RB Schlather and Joan Retallack:
Stein, Thomson, and
The Mother of Us All
Introduction: Steve Smith
Images: Matthew Placek, Tobin del Cuore
Susan B. Anthony, the great American social reformer and women’s rights advocate, twice addressed the public from the stage of the Hudson Opera House, a historic auditorium in Hudson, New York: once to advocate for the abolishment of slavery, and again to drum up support for women’s suffrage. Flash forward to 2017, the centenary of women getting the right to vote, and Hudson Hall once again is the host for a visitation from Anthony—this time as represented in one of the greatest and most idiosyncratic of American operas, The Mother of Us All, composed by Virgil Thomson to text by Gertrude Stein.
The new production was conceived by the inventive young director RB Schlather, whose groundbreaking stagings of works by Handel, Debussy, Philip Glass, John Adams, and David Hertzberg have earned widespread critical acclaim and popular approval. Intent on making a statement about place, Schlather assembled a cast almost entirely comprising Hudson Valley natives, both established professionals and avocational singers.
Among Schlather’s collaborators behind the scenes is the poet, author, multimedia artist, and social activist Joan Retallack, the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Professor Emerita of Humanities at Bard College, and a Stein authority who worked closely with John Cage and Merce Cunningham. The production, which already is sold out completely, opened on Nov. 11 and runs through Nov. 19. (Waitlists are being arranged for each performance.) Prior to opening, Schlather and Retallack sat down for a detailed discussion of ideas about the opera, its creators, its still-revolutionary notions, and considerably more.
RB SCHLATHER: I wanted to talk to you about time, partly because that’s something that I’m struggling with in terms of the staging process. You got me really interested in the spring, when we had that residency here and we started casting the show, in Stein’s preoccupation with history and gender and grammar, which have become this kind of holy trinity for me in putting this whole project together. We’re printing out a big banner… for a long time we were like, should we hang up a flag? Some kind of bunting? Some kind of patriotic visual imagery? More and more, we just are like, strip it all away, don’t present anything, just create a landscape where you’re listening in this historic site where Susan B. Anthony once spoke. It’s more about creating this kind of meditative space where you’re here and you’re thinking about yourself and your own life, bringing to the piece your own ideas about men and women and gender, and your own biography, and your own fears and insecurities, so it becomes more of a cathartic, healing space.
But I have decided that we do need a banner, and we’re getting this big banner made that says HISTORY. GENDER. GRAMMAR. And we’re going to hang it at the top of the stairs. I want people to feel like they can access what we’re doing… in a way, it’s pretty radical, because we’re not doing what you might expect. We’re not depicting 19th-century America, which is at least the subject of the narrative. I feel like there are other things going on: there’s Stein’s thing that’s going on, there’s Thomson’s thing that’s going on, there’s my thing that’s going on, there’s the history of this site that’s going on. When you present this piece in this space, it’s in dialogue with so many other things. I’m also thinking about what you led us to in that first workshop, about Stein and theatrical time and the idea of contemporaneity: what does it mean to be truly in the moment, or truly of the now? So that’s what I wanted to prompt the conversation with.
JOAN RETALLACK: Well, that’s quite a prompt. [Laughs] I’m feeling very prompted. What she said in a wonderful essay called “Composition as Explanation” was that when we’re moving about in any period – which has to be our own, because we don’t really time travel – everything that is unique to that period is what is seen, and what is seen is in what we are doing, the way we are being in that contemporary moment. And so, the fact is that we are composing the contemporary as we’re living it, as we’re making decisions about it. And of course that’s very obvious in composing the way this opera, that is actually a modernist mid-20th-century opera, will be seen and will be experienced in our contemporary moment, which is why we’ve had so many interesting critical questions arise about the grammar. A lot of the cast had questions about that, the actual language, and about issues of race and gender. The gender issues are very much linked to timing and naming, and the way in which the finding out how we think about something like “what is a name?” The way Indiana Elliot needs to think about that, and Jo the Loiterer, is often in very repetitive sorts of voicing that is actually, I think, an act of trying to explore through grammar what it is that we are all actually experiencing in that moment, that is gender or history.
I like when you talk about grammar that not only was Stein exploring things with grammar and with structure, but what then becomes the grammar for the performance? What is the visual composition? What is the larger production? I called these performances that I’ve been undertaking “exhibitions” only because that, to me, is the vocabulary for talking about how I think explorations that I’ve been doing with Handel and with this piece are about. There’s larger things going on; there’s larger questions of systems and of interactions and intimacies. So by calling this production an exhibition, I want to do that so that we take in all of the other dialogues.
When we did that residency, the conversations around the piece were sort of more interesting than the piece. Not that the piece isn’t interesting, but we just thought it would be so great to create some space for those conversations within this historic site, which led us to then be like, oh, we should do a pop-up canteen, where people can get a snack and want to stay and hang out longer than the performance. Then the salon series – our “not-talkback” series, I should say – grew out of that idea as well: How do you create these kind of social gathering spaces where people will want to spend time and really just be together, so that there’s a larger grammar that allows people to come and be in these moments, and feel like they’re really in the now. So many of us spend so much time on our phones, scrolling, scrolling, scrolling, scrolling, communicating in this very global but also very existential way… Who’s actually hearing anything that we’re doing online? But also, the data exists and every movement, everything that one does, is tracked somehow. How do you be really present? How do you be in the moment?
And that, again, has to do with the very elemental ways in which grammar is happening and is being directed and composed. I think about John Cage, for whom the elements of music were time, sound, and silence. Those three elements are also the elements of grammar. So I happen to have with me – never leave home without it – some examples of Gertrude Stein on sentences, in her big book of grammar, which is called How to Write. I’m going to read a couple of them – notice how musical they are:
A sentence is an interval in which there is a finally forward and back. A sentence is an interval in which if there is a difficulty, they will do away with it.
That I particularly love, because I think that is one of the most economical statements I’ve ever read of what conservatism in the arts is about: “If there is a difficulty, they will do away with it.” And one of the things that I’ve loved actually working with you, RB, and in this team with The Mother of Us All is that we’re all realizing there’s just one difficulty after another understanding what on earth this thing is at any given moment, and so we’re not letting them do away with it, that difficulty. And then she says, “A sentence is a part of the way when they wish to be secure,” which is another way of saying that. “A sentence is their politeness in asking for a cessation.” And then this is in a different area, but let’s just think about a sentence: “When a sentence happens, they look up.” So just thinking about that in the sort of musical syntax that you’re working with, with the singers, I’m curious how that sense of what is happening in time is making you look up?
That’s sort of what I’m trying to figure out. I’m not really sure I can articulate it. This is totally unlike anything I’ve ever taken on, because, as you say, there’s all of these other things that keep popping up that require more attention – and I don’t mean that in a negative way – so that then when one gets down to the actual practicality of arranging bodies in space, what do you do?
Well, what you’re doing I love, with the movement of the cast in a kind of ritualistic way that is partly a puzzle – “Why are they doing that?” – and then, like all puzzles, wakes one up. You invent your way of making sense of why they’re doing that. This all happens split-second; it happened that way for me, very quickly. I thought immediately of the people who are moving in long, slow lines past an open coffin in a tribute, and you were doing this in the last scene, so when Susan B. Anthony was… was she already dead when you began that, or…?
No. It’s really funny you bring that up, though. That was totally a different scene. That was a scene, what you saw, from Act I. But it’s true that that movement shape, in the days since we’ve done it, I thought, that’s actually the wrong shape for that scene. That should be the shape for the final scene.
Oh, it should. It turned it into the final scene, for me. [Laughs]
Exactly, because it’s that beautiful thing about when she says, “We cannot retrace our steps, moving forward might be the same as going backward,” and the movement pattern has both this forward and backward quality to it. And I was like, oh, that has to be in the last scene. But also, it does evoke, as you were saying, this kind of procession past an open casket or past a memorial. So that’s sort of the trick for me, trying to visualize the grammar of Stein’s text, both in terms of trying to reveal the layers of meaning, but also its organization. I was noticing in the second scene of Act One, I just wrote out the order that everybody speaks in, and then I realized in the final scene of Act Two, these characters again all speak one by one and it’s the exact same order. I’ve been listening to this piece for 20 years – I’d never put that together before. And now I’m thinking, well, what does that mean? So how do we do that? Is it about replaying the visual grammar that we used from that first scene? Would that mean something? Would that enlighten something about the piece? So these are the thoughts.
So you’re talking about the first scene as Thomson rearranged it?
No, no, I’m thinking about the second scene, at the political rally, where it begins with Virgil Thomson doing “Pity the poor persecutor.” And then in Scene Five…
…which was her first scene…
Yes, that’s right. But then in the third scene of Act Two, he begins that scene as well, with [Sing-speaks] “Very well indeed, very well indeed, you are looking very well indeed. Have you a chair, anywhere? Very well indeed.” [Laughs] There’s two things that I want to ask you. I’m holding on my lap Gertrude Stein’s piece called Plays. I love this thing about… I’m paraphrasing, but when you’re at the theater, is it the thing that you hear that produces the emotion, or is it the thing that you see that produces the emotion? And does the thing that you see help you hear the thing that’s being expressed?
How can you separate those things? I think of those as just a more complex stimulus. You have a visual stimulus, you have a sound stimulus; when both are happening simultaneously, I think they get so intertwined that they’re both potentiated. That’s really synergy, actually.
Exactly, there’s a synergy of movement and sound. That makes me think of the roots of opera, the birth of opera, in the Renaissance, when they were like, what if we took poetic text and descriptive music and moving bodies and put that sort of Holy Trinity together, and what would that be? And the result is opera, that fabulous, overwhelming sensorial delight.
Right, which is a saturation of the senses, because of that.
Totally. Thinking about this idea of what does it mean to be in the contemporary, what does it mean to be in the moment, it seems to me that what Gertrude Stein was saying… that going to the theater makes her uneasy, because when you go to the theater, there’s all these different times that are happening. There’s the sort of time that’s happening behind the curtain, that’s being presented. But then there’s the time that you’re going through in your own mind, in your own emotional time. And then there’s all these people sitting around you who are having their own emotional timelines. How does that all sync up?
Well, does it sync up? Does it have to sync up? To me, that’s a conversational kind of dynamic. At any given moment, lots of people right now are all talking at the same time we’re talking, and saying things that may or may not in some way touch on what we’re talking about. And we just sort of move around in our Venn circle in this big diagram, with chance and intended overlaps, which are conversational.
Could you tell us more about your relationship with Stein? I’ve never actually asked you that. I’ll preface this by saying that when I first came to Hudson one weekend in 2011, and I came here and found out that Susan B. Anthony spoke here, I said, Oh my god, there’s this opera, The Mother of Us All, you have to do it here some day. So, when we met up 18 months ago and they were saying, “What would you want to do if you were going to do a performance here?” I said, I’ve already told you: The Mother of Us All, this amazing opera about Susan B. Anthony.
And in between, I came by…
Exactly. They said, you know, there’s someone else who had the same reaction here, and we should have you guys meet. And then we did. In all of this time, I’ve never asked you how you came to Stein.
I came to Stein when I was a teenager living in Charleston, South Carolina, feeling like an exile from New York City – which I was, because I was born in New York, and my family forced me to come with them when they moved to Charleston. Actually, I was part of a theater group in Charleston, which was a community theater that then became a repertory theater and did children’s theater. I met all of the other people who became of interest to me, who were misfits in Charleston, there, and many of them were older than I. They were knowledgeable about all sorts of things, including modernism and the avant-garde and so on – and Gertrude Stein. Someone told me that I should read The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas, which I did.
I loved it, became fascinated with Stein, and actually then began to read other things by her, and felt that there was a world that I could live in – a world that could be in various ways interventions and superimpositions over a world that I found very disturbing, this extremely conservative world of Charleston. And it happened that in high school I basically fell in love with the librarian, whose name was Caroline Trieste – a lot of people did – and she made me one of her assistants, and then recommended me as someone who could work at the Charleston Library Society with other librarians I fell in love with. And they were all closeted lesbians, so I found Gertude Stein and Caroline Trieste and Virginia Rugheimer – they’re all dead now, so they don’t have to be closeted anymore – I found them all in the same time frame as I was, and the same odd space-time frame, which was this odd society that we were living in. There were lots of things that saved me during that time I lived in Charleston, and many arts, visual arts and so on, but Stein was sort of chief among them. She really enlivened the parts of me that felt odd, and allowed me to value those things.
I’m so moved to hear that story, because it just reminds me so much of discovering opera for me as a young person. I very quickly identified it as this world to escape into, and a world that I made sense in, or that I felt I could make sense of myself in. I grew up in a liberal but a conservative town, Cooperstown, which is a totally great place to grow up in. But it’s not diverse, it’s pretty cut off… it’s just around this beautiful lake, and it’s a gorgeous place to grow up.
There was a beautiful lake in Charleston, too. But, you know, I have to say, I also became an opera fanatic during that same time. Most of my friends, the friends I was closest to, all loved opera, so we collected albums, these big 33 1/3 albums with their wonderful booklets, and we listened to opera on the air every Saturday.
Michael, how did you discover opera?
MICHAEL HOFMANN, assistant director: I discovered opera in high school. I was a choir singer, so we went on a school trip; my first opera was Otello at the Met, which was kind of a very intense first experience for a 16-year-old’s first opera. That’s where I caught the bug.
I was just reading this great article that this singer wrote about opera, about how when he was young, he was super-flamboyant, had these outsize gestures and felt things so intensely. And being that person in daily life was odd, because it wasn’t quite in time with the people around him. But when he discovered opera, he found this place where he was the right size.
So he was operatic before he discovered opera.
Exactly. He had this great line; he said, In opera I found a place where I could turn stigma into style. And I thought that was so fabulous, because I feel very similarly.
There’s also the subtext, or maybe it’s a surtext, of adolescent melodrama, which opera really satisfies. Which is not how I would characterize The Mother of Us All. It’s a very different kind of opera.
RBS: It’s very direct. I’ve been reading the biography of Virgil Thomson by Kathleen Hoover and John Cage, which is an interesting read, and there’s a couple of great quotes in it… I remember also reading in some other thing that when Thomson first got the libretto from Stein, he was like, mmm, it’s really interesting, it’s this sprawling landscape of these 19th-century figures and themes, the communication is very direct and there’s not a lot of interpersonal talking, but I can imagine it being very satisfying with very minimal scenery and handsome costumes and the performers adopting poses of the 19th century. So I came across that, and I thought, That’s kind of cool, because that sort of was actually how we were talking about the show: that the set is just where we are, the room that we’re in, this historic room in Hudson, in this building that was built in 1855, and that the clothes are… It’s been funny talking about the clothes, because it’s hard to talk about costume without talking about character. But when we auditioned up here, we just sort of sent out this open casting call, and it was so cool to see the types of people who showed up. I instantly was more attracted to the variety of people, their stories and why they ended up here, why they liked to sing and where they were coming from. Them, as a whole, I find just so interesting to watch and to look at and to consider. And I think there’s something really interesting about living up here. We all live up here, and the audience lives up here, so when we’re all together, what does that mean? What are we experiencing? What are we looking at? So then, what are they wearing? And what’s the character we are emphasizing? Is it the character of the narrative, or is it their own character – who these people are?
It’s interesting to hear you talk about it that way, because one of Stein’s amazing inventions as a writer was to figure out a way to create character through the words that she was composing that actually enacted the character, rather than describing the character. So where description is always at a distance – like, “There is a tawny-colored piano in this room that has three legs,” etcetera – that’s not really making the piano happen for whoever is hearing what I’m saying or whoever might read that. But supposing I put together language – I mean, this would be silly, but “plunk, plunk, plunk, plunk, plunk”… that’s a kind of rather simple-minded enactment of what a piano is doing, what it is actually doing when it’s active.
So Stein wrote an 800-page-plus novel called The Making of Americans, in which she made her Americans by composing language in which they had a lot of word repetition, and she chose the words that she felt in one way or another revealed who they were without description. And the same thing is going on in this libretto – not in quite the same extremely stylized way as it’s happening in that novel. So in a sense, I feel you don’t need costumes. I mean, people have to wear something, obviously; we’re not going to do the first nude production of The Mother of Us All. [Laughs]
I guess I think about, because I did so much work with Cage and Cunningham, about these very neutral costumes that end up being bodies, and you discover everything about them in the way they move, not because of the way they’re dressed. Though that is important; I mean, they didn’t have one neutral costume for everything they did. They did have costume design.
That’s interesting, because I’m also thinking about this idea of grammar, too, like maybe just sitting with these people in this space and experiencing the grammar of the piece – by which I also mean a kind of choreographic activation of the space. Does that all add up to something? I think it does, because if you present it in the right way, then everybody’s allowed to bring themselves into it. They understand that that’s the value of encountering it.
I think that really will work, as long as the audience can actually understand the language, word by word. And that comes to the issue of diction of the singers. I think we talked about this: When Thomson decided that the cast for Four Saints in Three Acts was going to be an all-black cast, one of the things that he said was that in finding these cast members who were trained in gospel choirs, they had the best diction of any singers he knew. They were really trained to articulate every word while being entirely musical. They definitely could project the arc of whatever the music was, while having this extraordinary diction.
I don’t. It’s probably based more in raw communication or something. My experience with opera singers is that they often get caught up in making nice sounds, and they forget that you need to communicate text to people. This gets into a whole other conversation about which comes first: music or text? Does the text inspire the music, or does the music inspire the text? Ideally, it should be a synchronistic thing: they add up to one thing that’s neither text nor music.
Well, in actual matter-of-factness, it was the text that inspired the music in this collaboration. Thomson wrote about first really hearing the music in the language. And of course he went beyond that; if you were only working with the music and the language, it would turn out to be a very minimalist, avant-garde production.
I’m reading from this book: “Experiments in language interested her more than communication, and from her study of automatic writing under [Hugo] Münsterberg, she had learned that there is more in language than the dictionary discloses. She viewed words as entities rather than as utensils. Their sound in itself, the shock and humor of unexpected word combinations, and their pure, immediate meaning, stripped of associational emotion, defined at this time the scope of her literary endeavors.”
What is “this time”?
This is around “Tender Buttons,” 1911.
1911, yeah. That’s a nice description.
And then it was talking about how he was so into the way should wrote, as you were saying, it totally inspired… it was exciting for him to be around. There’s also something in here about the commissioning of this piece, which I thought was interesting – the whole reason this thing came about was the Alice M. Ditson Fund committee commissioned the opera to be produced in 1947 at Columbia University. This is something that Thomson wrote in The New York Times in 1956, to explain his choice of theme for the commissioned work: The 19th century…
“…was a time, rare in history, when great issues were debated in great language. As in the Greece of Pericles [and Demosthenes], in the Rome of Caesar and Cicero, in the England of Pitt and Burke, historical changes of the utmost gravity were argued in noble prose by Webster, Clay, and Calhoun in the Senate, by Beecher and Emerson in the pulpit, by Douglas and Lincoln on the partisan political platform. These changes, which became burning issues after the Missouri Compromise of 1820, dealt with political, economic, racial, and sexual equality. And the advocated reforms—excepting woman suffrage—were all embodied in the Constitution by 1870. In fifty glorious and tragic years, the United States grew up. We ceased to be an eighteenth-century country and became a twentieth-century one. Surely, it had long seemed to me, surely somewhere in this noble history and in its oratory there must be the theme, and perhaps even the words, of a musico-dramatic spectacle that would be a pleasure to compose.”
I heard this story – it may be an urban legend – about why it’s called The Mother of Us All. Dominic Armstrong, who’s playing Jo the Loiterer, said that the guy he was coaching with said that he heard the story that somebody in Paris [said to Gertrude Stein], Let’s go see Susan B. Anthony speak tonight, because she was speaking somewhere in Paris. Gertrude Stein said, Why do you think I would have any interest in seeing her speak? And her friend said, “But don’t you know? She’s the mother of us all.” Do you have any insights about the title?
No, I don’t. I’m skeptical about that story.
I know, it sounded too good… it’s too juicy.
And yet, I’m agnostically skeptical. It could be the case.
I was also reading this thing in the foreword of one of her books, and it begins with: “I always wanted to be historical. From almost a baby on, I felt that way about it.” And it’s funny, because this piece, it’s so much about this character, this person who I’ve stopped thinking about it being Susan B. Anthony so literally. I think it’s more the kind of “everycitizen” or “everythey” that we would talk about in our workshops, and how I want people to perceive themselves in the conflict of this character – which is very much relatable today, because it’s about this person who’s at home ranting about these social justice issues about equality, and then goes out and it’s this conflict about, What do you do? How do you articulate it in a public way? But now that we’re working on it, it’s also become so much about the idea of what does it mean to have a voice, and what does it mean to be heard, and these bigger things about legacy and what do you leave behind? Will the people that come after us take anything from what we put out into the world? One of the character’s last statements is, “Do you know because I tell you so, or do you know?” – which I just love.
That’s a wonderful line.
What I mean to say, though, is I wonder then if this protagonist we’re encountering is really just Stein? It’s Stein’s language, and maybe The Mother of Us All is Stein.
Well, I would never say that it’s really just Stein. I would say Stein clearly began to identify with Susan B. as she was researching her and as she was writing. Stein early on identified much more – actually, I said this to the cast when I did that workshop – she identified more as male than as female. She was a male-identifying lesbian, and she was very taken by myths of genius, ancient myths that were really very prominent in the 19th century in Europe particularly, and then also here. She wasn’t as interested in women, and everybody knows that about Stein, early on, that she would have the genius men friends, guests, come over, and she wasn’t as interested in their wives – I mean, she thought of wives as a lesser category. But as time went on, she felt very much underappreciated and under-respected by the males in her own family. When her father died, when the Stein kids’ father died, she was a teenager, and her mother had died a few years beforehand. So they were basically orphans, and the eldest son, her eldest brother, became the guardian of everyone. He ran the whole show, the money end of things and so on, and she felt very much powerless, actually, in business affairs of the family and so on, because of being a woman. Actually, she wrote a piece called “Business in Baltimore” that’s partly about this, and of course this great, long poem that’s called “Patriarchal Poetry” that’s about patriarchy. So these things were happening over time; by the time she got to choosing the character, the focus, for the opera that was going to draw on 19th-century history, I think she had already become interested in women’s suffrage, because that had to do with women’s power. Women had no power; that was very much dramatically manifested in the fact that they couldn’t vote. That’s one reason why that story – “why would you think I’d be interested in that?” – doesn’t quite feel right. I don’t think she ever did go to hear Susan B. Anthony, if and when she spoke in Paris.
RBS: That’s why I prefaced it as perhaps urban legend. Speaking of time, it’s time for us to go back upstairs and confront the issues of time that we’ve been talking about. But I wanted to end with this John Cage quote from this biography of Thomson, which you also included in your note to the cast. John Cage goes back and listens through all of Virgil Thomson’s canon, basically, and then writes about his music and says, This isn’t the kind of music that I would want to write, but I think it’s great music – which I thought was very sweet. This is the concluding paragraph:
In The Mother of Us All, everything Americans feel about life and death, male and female, poverty and riches, war and peace, blacks and whites, activity and loitering, is shown to be real and true. It is everything an American remembers, if he remembers how it was at home of an evening when friends and relatives played and sang, how it was to hear a band playing in the park, a Salvation Army band on a corner, a soldiers’ band going down Main Street, an organ when somebody was married or died. To quote Susan B. again (on having forced the word male to be written into the Constitution of the United States concerning suffrage), “Yes, it is wonderful” that this music, though everyone remembers it, is original.
The Mother of Us All runs through Nov. 19 at Hudson Hall, Hudson, NY. All performances sold out, but waitlist registration begins one hour before each remaining performance; hudsonhall.org