now there is no opposition to anything being together.
GS: Sweet William had his genius and he looked for his Lillian.
ALICE: Did Lillian know that the earth is all covered over with people which it is
GS: Lillian had no connection with syllables.  Syllables are not so
ALICE: And now there is no action.
WILLIAM: Action is two syllables
GS: Curtain.

3) The numbered characters sometimes observe and comment on the interaction of Miss Stein and Miss Toklas.

GS: (dictating to ALICE all that follows until Alice interrupts):
There are three characters.
The first one says.         No noun is remown
The second one says.    Forget the air
The first one says.         But you need the air
ALICE: The third one says.        For has nothing to do with get.

ONE: They giggle.
TWO: And then they are not through with three.
THREE: And then they are solemn and they know that the world will

4) The numbered characters have other functions.
These will be figured out in the process of rehearsal. A possibility: they are dinner guests and servants at a dinner party.  Are they Picasso, Josephine Baker, an American soldier, a Nazi spy, and other dinner guests? Are they characters out of Shakespeare?

5) Act III, scene 7 relates to the reality of 1936
The play was composed in 1936.  Suddenly there was a war: the Spanish Civil War, in which Stalin and Hitler faced off through proxies. Sweet Williams insists

WILLIAM:  Suddenly there is a war
Suddenly is a word in three syllables
There is a war.
Words of one syllable

But despite his insistence, no one seems to be disturbed from their personal preoccupations. There is much to work through here.


Excerpts from Plays, a lecture by Gertrude Stein, 1934:

And so one day all of a sudden I began to write Plays.

I remember very well the first one I wrote. I called it “What Happened, a Play,” it is in Geography and Plays as are all the plays I wrote at that time. I think and always have thought that if you write a play you ought to announce that it is a play and that is what I did. “What Happened. A Play.”

I had just come home from a pleasant dinner party and I realized then as anybody can know that something is always happening.

Something is always happening, anybody knows a quantity of stories of people’s lives that are always happening, there are always plenty for the newspapers and there are always plenty in private life. Everybody knows so many stories and what is the use of telling another story. What is the use of telling a story since there are so many and everybody knows so many and tells so many. In the country it is perfectly extraordinary how many complicated dramas go on all the time. And everybody knows them, so why tell another one. There is always a story going on.

So naturally what I wanted to do in my play was what everybody did not always know nor always tell. By everybody I do of course include myself by always I do of course include myself.

And so I wrote What Happened, A Play.

Then I wrote Ladies Voices and then I wrote a Curtain Raiser. I did this last because I wanted still more to tell what could be told if one did not tell anything.

I came to think that since each one is that one and that there are a number of them each one being that one, the only way to express this thing each one being that one and there being a number of them knowing each other was in a play. And so I began to write these plays. And the idea in “What Happened, a Play” was to express this without telling what happened, in short to make a play the essence of what happened. I tried to do this with the first series of plays that I wrote.

The landscape has its formation and as after all a play has to have formation and be in relation one thing to the other thing and as the story is not the thing as anyone is always telling something then the landscape not moving but being always in relation, the trees to the hills the hills to the fields the trees to each other any piece of it to any sky and then any detail to any other detail, the story is only of importance if you like to tell or like to hear a story but the relation is there anyway. And of that relation I wanted to make a play and I did, a great number of plays.

What are Masterpieces STEIN

Écoutez-moi STEIN french unproofed 1 7 24


Gertrude_Stein_Advanced Richard_Kostelanetz_editor

Reconsidering the Genius of Gertrude Stein by Lynne Tillman

Two Lives: Gertrude and Alice by Janet Malcolm is smart and helpful and well-written.  My copy can circulate.

Gertrude Stein: her life and work is a biography by Elizabeth Sprigge that believes and repeats everything Gertrude said and is a pleasure to read. It does not have a lot about 1936. I’m sure it’s been superseded by other biographies that aren’t such a pleasure to read.

Everybody’s Autobiography by Miss Stein is highly recommended. She wrote it at the time she was working on Listen to Me and she mentions that in the text. AND she repeats ideas, phrases, images, that appear in Listen to Me – sometimes with greater specificity than in the play. It is 300 pages and it is not so much a chore to read as a commitment to listening to Miss Stein’s voice.
It’s inexpensive in a used copy from Amazon. And there’s a Kindle version.

My writing is clear as mud, but mud settles and clear streams run on and disappear.” — from “Everybody’s Autobiography”