Come Dine With Me: Gertrude Stein and the Performative Act of Dining

7 December 2020

Rebekka Jolley, Liverpool Hope University

Richard Schechner unpacks the often-overcomplicated term ‘performative’. He clarifies that performative as an adjective ‘inflects what it modifies with performance-like qualities’.[1]In this article, performative will be used as an adjective to demonstrate how Gertrude Stein unveils dining as a ritualised performative act within her early plays: White Wines Three Acts (1913) and Turkey and Bones and Eating and We Liked It A Play (1916). This piece is interdisciplinary and draws on a close reading of the texts to establish the performative acts that are unveiled through the dialogue, as well as an enquiry into the staging of these pieces and the inclusion of the audience as part of the performative act.

Stein presents the dining experience as a performative act that the audience is immersed in and a part of. Much like the phenomenon in the TV show Come Dine With Me, Stein documents and shows the various stages and aspects of dining; from hosting and greeting to the final acts of the dinner party sharing dessert. Just as the cast on Come Dine With Me take on the multiple roles of hosting and being an attendee, their behaviour changes and is performative as their roles alter. Similarly, Stein highlights these changes and allows you to come dine with her in, White Wines and Turkey and Bones.

Robert Jameson labels the dinner party as a ‘social ritual’.[2] Victor Turner explains that he thinks of ritual ‘essentially as performance, as enactment’.[3] The ritual of dining becomes performative as it is repeatedly enacted in various locations, and has its own set of rules. Dinner party etiquette demands that various roles are fulfilled: there are the roles of the host, the server and the attendee. The etiquette is a set of social rules that are followed by the individual and would be what Turner refers to as ‘prescribed formal behaviour’.[4] Both Alice B. Toklas and Gertrude Stein thoroughly enjoyed the experience of both being dined and hosting a dinner. Every week their home would become the set for their famous salon, in which they welcomed a variety of modernist and avant-garde figures: Pablo Picasso, Ernest Hemingway, Henri Mattisse, Guillame Apollinaire, Marie Laurencin, Georges Braque, F. Scott Fitzgerald, and many more. Dining was a central part of the salon’s culture. Alice was more practical in her role as a host, preparing the food and greeting the attendees politely. In contrast, artist Maurice Grosser comments ofStein’s hosting capabilities that ‘she was not at all the gracious and ingratiating hostess she is usually pictured to be’.[5] Stein, much like her writing, was unconventional in her role as the host. She was the director of conversations and socialised with the ‘geniuses’, whilst Alice sat with ‘the wives of [the] geniuses’.[6]

In Turkey and Bones the characters depict the experience of hosting and the ritualised social etiquette of greeting guests. A nameless character says:

Mr Clement.

It gives me great pleasure to meet you.[7]

The line directly addresses Mr Clement, and reveals the social ruling of introductions. The standard polite greeting implies the pre-programmed and automatic response when meeting someone new, and Stein thus renders introductions and greetings tropes of the dining event. Later in the play another nameless character welcomes a guest and requests that they ‘Come in Come in’.[8] The repetition and capitalisation of the speech act shows the imperative command. The lack of full stops also demonstrates an urgency. Stein omits many script conventions from her early plays, such as stage directions and character names, and this gives the director and actor creative license to devise their own actions and movements that accompany the dialogue.

If I were to direct this piece I can envisage that the actor playing the speaker would have the accompanying action of waving their arm frantically, signalling that the addressee should enter the room. Waiting until you are welcomed or invited into the room is also a common part of the dining experience that Stein highlights. It is common practice in theatre that actors will wait for their cue to enter, exit and speak. In this play the characters follow the same cue rules as theatrical actors do: they wait until it is their cue to enter the space, and speak as part of the dinner conversation they politely wait their turn to share their opinion. The characters, like an actor, wait for and respond to their feedlines. Feedlines for an actor are cues and the lines which precede their own. Stein feeds the characters their lines and topics of discussion just as she generously fed the attendees of the salon. In exposing the performative social ritual of waiting for your cue in a conversation the piece simultaneously acknowledges the theatrical convention of actors’ feedlines and entrance / exit cues.

Stein presents other ritualised aspects of the performative act of dining in both plays. Within White Wines Stein builds a much more abstract collage of the dining experience for the audience. The characters, or ‘witnesses’, as they are labelled, discuss the food and drink on multiple occasions: ‘all thin beer and in all such eggs, in all the pile and in all the bread, in the bread, in the bread, in the condition of pretty’.[9] The listing technique collages the food and drink together into an image which the audience can visualise, but may not necessarily be a part of the play’s stage picture. The experience of the dinner party is told through the dialogue of multiple character perspectives.The single witness character highlights the dinner party ritual of dessert and the serving of cake: ‘short cake and choice cake is white cake and white cake is sponge cake and sponge cake is butter’.[10] The repetition and ritualisation of the language as it is uttered aloud also unearths the ritual of dessert being served at the end of a dinner party. The words are repeated, much like the action is at various social events.

The act of dining in these plays can be presented in a variety of ways. In one of the few stage productions of White Wines, there was a showcase in which the audience watched four different performances of the play. The production (named Now Repeat in Steinese in May 2010offered the audience a glass of white wine between each of the acts, as noted by Li Cornfield in their review of the production.[11] Giving the audience glasses of wine to drink during the production allows them to partake in the act of dining alongside the characters. My own production of White Wines in April 2019was staged using an immersive approach, in which the audience were invited to take part in dining with the actors as they poured wine and shared food. The erosion of artifice and a fictional world allowed for an immersive staging to be used when producing the play. In turn the immersive staging created a shared dining experience for the audience, as they were a part of the action and the actors directed dialogue at the audience members.

Both White Wines and Turkey and Bones are acts and performative pieces of social drama. The plays highlight the ritualisation and habitualisation of dinner parties and show dining as social performances, exposing the performative aspects of social events. The plays illustrate the various roles that individuals play at the social rituals. Stein’s focus on dining shows the importance of the performative act and its integral role in the creation of the interconnected modernist and avant-garde society, in which interdisciplinary conversations and friendships occurred. Stein reveals the inner workings and exposes the etiquette codes that are an intrinsic part of these performative social exchanges that the audience become involved in. Instead of inviting the public to dance, Gertrude Stein invites the public to dine.[12]

Photograph credits to Amy Wain, images taken of Rebekka Jolley’s Production of White Wines, April 2019, at the Angelfield Festival.


[1]Richard Schechner, Performance Studies: An Introduction, 2. ed (New York, NY: Routledge, 2006), p. 123.

[2]Robert Jameson, ‘Purity and Power at the Victorian Dinner Party’, in The Archaeology of Contextual Meanings, ed. by Ian Hodder (Cambridge University Press, 1987), pp. 55-65 (p. 55).

[3]Victor, Turner. ‘Social Dramas and Stories about Them’, Critical Inquiry, 7.1 (1980), pp. 141–68 (p.159).


[5]Maurice Grosser, ‘Maurice Grosser on Gertrude Stein and Alice Toklas’, in The Company They Kept: Writers on Unforgettable Friendships, eds. Robert B. Silvers and Barbara Epstein (New York: NYRB Collections, 2006), p. 154.

[6]Gertrude Stein,The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas(London: Penguin, 2001), p. 3.

[7]Gertrude, Stein. ‘Turkey and Bones and Eating and We Liked It A Play’, Geography and Plays(Madison, Univ. of Wisconsin Press, 1993), pp. 239-253 (p.240).

[8]Ibid, p. 249.

[9]Gertrude Stein, ‘White Wines Three Acts’, Geography and Plays(Madison, Univ. of Wisconsin Press, 1993) p.210-214, p.213.


[11]Li Cornfield, ‘A Play Is a Play Is a Play (Is a Film)’, Off Off Online<> [accessed 20 September 2020], n.pag.

[12]‘The King or Something (The Public Is Invited to Dance)’, is the title of one of Gertrude Stein’s early plays, located in: Gertrude Stein, Geography and Plays(Madison, Univ. of Wisconsin Press, 1993) p.122-133.

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