“I associated the Wanamaker name with Madison Square Garden,” Martinez said. “Only when I started to spend time in Philadelphia did I say to Terry (Arden Theatre artistic director Terrence J. Nolen): ‘tell me a little bit about the Eagle.’ That’s sort of how I arrived at it…via a long, circuitous route.”
The title character in Martinez’s play is Nathan Wanamaker (played by Jürgen Hooper), a fictional character inspired by John Wanamaker’s grandson, John Wanamaker, Jr. Wanamaker Sr.’s son Rodman, actually did spend a great deal of time in Paris in the late 19th century.
“When Rodman dies, the store gets passed to a trust,” Martinez recounted. “I was always interested in why it doesn’t go to the children. Oftentimes, third generations lose some interest in the family business.” Rodman Wanamaker took over the family business after his father’s death, but did not pass it on to his children (Wikipedia hints that Rodman’s only son, John, had “personal problems” which prevented his taking over the family business.) John, Jr. was known as “Captain John” after his service on General Pershing’s staff in World War I. Captain John died at the age of 45, in 1935.
Martinez originally intended to write “a little bit” about John, imagining what the young man might have seen, who he would have met in Belle Epoque Paris.
“I started writing a story about a young man going to Paris, learning to be a buyer,” the playwright said. “But what I was really writing about was Paris in 1911 (the heart of the time that gives PIFA its theme), with people like Gertrude Stein and Pablo Picasso.” This is when Stein and Picasso and other artists in their circle were becoming themselves, and before they became as visible to a wide range of people as they later did. “If you write about them at that time, we get to know who they are as they begin have an idea of who they are. This is the moment when their egos are beginning to blossom. By the time you get to the 1920s, their egos are in full bloom.”
Among the relationships that he follows is that of Gertrude and her brother Leo Stein, which was beginning to fall apart, and it would eventually completely collapse. “I wanted to explore that aspect of it, a brother and sister coming to the end of their relationship,” Martinez explained. “And breaking up, in a sense. It was a sad breakup.”
Martinez spent six or seven months doing the historical research on the piece, then another 3 months writing the play, and did rewrites over the course of another year. The play was commissioned as part of the Arden’s Independence Foundation New Play Showcase, and received additional support with an Edgerton Grant from the Theatre Communications Group, which allowed the production 2 additional weeks of rehearsal.
So Martinez had the opportunity to bring his Nathan Wanamaker to Paris to meet and mingle with great artists on the verge. One of the major characters in the play is Paul Poiret (played by Wilbur Edwin Henry), a French designer whose influence on fashion made him one of the most important figures of his time; now he is more of a supporting character, not as well known, in today’s histories.
“The idea is that this man was a name that’s now forgotten. It’s really interesting who history decides to remember and who it decides to forget. Leo Stein, as far as culturally, as far as being responsible for curating this art, is as powerful a force as Gertrude Stein,” Martinez said. “He wasn’t the artist that his sister was, but as far as having an eye for art, he was. But we’ve forgotten Leo. The Metropolitan Museum recently did a show on Paul Poiret’s fashions, so it’s not like we’ve forgotten him, but he’s not a name like Coco Chanel, who came in the 1920s, and knocked him off the map. Yet, in 1911, he was a rock star. He was it. He brought fashion into the modern era. So it’s interesting for me to see, and for audiences to see, who history chooses to remember and why.”
“Why have we chosen to remember the Mona Lisa, when so much art was created in that period?” Martinez asked. (The theft of the Mona Lisa in 1911 is part of “Wanamaker’s Pursuit” and the subject of another PIFA play, “Art Lover” by Jules Tasca). “I don’t quite have an answer for that, and I don’t expect audiences to have an answer, but it’s interesting to contemplate the question, and at least each of the main characters has a different response to the paining that makes it personal to them. That’s what the Mona Lisa does…when we see it, we have a personal reaction to it, different from any other.”
“Wanamaker’s Pursuit” also features Geneviève Perrier as Denise Poiret, Catharine K. Slusar as Gertrude Stein, David Bardeen as Leo Stein and Shawn Fagan in a variety of roles including Pablo Picasso.
It's playing at the Arcadia Stage at the Arden Theatre, 40 N. 2nd St. Tickets are $20-$39 (student and senior discounts may be available).