Gertrude Stein wrote in Everybody's Autobiography, "It is funny the two things most men are proudest of is the thing that any man can do and doing does in the same way, that is being drunk and being the father of their son." Just before World War II she was quoted, "There is too much fathering going on just now and there is no doubt about it fathers are depressing. Everybody nowadays is a father, there is father Mussolini and father Hitler and father Roosevelt and father Stalin and father Trotsky..."
These quotes by Stein came to mind when the Steiny Road Poet had the opportunity on October 26, 2007, to reconnect with the performance artist Rinde Eckert, whom the Poet and her opera collaborators for Gertrude Stein Invents a Jump Early On went to see when they first signed their commission agreement. The Stein opera composer William Banfield wanted to see what the poet Karren Alenier and director Nancy Rhodes liked in music theater. So in June 2000, the three collaborators saw And God Created Great Whales, which concerns a man racing against a dire medical clock to complete his opera based on Moby Dick. The Poet found the work absorbing and subsequently went to see his play Horizon in which a theologian named Reinhart Poole has been fired from a seminary where he teaches ethics. Poole is a composite of Eckert's grandfather who was a Lutheran minister and the teachings of Reinhold Niebuhr, but Poole is also a character who must reinvent himself after losing his job.
The recent Eckert performance that the Poet saw was An Idiot Divine, a one-man show divided by two unusual characters who perform music on odd instruments and with odder vocalizations. After the show, Eckert came back to the stage for an audience talkback session. One question raised concerned how Eckert came to write An Idiot Divine. It seems his father used to get upset with him and call him an idiot. When Eckert was in the fourth grade, he signed himself up for remedial reading because his dad had thoroughly convinced him that was indeed an idiot. Of course, Eckert, who graduated from Yale University with a degree in opera and more recently learned the Czech language so he could present one of his shows in Prague, was immediately thrown out of the remedial reading class. Now that Eckert has received such accolades as an Obie Award for And God Created Great Whales (2001) and recognition as a finalist in the 2007 Pulitzer Prize in Drama, his father is all praise and doesn't allow anyone to disparage his son.
However as the French say in the world of gambling les jeux sont faits (the bets have been placed), as in: once the chips are laid down, a person has little opportunity to change what will happen. However, in the case of an individual who chooses to be an artist, those so-called chips off the old block often become studies in the artistic oeuvre. For Gertrude Stein, her difficult and puzzling father Daniel shows up in her seminal novel The Making of Americans as David Hersland and in her opera libretto The Mother of Us All as the historically well-known statesman Daniel Webster. Susan B. Anthony, as the protagonist of The Mother of Us All, debates Webster, who calls Anthony, the mother of women's suffrage, "he" because women were not allowed to have a voice in public forums and politics. The complicating circumstance built into Stein's libretto is that both the fathers of Stein and Anthony were named Daniel.
In the case of Eckert's An Idiot Divine, the author and performer was quick to say that the play, which features two idiots—a murderer (also a dowser and a self-taught accordionist) and a self-appointed guru (also a kind of street musician-singer), is not autobiographical. To this the Steiny Road Poet notes that artists cannot help braiding into their work details from their own lives. Elements may not be linear, but the shards from an artist's life experiences appear.
While in some of her work, including The Making of Americans, Gertrude Stein studied what she called bottom nature (characteristic traits that makeup the personality of an individual), the Poet has noticed in some of Eckert's plays he is studying human disabilities. In An Idiot Divine, Eckert is altering audience perception of two men who are seemingly deficient mentally by having these characters create beautiful music on instruments not typically thought capable of such renderings. (During the talkback Eckert revealed that the strange looking guitar he has one idiot play was reconstructed by a person who was not a maker of musical instruments.) In And God Created Great Whales, the composer protagonist is suffering a disease that is affecting his memory. In a new project commissioned by a group of Iowa doctors, Eckert will be looking at problems caused by macular degeneration.
Stein begins The Making of Americans with this short anecdote that has always left the Steiny Road Poet gasping over its visceralness.
"Once an angry man dragged his father along the ground through his own orchard. 'Stop!' cried the groaning old man at last, 'Stop! I did not drag my father beyond this tree.'"
Gertrude Stein and Rinde Eckert haul their fathers through trees that each of their fathers tended by patrimonial customs and traditions. How far an artist goes in dragging the weight of their fathers (or mothers) depends on how much work it takes for the artist to come to terms with their legacies. Because most of us struggle with parental legacies (just look in the mirror as you age) that we try to throw in the back of our darkest closets, the Steiny Road suggests quietly that the thought-provoking works of Rinde Eckert and Gertrude Stein are worth the risk of confronting old hurts.