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Prepare for Saints: Gertrude Stein, Virgil Thomson, and the Mainstreaming of American Modernism Paperback – July 16, 1995
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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.
Top customer reviews
Thank heaven someone had the foresight and desire to capture this moment.
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.
But the result is that one does not get enough of anything, and too much of what you didn't buy the book for. Chick Austin, Muriel Draper, and the others may have provided physical settings relevant to the gestation of FOUR SAINTS, but they did not CREATE the piece. As such, the lingering over their particular biographies is excessive in a book purportedly devoted to the birth of the opera. Too often we get lists of celebrities present at this gathering or another, complete with fawning descriptions of what they were wearing and how they decorated their rooms -- but this stems from a fan's love of a period, not a chronicling of FOUR SAINTS itself.
Thus while we read through elegant page after page gushing about Mrs. Harrison Williams and Lucius Beebe, by the end we have little idea of what went on on stage in the opera, what more than a few of the lyrics were, or how the music sounded. If it is vital for us to know how Julien Levy founded his art gallery blow by blow, why so little info on black theatre in New York before and after FOUR SAINTS? Why spend a paragraph following up on, say, Alfred Barr after SAINTS but only brief mention of what happened to any of the SAINTS cast members? This is a book about art museums mispackaged as one about the theatre.
This book is a bit of a cynical hoax. You can just feel the editor "shaping" a book about largely forgotten arts administrators and critics, the parties they went to, who they slept with, and how openly, via hanging it all on an opera which fascinates in legend because of combining a black cast with Gertrude Stein's lyrics. In the end, this book is a collection of well-written personality sketches of pictorial artists and their patrons. The author clearly has but subsidiary interest in music or theatre -- fatal in a book purporting to be about an opera.