PRINT Summer 1999


Steven Watson

STEVEN WATSON’S ROUSING CHRONICLE of the making of the 1934 Virgil Thomson/Gertrude Stein opera, Four Saints in Three Acts, is a 42nd Street for the American avant-garde. This is a backstage saga that seems itself the stuff of opera, replete with a petulant diva (the cantankerous Gertrude); an eager-beaver impresario from Kansas-City-by-way-of-Paris who wants to put on a show, goshdarnit (the composer Virgil Thomson); a bunch of unknown players (an all-black cast culled from Harlem church choirs and nightclubs); a fantastically out-there set decorator and costume designer (the then-sixty-three-year-old painter of tinseled fantasy and bubbly glitz Florine Stettheimer); a glamorous but perpetually broke producer (Chick Austin); a first-time director (John Houseman); and a highfalutin Brit choreographer who is sleeping with the chorus boys (Frederick Ashton).

Once in rehearsals at Hartford’s Wadsworth Atheneum, there’s even a Busby Berkeleyesque showbiz “angel” (the underwear magnate Harry Moses) who decides to take the show to Broadway. There it becomes the longest-running opera of its day and a New York sensation, inspiring shop windows at Bergdorf’s, puff pieces in Vanity Fair, and national awareness of the libretto’s catchphrase, “Pigeons on the grass alas.”

Four Saints is a witty pairing of Stein’s sensuous, free-form wordplay and Thomson’s blend of art song, Protestant hymns, and “Skip to My Lou” folksiness. All of its components work together to make the opera the rare thing that it is: a sweetly comic, genuinely sophisticated, uniquely American celebration of artmaking. Sparked by Stein’s plainspoken, down-home diction, Thomson’s playful snatches of Americana were perfectly interpreted by the black cast, who helped pull off this backroads Baptist rendition of sixteenth-century Spanish hagiography. After Four Saints’ premiere, art dealers and bon vivants Julien Levy and Kirk Askew were both reduced to tears, saying that they “didn ’t know anything so beautiful could be done in America.”

As Watson demonstrated in his previous books Strange Bedfellows: The First American Avant-Garde (Abbeville, 1991); The Birth of the Beat Generation (Pantheon, 1995); and The Harlem Renaissance (Pantheon, 1995)—he writes well and has a knack for plucking juicy narratives from seemingly dried-up eras and archives. Here he creates a buoyant, comic hero out of Virgil Thomson, a foxy, baby-faced figure who edges out the rival gay-boy artists surrounding Gertrude by dropping an unsolicited score, set to one of her short texts, on her doorstep. Alice deems it musically acceptable, and in 1927 Stein finds herself agreeing to collaborate on a bigger project.

At the time, the fifty-three-year-old Stein was still anxious to achieve popular success (which had thus far, unsurprisingly, eluded her). Her frustrations were evidenced in a rare writer’s block and annoyingly tough-minded rights negotiations with Thomson, whom she “excommunicated” for three years, only making up once a production of the opera seemed imminent.

Likewise frustrated, at not being taken seriously by the Parisian music establishment, Thomson knew that his Stein opera would be the perfect showcase for his own talents (and that it would generate a tremendous amount of publicity). Getting nowhere in Europe, he hustled for support in New York—not in its stodgy music world, but auditioning a solo-piano version of the opera in the salons of socialites and art-world tastemakers. (The eighty-something Thomson can be seen reprising part of that solo performance in the PBS documentary—written, directed, and co-produced by Watson—that accompanies the release of the book.)

After seven years’ effort, Four Saints was finally off the ground, thanks to the open minds and pockets of the gay and gay-friendly circles that would soon transform the East Coast art world. Watson provides succinct capsule biographies of key figures within this milieu , including the stellar group that came out of Harvard in the late ’20s: Lincoln Kirstein, Philip Johnson, Henry Russell Hitchcock, Kirk Askew, Alfred Barr, Chick Austin, and Julien Levy, all of whom helped the production along its way.

Watson eloquently demonstrates the opera’s pivotal role in the expansion of the American avant-garde, as he puts it, into “realms formerly considered derrière-garde: the opera, the museum, and the ballet.” Putting a generally positive spin on this modernist “mainstreaming, ” Watson at the same time recognizes the opera as a singular achievement in American musical history. (As a synthesis of dance, music, stage sets, and poetry, it has been rivaled only by Philip Glass and Robert Wilson’s Einstein on the Beach.) In fact, Watson’s backstage story seems motivational in tone, almost urging readers to attempt to mount their own avant-garde extravaganzas.

In our own age of narrow theatrical expectations, the unpaid collaborators of Four Saints are indeed ideal role models who prove that the outré and the abstract can be successfully realized on stage, and that such efforts can find appreciative audiences. In a 1946 letter to Stein, Thomson referred to their fellow artists’ lives of “ pioneering”: “Which is just what we all, that is the little friends, have always been doing and maybe it isn’t so easy for all of them though certainly it wasn’t always so easy for us but anyway it is the only thing any American can admit doing and respect himself because a pioneer is the only thing we can imagine ourselves being noble as or understand.”

O Pioneers! Prepare for Sainthood!

Michael Duncan is an art critic based in Los Angeles.