I’m looking for Helen Twelvetrees.
What’s your name?
How old are you?
Where do you come from?
No, just Los Angeles.
David Greenspan was talking with his partner about old Hollywood actresses. One name struck him: Helen Twelvetrees. In photos, she looked haunted. Haunting. Greenspan did some research. She played Blanche DuBois in a summer stock Streetcar on Long Island in 1951. He was given to believe she was very good in that Streetcar. Very good. Now she’s mostly forgotten.
Her first husband, Clark Twelvetrees, was an actor, a stagehand, and an alcoholic. He died in a street brawl. What’s left are a few clippings in the library.
A play started to take shape in Greenspan’s mind, a Tennessee Williams sort of a thing, about a forgotten actress and a relationship that was “bonded but impossible—in a lyrical way.” That play, I’m Looking for Helen Twelvetrees, begins performances this month.
I met Greenspan in a little café on Eighth Avenue. He brought Mireya, his dog. I do not want to forget to say what a funny man he is. Funny and gracious, in a black cardigan.
“What has been on my mind—and it’s true of Jack, and a bit in Go Back to Where You Are”—one early and one more recent play of his—“is that it’s all so impermanent. It’s all so temporary and ephemeral. And that’s why the theater can be a very good prism to look at life. Because certainly this play is about memory, and the moment of memory, and the fading of memory when everybody who remembers is already gone.”
Mireya is shiftless a while, nudges my crotch, jumps up and buries her face under Greenspan’s arm. Then she lies down.
“I’m a faithful reader of obituaries. I read the obituaries every day. I even read some of the death notices—you know the ones that people pay to put in. Because you can learn so much—sometimes people don’t even know what they’re revealing. Someone was, what was it, a great, a great champion of—a real pioneer in wallpaper.”
He asks: Who remembers Luise Rainer? She died a few months ago. Who knows who George Arliss was? When he was alive, he was a huge star.
“So the fame isn’t permanent, the money isn’t permanent, the marriages often don’t last. And that ephemerality really interests me. And again actors are a good way to look at that because, especially with stage actors—it’s just gone.”
I’m Looking for Helen Twelvetrees is one of two projects Greenspan is taking on this spring. In May, he’ll perform two “lectures” and a “play” by Gertrude Stein. The evening, Composition… Master-Pieces… Identity, will be the culminating event of Target Margin Theater’s Stein-centered season.
“I have an ongoing interest in the theatrical potential of nondramatic texts,” Greenspan says. His play The Argument, which Target Margin originally produced, was based on Aristotle’s Poetics and the writings of classicist Gerald F. Else. Greenspan performed Stein’s lecture “Plays” with The Foundry and later alongside The Argument at the Bushwick Starr.
“There’s always an action to play,” Greenspan tells me. “In the Stein lectures, the action is to try to make clear the ideas to the audience. The action’s also, for me, perhaps more than Stein would have done in her own rendition, to have a sense of the emotion behind the ideas, of what they meant to her.”
Here’s Stein: “Identity is recognition, you know who you are because you and others remember anything about yourself but essentially you are not that when you are doing anything.” There’s the You that is your personality, your identity, and there is the You that is just an entity—almost an any-You. When we are recognized by others we are reduced to our personalities. Or, again, Stein: “I am I because my little dog knows me.”
In I’m Looking for Helen Twelvetrees there is a little dog, and there is recognition, and the mind passes and repasses over certain images. Someone falling from a seventh-story window. Snow falling on two men making their way home from a 10th Avenue diner. Whispering at the far end of a railroad apartment. A classroom, a chalkboard, a rolling lawn. Actors around a picnic table. Sunglasses. A doll.
Greenspan has written about theater people, about summer, about Long Island, even, before. But this play is different. She Stoops to Comedy, at Playwrights Horizons in 2003, was a farce. Go Back to Where You Are, also at Playwrights Horizons, in 2011, had farcical elements, too, but was “a little more poignant.” Helen Twelvetrees is a little bit more of a tragedy. “Not quite a tragedy since you have to be really good to do tragedy,” says Greenspan, “but it has a little more pathos to it.” I’ve read the play and that’s true—it’s quite beautiful and quite moving as well.
It turns and returns. It circles around isolated moments of memory.
“I love when Stein talks about memory,” Greenspan explains. “Sometimes it’s just a moment in a play—that’s all you remember—you know, What was that play about? I don’t remember, but I remember somebody typing on a typewriter, or whatever.”
Moments are what we hold onto. They remind us of what we’ve lost, and of where we’re not. They are everything—they are our lives—but they are also nothing.
I ask Greenspan about how he thinks about structure, about the ways in which Stein’s more abstract ideas underpin his writing. “I don’t think about the abstract things to start,” he says. “I’m just trying to tell a story. When I think about it after, it’s like looking at a picture, but I just keep changing the angle to look at it a little differently.”
“I am I because my little dog knows me.” Stein makes much of the difference between human personality and the human mind. Personality lives in others’ recognition of us. The mind is what composes, creates more profoundly. The best plays might tell stories about the stuff of personality, but they exist beyond it. Greenspan turns personality in his hands, keeps changing the angle, and looks at it a little differently.
My picture career is long over—ended in ’39. A bit of radio. Mostly I tour in stock. Twin Beds in Ivoryton, Personal Appearance in Rochester, The Greeks Had a Word for It—I can’t even remember where I did that one.
They’re such memorable titles.
[Laughing.] Aren’t they? Arsenic and Old Lace—that’s a pretty good one—with Von Stroheim.
Von Stroheim? Eric Von Stroheim?
I thought that might impress you. And then Boudoir in New York in 1941—my one Broadway credit—you couldn’t snap your fingers before it closed. I’ve seen so few of my pictures. Nerve wracking. It’s the picture business that makes being married impossible.
Kissing all those fellows.
Oh, that’s just camera angles, darling. I never had a real kiss my whole screen career. You love your husband—but you have to be publicized—a star has to—and that’s what ruins you.
Actors have it tough. And I’m not teasing you.
It’s not actors—that’s not hard—leaving it behind—well, maybe in a way—the character after the show at night or when you finish the shoot for the day. It’s the start—that’s the part you can never leave.
The playpicks at the gilt flakes of film star personality. But it picks at the gilt flakes of human personality, too. We all know that cinema glamour is mysterious and fleeting—the leap of Greenspan’s play is that everything else is, too. What is the I that the little dog recognizes?
I should tread carefully. Helen Twelvetrees is no heavy-gaited ontological downer. It’s very much an elegant slip of a play, with rhythm, and humor, and poetry. The curious thing about Greenspan is that as a performer he is at once a vanishing act, a chameleon, and a luminous, unmistakable personality. He dismantles personality, dismantles illusion, dismantles the whole creaking machinery of the theater (and, by poetic leap, human endeavor), and invites a peek at the nothing backstage—but at the same time he’s spinning fabulous poetic conceits, throwing up elaborate palaces of words and images. He takes a part, then another, then another, and he spins and spins and spins and spins. The play is a prodigious invention, and Greenspan a prolific inventor, who shows us, gently, generously, how it all falls apart.
In Helen Twelvetrees Greenspan plays Mike, the kid who opens the play, having crossed the country looking for an actress for no reason other than that he is taken with her name—
Why did you come looking for me? Are you just a star-struck kid born in ’35—four years before my picture career ended?
I heard your name and thought there was something poetic about it?
—but he is always, in sly ways, also always himself, a writer and actor who followed the actress Helen Twelvetrees into the archives and into his own memory and imagination. His is Mike, and he is himself, and he is all the other secondary characters in the play, each with their own memories and hauntednesses. As in so many of Greenspan’s plays the writing and performing of plays becomes a metaphor for the gentle infatuations that are the secret lifeness of art-making, of perception. He heard her name and thought there was something poetic about it. As one of his voices in the play says, “I made this play and changed the facts and invented things. Contradictions in the writing abound.”
“I don’t know how social or political a playwright I am,” Greenspan tells me. “I don’t even know how psychological a playwright I am.” The beauty of his work is in its composition of memory and speech and imagination in patterns, repetitions, cycles, variations, that show us something about, well, what it might mean to be a human being, with all the dying and the remembering and the longing that come with that.
A Steinian way of thinking of it all—who cares for the whys, for the psychology. We are interested, we are haunted, we follow, we have, we lose, we begin and begin again.
I won’t say too much more about the play. You should enjoy discovering it yourself. And I won’t keep quoting Stein. The truth is she can be daunting on the page. But the truth is also that her lectures are quite emotional and human and funny sometimes, but also profound. If you have not seen David Greenspan speak Stein you should. And that is that.
I think I hoped I could learn something about David Greenspan after having a coffee with him, but I suppose I can imagine Gertrude Stein saying that the things one could know about David Greenspan are things that anybody could know, not that everybody knows them but anybody could come to know them. What is worth communicating here is that the work is something, and something else entirely. It is melancholy, and funny, and devastating, and quite rare indeed.
I put away my mug and he threw away his cup and we walked into the cold and he said what a funny book that was, what a funny funny book about some book I mentioned, he said it was time for Mireya to have her dinner (she is too big to be Stein’s little dog) and brushing his hands down the front of his cardigan he said he was going to go home and de-fur.
I’m Looking for Helen Twelvetrees, by David Greenspan, directed by Leigh Silverman, runs March 19 – April 4 at Abrons Arts Center Playhouse (466 Grand Street, Manhattan).
For tickets and further details, visit www.abronsartscenter.org.
David Greenspan will perform his Composition… Master-Pieces… Identity (fusing two lectures and a play by Gertrude Stein) in May and June at The Connelly Theater (220 East 4th Street, Manhattan). For tickets and further details, visit www.targetmargin.org.
Alexander Borinsky is a writer and performer from Baltimore, living in Brooklyn. He makes work at Rustchuk Farm.