The Mother of Us All

Carla Harryman


In the summer and fall of 2003, I was in San Francisco working on a production of my experimental play/text-for-performance, Performing Objects Stationed in the Sub World . During this period I worked with students from the University of California at Berkeley in a program sponsored by Consortium for the Arts on the problem of presenting non-scripted or unconventionally scripted texts for live performance. This was also during the time of the San Francisco Opera's presentation of The Mother of Us All , which I was fortunate enough to attend, and which, even if not Stein's most radical experiment in performance, offers a good example of an unconventional script.

The production of The Mother of Us All was trashed in the San Francisco Chronicle, in the society pages and in the opera review on the same Friday: a one two punch. High society (or the SF Chronicle's representation of it) 1 didn't like the opera because it was “boring,” reminding one socialite of the SAT's, and because it was “all sentences and words.” The music critic didn't like the opera because of the “cutesy” mannerisms and Americana (marching) tunes of Virgil Thompson's “faux naïf” score and because there were too many words, “jibber jabber and repetitions posing as profundity.” 2 The rubric used by the reviewer, with its puffed up predisposition against innovation and toward the melodic, invoked 19 th century biases in musical taste: the reviewer's values are more dated than Thompson's music, which, to my mind, and in spite of my own prejudices, turns out to have many merits, one of which is the care he took to give Stein's language its due.

We know the overwhelming bias of opera-going adjudicators, if not the public itself, is to consider the text of opera as at best a secondary medium and at worst an insignificant necessity of the genre. Catherine Clement in Opera or the Undoing of Women has offered her own feminist interpretation of operatic text as under erasure. She sees the textual language as a kind of equivalent to the feminine in most opera. The erasure or subordination of language parallels the plight of the female figure in operatic narrative, who typically is subjugated, abjected, or killed off. There are thus two “feminine” deaths: the deaths assigned to the heroine in the libretto, and the erasure of the meaning of the text by the overpowering of it musically (or by the symbolic value placed upon composer and conductor). The librettist, him (in most cases)–self is thereby feminized as a class of artist within the collaborative medium.

I don't know that I would agree the textual language of opera is essentially feminine, even if librettists and librettos are feminized, insofar as “feminized” means classed in a subordinated manner. Nevertheless, Stein and Thompson's The Mother of Us All is a subversive work when one considers conventions of opera and the relationship of score to text to music. 3

Interestingly enough, the direction of the San Francisco Opera was recently taken over by a woman, a first in its history, and The Mother of Us All opened the season: thus, the scandal in the society pages. However, the society writers were not listening to the blue hairs up in the dress circle in the nearly packed house, and I (in the company of Kathleen Fraser, Robert Gluck and Chris Komater) was. One of the blue hairs sitting in front of us, and speaking, clearly, for a large group of her friends, said, “I must be weird, I think it's good.” And she and they and we are right. We, many of us opera-goers, are weird. And it is a terrific work. May there be more such scandals!

As my contribution to the HOW/2 “Steinian” selection, I offer extracts from my introductory notes to the UC Berkeley workshop, since these use The Mother of Us All as a significant example of innovative writing that tackles the unglamorous topic of the body politic in a performative mode. Textually innovative approaches to questions of social space and changing social formations are fundamental concerns of my play Performing Objects Stationed in the Sub World . The appearance of the Stein opera in San Francisco during my residency at Berkeley and at THE LAB, where my play was produced, allowed me to offer an illustration of avant-garde practices relevant to performance today.


Consortium for the Arts Workshop notes September 2003

Some introductory notes on the performance of the difficult text

Jo the Loiterer:
Chris the Citizen.
Joe the Loiterer.
Chris the Citizen.
Jo the Loiterer.
Chris the Citizen.
Jo the Loiterer.
Chris the Citizen.
Jo the Loiterer.
Chris the Citizen.
Jo the Loiterer.
  I want to tell.
Very well.
I want to tell oh hell.
Oh very well.
I want to tell oh hell I want to tell about my wife.
And have you got one.
No not one.
Two then.
No not two.
How many then.
I haven't got one. I want to tell oh hell about my wife
I haven't got one.

From the perspective of writing for theater, I am interested in works that initiate ideas about or critique performance within a context of the larger social sphere. The Stein/Thompson opera The Mother of Us All, now playing in San Francisco, can be experienced as an unusual version of opera both in respect to the conventional content of opera and as a critique of formal attributes of the medium. In addition to its linguistic innovation, the markedly gendered sites of interrogation and conflict of the Stein work are the basis for a challenge to conventions of the genre. The work's so-called excess of language refutes the subordinated role of text within conventions of opera. Its emphasis on rhythm, repetition, and quotidian conversation and story telling present the audience with a language of democracy as unfolding in real time.

Stein's interest in the interruption of real time into dramatic time as a formal property of her plays and operas is co-extensive with the time denied the female figure in conventional opera. Susan B. Anthony's living a long time, having a productive life, and not marrying, all provide perspectives from which time occurs differently than in the conventional time of opera, whereby significant action must result in a normative outcome: death, marriage, ascendancy, a tragic or melodramatic fall. In addition, the dramatic aspects of the opera are not so much related to action, such as Anthony's confrontations with institutions of patriarchy and with patriarchs, as they are related to her philosophical ambivalence toward the meaning of suffrage within patriarchal institutions of governance and law. The opera's drama lies within Anthony's ambivalent analysis, not within her literal confrontation with democratic authority.

In a drama tinged with intellectual ambivalence, rather than blind desires and passions, language must take up time. Little is predicated on action and much is predicated on questions of being and the meaning of action. The aesthetic joy of the work is in its capacity to satisfy the demand that verbal communication take up time: people in a democracy must speak their minds, and this is part of living.

However, Anthony is not only ambivalent about the position she takes toward suffrage but, as (narrative) time passes, she is also ambivalent about living. In every sense, Anthony's tired statement “I am still alive” is a transgression against the conventions of the female figure of opera. This appropriating of narrative time, in which women endure ambivalently to old age on the stage, also brings the feminine closer to the masculine as those who, in opera, outlive women. The banal “tragedy” of Anthony's living a long life is a marvelous irony turned within any number of cultural fantasies about gender and longevity. The historical fact of her longevity, however, is what gave her the power to argue persuasively for women's right to the vote.

One of the questions the opera asks is what happens when women become like men? Do they, when they become like men, then become men? In the Steinian opera, Susan B. Anthony's ambivalence about the right to vote is based on a psychological assertion. Women “know” and are not “afraid.” Men “fight” and are “afraid.” In becoming voting citizens, women “will become like men, they will be afraid, having the vote will make them afraid.”

The goal of the historical narrative and drama — Susan B. Anthony's successful fight for suffrage — provides Stein's opera with an incomplete narrative vector. The narrative's incompletion allows for the performance of complex significations that cannot be contained by simple historical narrative. What interests Stein as regards questions of representation is what I would call here significant insignificance . This is registered both by the inclusion of exceptional perspectives within the opera's story, notably by the loiterer (male) who, because he does not have a home, will never be able to vote; and by formal strategies that grant language a position perhaps extraneous to the narrative but necessary to the work of art. Non-directional or non-linear language produces effects of lived time brought into dramatic time: this is the time that brings together both citizens who vote and subjects who cannot vote. Both the figure remaining outside the resolution of this conflict and the text's aesthetic surface exceed the limits of argument, focalization, the law of rights and categorical knowledge. Lived time is associated with knowledge of what women will lose when they get the vote.

Although we won't have an abundance of time to talk about such matters, I am taking the avant-garde practices of earlier periods, and here Stein is a salient example, to still be under construction. Stein's interrogation of the text for performance is an open rather than a closed question as far as I'm concerned. Questions of authority, authorship, dramatic and lived time, and the world of potential significance in that which ideologically is constituted as “outside” stabilized understanding of social meaning, all continue to interest me within the context of performance writing practice.

Erika Fischer-Lichte has stated that the avant-garde “directed its anti-textual gesture not against texts in general but against a very specific conception of the text: against the idea that in texts fixed meaning are stable once and for all, meanings that steer, control, and indeed legitimate further cultural productions….”4 In all of her plays, Stein agitated fixed meaning, and in The Mother of Us All , she exposes us to questions that lay bare values of cultural production and the impact of cultural production on historical and in-time social meaning.

I bring this up to put pressure on initiatives that, over the last thirty or so years, have valued physicality in theater and visuality in non-theatrical performance mediums over language. I would assert that no medium per se has a privileged relationship to the deregulations that undergird avant-garde practice from Stein to the present. In this very broad sense, I point to a certain spirit of on-going practice in which I prefer to consider the diverse mediums of performance without subordinating one to another.


1. An exception to the general objection was also observed: “Marching to his own drummer was clothier Wilkes Bashford, who was one of the few with a positive review. ‘I love it,' he said standing outside his box seats. ‘I may be the only one here.' Standing next to him, John Gunn said, ‘I don't mind it that much.'” See San Francisco Chronicle , “There Was Plenty of Gold, Glitz, and Glamour…” by Sylvia Rubin and Carolyne Zinko (September 8, 2003).

2. From Joshua Kosman's review, “O Mother, where art thou? Tedious opera desperately seeks Susan,” in the San Francisco Chronicle (September 8, 2003).

3. It would have been interesting to see what Clement would have said about it, but the story of the French feminists' lack of interest in Stein is something to consider in another context, if it is worth discussion at all.

4. From “The Avant-Garde and the Semiotics of the Antitextual Gesture: by Erika Fischer-Lichte in Contours of the Thetrical Avant-Garde , James M. Harding, Ed. University of Michigan, 2000.


BIO: Carla Harryman's most recent work, Baby , is a collection of prose poems forthcoming from Adventures in Poetry. Her two experimental novels, Gardener of Stars and The Words: after Carl Sandburg's Rootabaga Stories and Jean-Paul Sartre , are explorations of the paradise and wastelands of utopian desire. Other works include two volumes of selected writings, There Never Was a Rose without a Thorn (1995) and Animal Instincts (1989). Working extensively in performance and experimental theater, she has collaborated with visual artists and composers. Her play, Performing Objects Stationed in the Sub World , was commissioned by the Oxford-Brookes University's Poetry Center Colloquium, where it was staged (2001) as a reading, and later performed at Zeitgeist Theater (Detroit) and the LAB in San Francisco. Mirror Play , a polyvocal text for one performer, premieres at New Langton Arts in April 2004. Residues or Revolutions of the Languages of Acker and Artaud will appear in the critical anthology Devouring Institutions: the Writing of Kathy Acker . Harryman teaches Women's Studies, Creative Writing and Literature at Wayne State University (Detroit).

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