Gertrude Stein' Absolute Theatre

by David M. Boje, June 23, 2005

Gertrude Stein wrote 77 plays between 1913 and 1979 that fall under the general heading, Theatre of the Absolute. Absolute Theatre sacrifices developmental story (the dynamic movement to climax and receding from it) in order to invite the spectator to explore the present moment, and to stay in the present tense of theatrical experience. Stein was focused on opening a space in time, to explore the present moment. Stein wanted to free herself from the grip of developmental storytelling, the progress of time imposed upon story by the coherent narrative form that dominates traditional theatre. Stein sought to break free of the alternative reality created in developmental storytelling, and instead let the play be the reality that the spectators made sense of in the present moment of performance. Stein began writing plays in 1913. Ryan (1984) used content analysis to divide these into three types: Essence, Landscape and Narrative Theatre.

Essence Theatre (1913-1921) plays create the essence of of a relationship between people and/or things, without telling what happened. Essence theatre depicts what the storytellers do not always tell, or know to tell (Ryan, 1984: 47). Examples are What Happened, a Play (1913), A Curtain Raiser (1913), and Ladies' Voices (1916). The plays attempt to focus the spectators' attention on the present moment, on unfolding rhythms and textures(e.g. a series of non-referential numbers), with fragments of conversation, etc, all without a developing storyline. In stead of the progress of a coherent (linear) storyline with beginning middle and end, Stein uses fragments of dialogue that isolate from other fragments of dialogue. She does not reveal the author's intent about texts read by the actors. The 1920 play A Movie, is structured like a story, yet the episodes are revealed scene by scene with any logical links between them minimized; scenes are juxtaposed rather than developmentally related (as in progress narrative).

Landscape Theatre (1922-1932) plays are Stein's reaction to 'syncopation' in traditional theatre (Ryan, 1984: 51). Examples include Objects Lie on a Table (1922), A List (1923), A Play a Lion: For Max Jacob (1932). Stein's critique was that the emotion of the audience and the activity on the stage were out of synch. The audience emotion is either ahead or behind the play. The traditional play builds up to or recedes from climax. The developmental story in traditional theatre just keeps moving along, but someone reading a book, can speed up or slow down their reading, or just take a break. Theatre-goes, according to Stein, lacked such control over syncopation. Landscape plays focus on the physicality of spatial presence. "The spatiality of this [landscape] play is emphasized by the technique of modifying or qualifying an existing line in a later line [of dialogue] relating it yet distinguishing it form later manifestations, fulfilling Stein's ethic of self-contained movement" (Ryan, 1984: 52).

The landscape has its formation and as after all a play has to have its formation and be in relation one thing to the other thing and as the story is not the thing as any one is always telling something then the landscape is not moving but being always in relation, the trees to the hills the hills to the fields the trees to each other any piece of it to any sky and then any detail to any other detail; the story is only of importance if you like to tell or hear a story but the relation is there anyway (Stein, 1957: 125, as cited in Ryan, 1984: 53).

In short, Landscape theatre is about the relationships of physicality, the vibrations of self-contained movement in the landscape.

Narrative Theatre .(1932-1946) for the first time, depends on some type of story, but it is a moment by moment variety. Examples include Doctor Faustus Lights the Lights (1937), The Mother of Us All (1946). It is the presentation of another's point of view, while maintaining the immediacy of the present moment and avoiding dramatic action. Stein, says "the narrative in itself is not what is in your mind but what is in somebody else's" (A Transatlantic Interview, cited in Ryan, 1984: 55). Stein has recognizable sequential (progressive) storytelling, but counteracts it by distending and prolonging the qualities of the scene at hand.

The three types of Absolute Theatre (Essence, Landscape, and Narrative) provide insights into storytelling.

Implications of Stein for Story Theory and Practices Elsewhere (Boje, 2005) I have asserted that narrative theory tries to legislate a way of telling a story, as coherent (linear) beginning, middle, end narration (.i.e. developmental storytelling). Stein experimented in her theatre with non-developmental ways of telling stories. Every organization has its way of telling, and is always telling something. More accurately, an organization is many ways of telling. Some of these ways are developmental storytelling, since that is the way of telling one learns is "proper storytelling" in school, especially in narrative theory classes.

Organization's change when the no longer go on telling something in the way they had been telling. Ways of telling and changing the ways of telling makes all the difference in organizational transformation. Customers sometimes just stop listening to an organization that keeps telling something in the same way. A customer, an employee, a manager, or vendor, or "anybody can stop listening to any telling of anything" (Stein, 1998: 340).

If we bracket (put aside) what narrativists say is important about storytelling, then we find that there are many more ways of telling than just the coherent plot, with progress to and regression from climax. What storytelling is, and what it is defined by narrative theory to be, are two different preferences for storytelling.

My own work is on terse ways of telling, fragmented ways of telling, that constitute what I call "storytelling organization" (Boje, 1991, 1995). Storytelling organization is defined as "collective storytelling system in which the performance of stories is a key part of members' sense-making and a means to allow them to supplement individual memories with institutional memory" (Boje, 1991: 106). Yannis Gabriel (2000: 20), Barbara Czarniawska (1999: 2) and I have an ongoing collegial debate over what constitutes “proper” and “improper” story. Czarniawska (1999: 2) takes the narrativist position of setting narrative over story, “For them to become a narrative, they require a plot, that is, some way to bring them into a meaningful whole.” Elsewhere, she asserts, “A story consists of a plot comprising causally related episodes that culminate in a solution to a problem” (Czarniawska, 1997: 78). Gabriel takes a similar position, “Stories are narratives with plots and characters, generating emotion in narrator and audience, through a poetic elaboration of symbolic material” – Gabriel (2000: 239, italics in original).

My “you know the story” is for Gabriel a very bad, terse story, Gabriel, so he tells me; it is not an “integrated piece of narrative with a full plot and a complete cast of characters; instead they exist in a state of continuous flux, fragments, allusions, as people contribute bits, often talking together (Boje, 1991: 12-13)” (Gabriel, 2000: 20).

Antenarratives (Boje, 2001) are terse, oftentimes missing a beginning, middle, or an end. Narrative tries to be hegemonic to story, to impose plot and coherence to story form; everything else is defined as “improper story.” Yet, it is the relation between proper and improper story that makes it living story, and unleashes transformative dynamics in storytelling organizations.


Boje, D. M. 1991. "The storytelling organization: A study of storytelling performance in an office supply firm." Administrative Science Quarterly, Vol. 36: pp.106-126.

Boje, D. M. 1995. "Stories of the storytelling organization: A postmodern analysis of Disney as 'Tamara-land'" Academy of Management Journal. Vol. 38 (4): 997-1035.

Boje, D. M. 2001. Narrative Methods for Organizational and Communication Research. London: Sage.

Boje, D. M. 2005. Antenarration Inquiry: The Utrecht Lecture on Exposition. Lecture given at Utrecht University, 16 Mar 05, published in Annual Review of Management and Organization Inquiry 30 Mar 05 see

Czarniawska, B. 1997. Narrating the Organization: Dramas of Institutional Identity. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Czarniawska, B. 1998. A Narrative Approach to Organization Studies. Qualitative Research methods Series Vol. 43. Thousand Oaks, Ca; Sage Publications, Inc.

Gabriel, Y. 2000. Storytelling in Organizations: Facts, fictions, and fantasies. London: Oxford University Press.

Ryan, B. A. 1984. Gertrude Stein’s Theatre of the Absolute. Ann Arbor, MI: UMI Research Press.

Stein, G. 1935. Narration: four lectures. Introduction by Thornton Wilder. Chicago, Il: University of Chicago Press.

Stein, G. 1957. Lectures in America. Boston, MASS: Beacon Press.

Stein, G. 1998. Writing 1932-1946. Catherine R. Stimpson & Harriet Chessman (Eds). NY: Literary Classics of the United States, Inc (The Library of America).

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