Boston — When Pat Carroll first told her mother she was doing reearch for a one-woman play about Gertrude Stein, her mother said, "That's nice, dear." But two days later, Miss Carroll's mother called her back on the phone. "Now this Gertrude Stein," she began, "wasn't she married to Julie Styne?"
That was four years ago. Today, after breaking New York theater records for the longest running one-person play, "Gertrude Stein, Gertrude Stein, Gertrude Stein" is on the road across the United States and scheduled for a European tour this spring.
For her dynamic portrayal of the woman who was midwife to the birth of modern art and literature, Pat Carroll has won the Drama Desk Award for Best Actress of 1980, and the play has been awarded the Outer Circle Drama Critics' award for Best Production Off Broadway for 1980. Most important perhaps, Miss Carroll's mother has become the show's biggest fan.
"Mother's boring everybody to death by keeping scrapbooks," she says. "She will go up to absolute strangers and say, 'Do you want to see my scrapbooks?' . . . Aren't parents wonderful?
"But my kids get embarrassed and say, 'You have to stop Grandma from showing her scrapbooks.'
"And I say, 'You cannot stop Grandma from doing that. That's her pleasure and her joy, and you leave Grandma alone.'
"They say, 'Mother! She sits in the lobby of her building with her scrapbooks. She looks like a bag lady with her scrapbooks.'
"And I say, 'Do you kids know that that comes out of love. You must never stop anything that comes out of love. That's too wonderful, that's too marvelous.' . . . aren't kids rotten to their grandparents?"
As Pat Carroll lopes along, talking nonstop, one hopes Neil Simon is hiding behind one of the big cushy chairs in her hotel suite, taping this dialogue. The timing is flawless, her enthusiasm exhausting. And there are those raucous howls of laughter, echoes of the many zany ladies she has played in movies, costarring with Doris Day in "With Six You Get Egg Roll" and on television, as a series regular on "The Danny Thomas Show," "The Bobby Sherman Show," and "Busting Loose," and as guest star on specials and variety shows of Carol burnett, Red Skelton, and Danny Kaye. Her booming, sarcastic stage self has broken up a lot of game and talk shows and has sold a lot of soap powders and orange juice.
Theater critics have had a lot to say about the earthy wit and outrageous humor that Miss Carroll brings to her interpretation of Gertrude Stein. "Yes," she agrees, "I've probably put a lot of me in humor, although many people who knew her, who actually were friends of hers, have said it's true to her."
In a recent article in Horizon magazine ("I'm a paid author for the first time in my life -- thank you, Gertrude"), Pat Carroll writes about an incident that she discovered in her reading and research for the play.
"I looked for and found her humor, the humor most succinctly put for me in an anecdote about Stein's arrival in the United States for her triumphant tour of colleges and universities in 1934. She had been known in the United States mostly through parody, in mocking articles and verse couched in the idiosyncrasies of her style, repetition, obfuscation, and chimeric imagery.
"When asked by a newly found admirer in the press, who was evidently bowled over by Stein's directness of manner, speech, and dress, 'Miss Stein, why do you not write the way you speak?' said she, 'Young man, why do you not read the way I write?' How's that for the mot juste,m the riposte right, the sock in the solar plexus of the mind?"
Though not an early devotee of Stein ("In college, I found her perfunctorily dismissed"), in 1976 Miss Carroll found herself looking for a period of time to use a backdrop for a one-person show, and Paris of the '20s and '30s kept coming to mind. "Every book I read mentioned Gertrude Stein," she says, "She was in everybody's soup."
It wasn't so much her writing as Stein's life and personality that captivated her. In the days between World War I and World War II, Gertrude Stein lived first with her art-collecting brother, Leo, and later with her lifelong companion, Alice B. Toklas, hosting the salon of the century. Saturday nights at 27 Rue de Fleuras often found Pablo Picasso, Ernest Hemingway, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Henri Matisse, Bernard Berenson, Henri Rousseau, Guillaume Apollinaire, Georges Braques, and Isadora Duncan gathered for supper and mad adventures.
"Her style intrigued me," Miss Carroll continues, "and I liked her arrogance. She wasn't a whiner. She believed in herself.
"Was she a hoax? I don't know and I don't care. If gertrude Stein was a construct of her own imagination, I still say, 'Honey, you are marvelous for the theater. You're a beautiful dramatic character.'"
Miss Carroll commissioned a young Texas playwright, Marty Martin, to write the stream-of-consciousness script, and they worked together on it for two years , editing and trimming by phone and on tape. Run-throughs were held in friends' living rooms, dens, and libraries, and May 4, 1979, was the first public performance of the play at Penn State University. The first review began, "Ms. Carroll is Ms. Stein is a Gift," and it was followed by many similar accolades during the play's 14-month New York run.
The early impetus for the play came from Stein's successful US lecture tour in 1934, Miss Carroll explains. "What hit me about this character was that she could so shake up those students and make them feel a different way about themselves . . . and I thought, all of us need that today, now.
"Why, Eli Wallach told me he saw her when he was in college. He said she was talking hogwash, but he said he couldn't leave the lecture. She absolutely mesmerized him."
In its current US tour, which covers the West Coast during January and February and heads into the Midwest in March and April, "Gertrude Stein, Gertrude Stein, Gertrude Stein" is playing mostly on college and university campuses.
"Like Stein, we want to reach those young minds out there," Miss Carroll explains. "We're trying to bring information to them that may not be available in their classes or in their cultural background at home."
Many students come backstage to talk about the play, she says, "and I love hugging them because they're all impelled to touch and to feel . . . and that's my reward.
"And when some of them say, 'You know, I'm beginning to read Miss STein,' I say, 'Hey, that's not one of the requirements. I don't give grades -- you don't get a pass-fail from me. I don't even want to hear what you think about Gertrude Stein because I'm not here promulgating her writings.'
"This is a theatrical experience, and if it intrigues you, good. That's a stimulation. That's a curiosity. Use it. But use it about everything. Don't just use it about Gertrude Stein."
Perhaps because she demands so much of herself, Pat Carroll expects a lot from her audience. Although the play is written as a monologue, she works each night to make it a duologue, with the audience participating as the other actor.
"I want them to feel that they are in Gertrude Stein's studio," she says, adding that sometimes people get so caught up with the play that they talk back to her and make comments out loud. "Then they come backstage to apologize, and I say, 'Don't. You felt impelled to do it and you were absolutely right. Because you were acting, and the best part about acting is reacting.'
"Audiences don't know that they mustn't sit back and observe and say, 'I will watch this.' Whether it's my play or anybody's play, they must become participants. Too many people today are observing life instead of participating in it."
What about her own family? How have her children reacted to the play?
"I think they laughed about Stein, as they've laughed about so many of the things I've done," she says. "They call me the Joan of Arc in the family, and they're always saying, 'Mother's off on another one of her things. She's off fighting the world. She's off tilting at her windmills.'
"But once they came to see the play, I think they understood what all those months [of study and rehearsal] had been about."
Although the play has taken a lot of attention away from her family during the past few years, Miss carroll says they appreciate what it has meant for her.
"I sat down with them at one point and told them I'd never finished anything in my life, although I'd started an awful lot of things. I said whether the play was a success or a failure didn't make any difference. What was important was that I finished it, because that element of not finishing projects is a failure in my character. And I think they understood that."
Miss Carroll now is looking forward to the European tour that begins in May and will take "Gertrude Stein, Gertrude Stein, Gertrude Stein" to Israel, Greece , West Germany, Scandinavia, France, and Italy. "In Italy, I'm known as 'La Carrolla,'" she quips, "the new Irish Anna Magnani."
She's also at work on a triology of three women that she hopes to be playing in repertory of 1985 or '86. And beyond that, there's a big pre-1850 barn at her new farm in New York, just waiting to be turned into a theater where professional "works in progress" can be played.
"I see it as a place where young actors and choreographers can stretch themselves," she says. "I've got to fix the wood and stress the beams, get pole lights and electricity. But it's a lovely dream and I hope I can see it through some day."
At a point in her life when, she says, she should be playing bridge with her buddies or doing Jack La Lanne exercises and taking off weight at the local health spa, Pat Carroll is participating to the fullest, playing with all the stops out.
"I just want to keep working and being enthusiastic and having dreams and working hard to make those dreams come true," she says. "Anything else is boredom."