The names of Claribel and Etta Cone have a very familiar ring to art lovers, especially in our region. Their ravenous and adventurous interests in the contemporary art world at the turn of the 20th century led to the most important collection in the Baltimore Museum of Art.
Cezanne, Gauguin, Picasso and, especially, Matisse were among the artists whose works the Cone Sisters of Baltimore snapped up on their trips to Europe, works that eventually came to the BMA. The sisters also gained remarkable friendships along the way. One friend, in particular, would leave quite an imprint — Gertrude Stein.
The close connection between Stein and Etta Cone will be explored in the play “All She Must Possess,” which receives its world premiere at Rep Stage this weekend.
“From the first time I read about the Cone Sisters, I felt this would make a great play,” says Baltimore playwright Susan McCully. “I got drawn to Etta. Claribel was so amazing. And she wanted to be noticed, but Etta was the one who quietly created the collection. And she had this relationship — or ‘intimate friendship,’ as people said then — with Gertrude Stein.”
McCully started writing about all this at a serendipitous time.
“I heard about what Susan was doing when I was looking for a new work to do as part of 2018 Women’s Voices Theater Festival,” says Rep Stage producing artistic director Joseph Ritsch, who is directing “All She Must Possess.”
The playwright has a particular interest in feminism, gender and sexual orientation, subjects that touch on the story of the art-collecting siblings.
“I didn’t want to make up stuff about them,” McCully says. “I wanted to honor their history. So I did an enormous amount of research.”
Given the times the Cone Sisters lived in, it’s not surprising that there isn’t a wealth of clear-cut material regarding the women’s private lives. But it’s not much of a stretch to read between the lines.
Some of Etta’s own words guided McCully’s thinking in crafting the play.
“Etta was coming back from Europe on a ship with Gertrude,” McCully says, “and was not feeling well. Then she wrote that she spent a day below [decks] ‘learning the charms of Gertrude,’ and her mood lifted.”
Whatever transpired between the two women did not last. A woman who would become forever linked with Stein, Alice B. Toklas, entered the picture. The relationship between Cone and Stein cooled.
“Alice broke it up,” McCully says. “So many people know nothing about gay history. It’s interesting to tell this story.”
And challenging to turn that story into a stage work. The playwright avoided taking a straightforward approach to the play’s structure, given the way the Cone Sisters loved abstract and expressionistic art.
“I went through a lot of drafts,” McCully says. “The challenge was to keep the drama moving forward and still focus on Etta’s story. She was extraordinary. I started thinking of the play as a cubist story that would show different sides of Etta.”