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Regional Reviews: Minneapolis/St. Paul

Little Wars
Prime Productions
Review by Kit Bix | Season Schedule

Also see Arty's review of Wit


Vanessa Gamble, Sue Scott, and Candace Barrett Birk
Photo by Joseph Giannetti
Steven Carl McCasland's Little Wars takes place in Gertrude Stein and Alice B. Toklas' country home in the French Alps on the very day in June 1940 when Marshal Henri-Philippe Pétain struck an "armistice" agreement with Adolf Hitler that would end hostilities. France would be divided into two zones. The occupied zone in the north would remain under the direct authority of the Germans; the unoccupied zone in the south, where Stein and Toklas lived, fell under the rule of the French Vichy regime. Under the agreement, the Vichy government was required to "collaborate" with the German victors and, in particular, to deport Jews, Freemasons, and whatever other "undesirables" the Germans might demand.

Little Wars tells a story about Stein and Toklas' activities during this period. It is a story that is not only untrue, but which is radically at odds with everything that is known about the wartime behavior of these two iconic figures. To be clear, Little Wars does not claim to be historically accurate. The text of the play does come with a "disclaimer" that it is "a work of fiction" and the narrative "an imagined gathering," and the director, Shelli Place, in promotional materials, has emphasized that the play is not a documentary. But can one really have it both ways?

I would love to talk about the excellent cast in Little Wars, or the luscious period design, but it is nearly impossible to view this play in a conventional way. For anyone who has any familiarity with Stein and Toklas' real lives during this period, the overwhelming cascade of historical untruths and the omissions of crucial facts is just too distracting to allow us to be drawn into the drama, much less to identify with the emotional lives of its two principal characters.

Even those who know very little about Stein and Toklas or Vichy France will perhaps be struck by the play's studied refusal to address the questions that it unavoidably provokes. Consider again the historical circumstances that the play describes: Gertrude Stein and Alice B. Toklas, two elderly Jewish lesbians, living comfortably in wartime (Vichy) France in a beautiful house with a valuable art collection that was left untouched for the duration of the regime. The question that one cannot escape asking is: How did these two Jewish, openly gay women manage not only to survive but to do so well (remain unhounded and unharmed) in the village of Culoz in 1940? Mr. McCasland does not address that question. Though, given the characters' declarations during the play (e.g., "Survival is an art"), it is a question that demands some sort of explanation.

Little Wars thus, indirectly, raises the question of how we are to think about historical fiction of any kind, including historical drama. When characters based on and identified as historical figures are portrayed in a context that closely resembles (or implicitly claims to be like) their real historical context, is it really enough for an author (or director) to declare that the play is only fiction and "not documentary" to avoid all questions? Historical "what if" scenarios, like the one that premises <>Little Wars (or, say, The Plot Against America), implicitly suggest that what is being depicted plausibly might have have happened. Unless the director tries to create a sense of heightened reality, is the play not in some way inviting the audience to think that characters depicted are at least somewhat like the real life figures whose names they bear, and that the actions the play describes are at least somewhat related to actual events?

The Gertrude Stein and Alice Toklas of Little Wars heroically do everything they can to save Jewish people, both individuals near to hand and strangers across Europe. SPOILER: They "rescue" and hide a German Jewish refugee, a victim of a Nazi gang rape and torture, in their house. Stein (Candace Barrett Birk) acknowledges the risk that her and Toklas' activities may bring upon her, but she insists that she must be true to her conscience: she cannot stand idly by while people—especially her people—are suffering. If you don't know anything about the Stein and Toklas' lives and activities in Culoz, Google it and the moral posture attributed to the characters will instantly disappear.

As regards the real Stein and Toklas, there is no historical evidence that they did anything to save Jews or any other victims of the Nazis. There is significant evidence of Stein's work with Nazi collaborators. Stein, who was a great admirer of Pétain's, agreed to translate some of the Marshal's pro-fascist and often viciously anti-Semitic speeches into English. The speeches were to be a collected in a volume for which Stein wrote a preface in which she compares Pétain to George Washington.

The central conceit in Little Wars is that Stein and Toklas are visited in Culoz by Lillian Hellman, Dorothy Parker, Agatha Christie, and one other historical figure, the real-life anti-fascist activist Muriel Gardiner. Gardiner, a Jewish-America, risked her life smuggling passports to Jews trapped in Nazi territory and was successful helping 200 Jewish children and adults escape certain death.

In another radical departure from fact, the fictional Christie at first pretends to be indifferent to the Nazi deportations, but once her cover is blown she proclaims: "And yes, Miss Gardiner, I am a 'friend of the Jews'" (and she then "proves" it by giving money to help save one). The real Agatha Christie was different: her works were so anti-Semitic that her American publishers were forced to get permission to change the most blatant passages and the horribly stereotypical Jewish villains of her works in order to make her books acceptable to readers in the United States. (And it was not only Jews who are portrayed in unacceptable ways in Christie's works: Catholics, Chinese, Native Americans, and Arabs are also slurred and stereotyped in her works; and the title of one of her most of her most popular stories originally used the "N word" for African-Americans.)

Would Christie have visited Stein and Toklas at Culoz? Who knows? What is known is that one of Stein and Toklas' frequent visitors at Culoz was their close friend Bernard Fay, another virulent anti-Semite, who, as director of the Bibliotheque Nationale under Vichy, was closely involved with the upper echelons of the regime. In 1940-42, Fay delivered the names of Freemasons (another category of undesirables) to his superiors; after the war, he was convicted for his part in their deportation and death.

The Stein of Little Wars seems proud of her Jewish heritage and she refers to it repeatedly. In fact, the real Stein avoided making any references to her Jewishness (and Toklas was even more reluctant; she later converted to Catholicism) and was criticized by friends like Thornton Wilder for her evasiveness about her heritage. (Janet Malcom notes about Stein's autobiographical writings: "She just can't seem to bring herself to say that she and Toklas are Jewish.")

In Little Wars, McCasland gives her Stein and Toklas a share of the credit for Gardiner's underground rescues, by having them fund Gardiner's activities. Yes, I know, it's fiction. Still, to hear the playwright borrowing parts of this extraordinary woman's history to portray Stein and Toklas as savior figures was frustrating. Given that borrowing, I was surprised that the play would work in the "Julia" controversy, Lillian Hellman's alleged (and likely) borrowing of Gardiner's story. In real life, Gardiner claimed that Hellman based a character, Julia, in her memoir "Pentimento" on Gardiner herself. In one of the best moments in the play, McCasland whimsically portrays Hellman (Vanessa Gamble) coming up with the idea of appropriating Gardiner's story.

Past that: there is unintentional irony when the fictional Stein lectures the fictional Hellman on personal integrity and heroic resistance. The real Hellman refused to name names before the House Unamerican Activities Committee, and spoke out against the Nazis; the real Stein collaborated with a Pétainite known for naming names.

Little Wars wishes to be heard on many of the hard challenges women faced in 1940 and still do now: rape, divorce, abortion, misogyny and homophobia. McCasland writes well-structured and often moving monologues that evoke these experiences with depth and psychological verisimilitude, and the actors perform them beautifully. However, all of the messages being delivered are undermined when they come from characters who often appear like strange, mutant versions of the familiar figures whose names they bear.

What are we to make of a play that works so hard to sanitize the biographies of people like Stein and Toklas (and Christie) and to imagine them as so much better than they were? It is one thing to put a different spin on these women's motivations, but why alter and omit crucial facts that are so well-established and widely known? In what way are such choices fruitful, either theatrically or thematically?

Better directorial framing—or even better program notes—might possibly have helped somewhat with these problems. The audience (like the readers of the play) are told that these events are imagined, but not that the historical figures (and their actions) have been greatly altered. And the costumes and scenery, as well as an epilogue in which one of the characters comes forth to report factual material about the women's lives after the war, are all fashioned in a way to make the whole narrative seem authentic. Authenticity is generally a good thing, but not when it exacerbates the misleading of an audience who might just take this play to be, well, history.

Perhaps it is only that issues about truth and falsehood are more pressing now. At a time when some world leaders encourage "alternative facts," and some officials deny or distort scientific and historical truth, might we not demand better clarity from our playwrights and the companies that produce their work?

Prime Productions' Little Wars, through May 21, 2017, at the Mixed Blood Theatre, 1501 South Fourth Street, Minneapolis, MN. Tickets are available by calling 612-338-6131 or at www.primeprods.org.

Directed by Shelli Place
Featuring Miriam Schwartz, Candace Barrett Birk, Sue Scott, Laura B. Adams, Vanessa Gamble, Elizabeth Desotelle, Alison Edwards
Production Manager Elena Giannetti
Costume Designer Andrea M. Gross
Set Designer Meagan Kedrowski
Lighting Designer Grant E. Merges
Sound Designer Inna Skogerboe


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