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Prepare for Saints: Gertrude Stein, Virgil Thomson, and the Mainstreaming of American Modernism [Kindle Edition]

Steven Watson
3.7 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (6 customer reviews)

Print List Price: $36.95
Kindle Price: $13.99
You Save: $22.96 (62%)
Sold by: Random House LLC

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Book Description

Perhaps the oddest and most influential collaboration in the history of American modernism was hatched in 1926, when a young Virgil Thomson knocked on Gertrude Stein's door in Paris. Eight years later, their opera Four Saints in Three Acts became a sensation--the longest-running opera in Broadway history to date and the most widely reported cultural event of its time.
        Four Saints was proclaimed the birth of a new art form, a cellophane fantasy, "cubism on stage." It swept the public imagination, inspiring new art and new language, and defied every convention of what an opera should be. Everything about it was revolution-ary: Stein's abstract text and Thomson's homespun music, the all-black cast, the costumes, and the com-bustible sets. Moving from the Wadsworth Atheneum to Broadway, Four Saints was the first popular modernist production. It brought modernism, with all its flamboyant outrage against convention, into the mainstream.
        This is the story of how that opera came to be. It involves artists, writers, musicians, salon hostesses, and an underwear manufacturer with an appetite for publicity. The opera's success depended on a handful of Harvard-trained men who shaped America's first museums of modern art. The elaborately intertwined lives of the collaborators provide a window onto the pioneering generation that defined modern taste in America in the 1920s and 1930s.
        A brilliant cultural historian with a talent for bringing the past to life, Steven Watson spent ten years researching and writing this book, interviewing many of the collaborators and performers. Prepare for Saints is the first book to describe this pivotal moment in American cultural history. It does so with a spirit and irreverence worthy of its subject.

NOTE: This edition does not include photographs.

Editorial Reviews

Amazon.com Review

This crisp and accessible work offers both a penetrating reconstruction of the 1934 American productions of Gertrude Stein and Virgil Thomson's modernist opera Four Saints in Three Acts and a delightful study of an unprecedented artistic collaboration--involving not only Stein and Thomson, but a large cast of supporting characters. From arbiters of taste like Carl Van Vechten to the society hostess Mabel Dodge Luhan to the plucky, well-connected band of Harvard-trained art professionals who eventually set "the course of 'official' modernist culture in America's most prestigious institutions for nearly half a century," Steven Watson tracks the improbable development of an audience for a quintessentially American opera that happened to be set in Spain, peopled by nuns and saints, and staged with an all-black cast performing an incoherent story in front of combustible sets. Along the way, Watson illuminates the larger history of modernism in Paris and New York between the wars, as well as many smaller histories, like the growth of museums in America and the influence of high bohemia on the worlds of fashion and design. --Regina Marler

From Publishers Weekly

Virtuoso literary journalist Watson's Strange Bedfellows: The First American Avant-Garde (1991) set the standard for books seeking to accessibly summarize complex literary and artistic movements, blending time lines, lexicons of period argot, unfamiliar photos and accounts from the newspapers of the day. Here, Watson applies the same formula to a definitive moment in Modernist history: the collaboration of Gertrude Stein and composer Virgil Thompson on the 1934 opera Four Saints in Three Acts, the first large-scale, homegrown avant-garde theatrical production to surface on the cultural radar (revived two years ago in Houston and New York by Robert Wilson). Coming a year after Brenda Wineapple's Sister Brother laid bare the finally explosive relationship between Gertrude and Leo Stein, Watson's book shows how the galaxy of talent that orbited around the Stein/Toklas household at 27 rue de Fleurus joined forces with a group of echt-Harvard tastemakers who saw a good thing and ran with it, mounting the incomparably lovely but plotless opera with an all-black cast, gracing it with innovative sets by the still under-appreciated Florine Stettheimer and promoting it with the sort of PR machine unknown in the art world at that time. Watson doesn't miss an angle on the story of how these forces came together and eventually took the show from its Hartford, Conn., premier to a smash Broadway run: Thompson's odyssey from small-town America to cosmopolitan composer; Stein's brilliant writing and imperious holding of court; the involvement of Philip Johnson and the fledgling Museum of Modern Art. Most refreshingly, Watson details the inseparability of African-American artists and culture from the opera, from the sexual stereotypes of the era and from modernism at large. (Feb.) FYI: Watson has also written, directed and coproduced the documentary Prepare for Saints: The Making of a Modern Opera, hosted by Jessye Norman, to be aired on PBS in February.
Copyright 1999 Reed Business Information, Inc.

Product Details

  • File Size: 1343 KB
  • Print Length: 512 pages
  • Publisher: Random House (September 5, 2012)
  • Sold by: Random House LLC
  • Language: English
  • ASIN: B008WONUNK
  • Text-to-Speech: Enabled
  • X-Ray:
  • Word Wise: Not Enabled
  • Lending: Not Enabled
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #360,237 Paid in Kindle Store (See Top 100 Paid in Kindle Store)
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Customer Reviews

3.7 out of 5 stars
(6)
3.7 out of 5 stars
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Most Helpful Customer Reviews
10 of 10 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Fascinating cultural history March 21, 2001
By A Customer
Format:Hardcover
I came to this book hoping to learn about the creation and production of Stein's opera, and I was not disappointed. I thought the book delivered that information, and more. Watson writes well, and he tells a fascinating story of the complicated network of interpersonal relationships that were finally led this unlikely opera into production. I think Watson understands the nature of Stein's as well as anybody, although the focus of the book was not on the way the opera was written. He manages to express the way that all the participants were inspired by Stein's words in different ways, the "miracle" of their all having "to create and all of them did."
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2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Highly Entertaining, Informative Read! December 19, 2011
By Ivare
Format:Paperback
Many history books about opera and opera composers waste page after precious page clumsily describing the author's personal opinions about great music.

Instead of forcing irrelevant musical analysis down the throats of his readers, Steven Watson paints an engaging portrait of Virgil Thomson's network of friends, lovers, colleagues, and patrons. Watson's approach highlights the deeply collaborative aspect of theater and music, and his choice to focus on artists as well as musicians and poets is refreshing. (Too often, the analysis of a play or an opera focuses too heavily on the written word or note while devaluing the artistic importance of stage design, costumes, and lights.) Also refreshing: the large variety of women who appear in various roles throughout the book, as well as Watson's complete lack of hysteria when alluding to the romantic lives of his gay and lesbian subjects.

A previous reviewer points out that Watson's book largely ignores black theater traditions and fails to follow up adequately on the lives of the black actors who created Four Saints in Three Acts. I agree: I wish that Watson's care in describing the social influences that shaped Lincoln Kirstein and Chick Austin had extended to Eva Jessye and Beatrice Robinson-Wayne. Perhaps there is room for another book on the subject.
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Format:Kindle Edition|Verified Purchase
Unique and fascinating.
Thank heaven someone had the foresight and desire to capture this moment.
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