I do not know what prompted the Cambridge Ensemble to attempt a production of Gertrude Stein’s “Old and Old,” and I suspect their own reason was serendipity or happenstance. They seem simply to have come across this obscure piece by chance in a volume, Operas and Plays (1932), which is hard to obtain and therefore not familiar even to devotees of Stein. “Old and Old” itself has never been reprinted, so far as I know, since its appearance in that collection. It is therefore utterly pristine material – though much of Stein belongs in this category – available for any use, or abuse, whatsoever.

The piece was apparently written in 1913 (one year before the publication of Tender Buttons) and is one of Stein’s earliest “plays.” I put the word in quotes because her plays, for the most part, are minimally dramatic and scarcely playable in any ordinary sense of the term. They belong to a species of metadrama that might be called animated description and that excludes, by design, any notion of narrative sequence. These early plays, in fact, are an outgrowth of her portraits, as she herself relates:

[I]n my portraits I had tried to tell what each one is without telling stories and now in my early plays Itried to tell what happened without telling stories so that the essence of what happened would be like the essence of the portraits, what made what happened be what it was.

The plays, then, are exercises in describing action in terms of the objective quiddity of things moving in time and space. The notion of metamorphosis is central to this conception.

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