Pogo Down to the Opera: Modernist Chic Circa 1934

Prepare for Saints: Gertrude Stein, Virgil Thomson, and the Mainstreaming of American Modernism , by Steven Watson. Random House, 371 pages, $35.

“A Jew and a Protestant turn out a Catholic opera about Spain in the 16th century and in the course of writing that music I came into practically total recall of my Southern Baptist upbringing in Missouri.” Thus, with his usual mixture of irony and disingenuousness, did that homespun cosmopolite Virgil Thomson describe his collaboration with Gertrude Stein on the first of their two operas, Four Saints in Three Acts . How and why such an indelibly weird work became the unlikeliest hit in the history of Broadway (it opened almost exactly 65 years ago) is the subject of this copiously illustrated book devoted to an event that seemed to bring together, with remarkable harmony, all the non-melting ingredients in the American culture pot.

It’s a story that has been aired many times before, most recently in Nicholas Fox Weber’s Patron Saints and Anthony Tommasini’s biography Virgil Thomson: Composer on the Aisle . Steven Watson, a cultural historian who has previously chronicled the Harlem Renaissance and the Beat Generation, breaks no new ground in a volume designed for the coffee table and timed to accompany the author’s forthcoming television documentary, hosted by Jessye Norman, on the same subject. But the book is a useful and briskly entertaining document nonetheless, showing step by step how a Who’s Who of groundbreaking American musicians, writers, artists, designers and patrons coalesced in a shining moment, the likes of which has never been repeated.

Mr. Watson astutely notes, ” Four Saints was American by intention and American in its sound and rhythm. But it could never have been written in America.” The opera was born–like so many American classics, from the romantic disillusionment of The Sun Also Rises to the acerbic insouciance of Cole Porter–out of the geographical perspective and esthetic ferment of expatriate life in Paris in the 1920’s. Its catalyst was the eager-to-please friendship that Thomson, not long out of Kansas City, Mo., and Harvard University, pursued with the doyenne of 27, Rue de Fleurus and high-priestess of modernism, Gertrude Stein.

That Thomson quickly became Tweedledee to Stein’s Tweedledum owed as much to their shared, romantically cheeky attachment to the naïve poetry of American vernacular speech and music, as it did, in Mr. Watson’s words, to their “common disappointment at being inadequately appreciated and a determined ambition to alter their state.” In this regard, Mr. Watson quotes tellingly a letter from Stein to Thomson: “Neither you nor I have ever had any passion to be rare, we want to be as popular as Gilbert and Sullivan if we can, and perhaps we can.” After successfully setting one of Stein’s more hermetic texts to music, Thomson proposed that they write an opera together. They discarded such ideas as a contemporary La Bohème about the life of working artists like themselves and a piece built around George Washington before settling on an opera about Spain, centered on the Spanish Saint Theresa–”Thérèse” being one of Stein’s nicknames for her formidable companion, her Madame Defarge, Alice B. Toklas.

Apart from quoting the composer’s own observation that he employed “plain-as-Dick’s-hat-band harmony” and achieved the sturdy simplicities of his score “through the most elaborate means,” Mr. Watson is not terribly helpful on the rather Gilbert & Sullivanish (Missouri-style) music that Thomson grafted to Stein’s brilliantly imagistic, apparently nonsensical libretto. (The oft-quoted passage, “Pigeons on the grass alas,” perfectly sums up the arch narcissism of its author; it refers to nothing in 16th-century Spain but rather to a flock of pigeons in the Luxembourg Gardens, glimpsed by Stein during a summer stroll.) For a more extended analysis of this oddly familiar but unfamiliar music–which is more Huckish than Puckish–you must turn to Mr. Tommasini’s splendid Thomson biography, which does it proud.

Mr. Watson is less interested in unraveling the quilted intricacies of what made Four Saints what it became as an opera (of sorts) than he is in charting the catalytic phenomenon it turned into once Thomson returned to New York in 1928 and began his campaign for an American production. What he encountered was a cultural backwater, about on a par, he later observed, with Spain’s second city: “New York and Barcelona are … jumping-off places for Europe, receiving points for foreign merchandise, centers of violence and talk.” But at least the last commodity was in great supply, and much of the smartest talk in New York was beginning to be of a nature that would prove favorable to the fortunes of Four Saints .

To unreconstructed modernists, the names of Carl Van Vechten, Alfred Barr Jr., Henry-Russell Hitchcock, Julian Levy, Lincoln Kirstein, George Balanchine, Kirk and Constance Askew, Chick Austin, Mabel Dodge Luhan, Muriel Draper, the Stettheimer sisters and others resonate the way those of Babe Ruth, Lou Gehrig, Tony Lazzeri, Bob Meusel, Waite Hoyt and the rest of the 1927 Yankees do for baseball nuts. Mr. Watson offers a series of thumbnail sketches of all the movers-and-shakers behind the Museum of Modern Art, the New York City Ballet, galleries specializing in contemporary art, and their patrons–a Murderers Row of modernists. He also drops in various lists and glossaries of modernist icons, trends and products, as one might list baseball immortals according to their E.R.A.’s. My favorite is a quiz that was given by Alfred Barr, MoMA’s first director, to students at Wellesley College, where he taught America’s first course in modern art. If you can’t identify U.F.A., Harriet Monroe, John Alden Carpenter, Suprematism and the members of “Les Six,” count yourself a cultural illiterate, circa 1927.

Although such latter-day modernists as Wallace Shawn and André Gregory have exploited to great effect the New York culterati’s fondest dream (to be first to see a daring new work on an invitation-only basis, preferably in somebody’s living room), nobody exceeded Thomson’s skill at getting hearings for his opera in the purlieus of the restless rich. The first American performance of Four Saints was in the apartment of Carl Van Vechten, the guru of Negro Chic, who introduced Thomson to the post-midnight action up in Harlem–which led Thomson to insist that Four Saints , despite its putative Spanish setting, be performed by an all-black cast of singers and dancers. (“We’re like dead oysters,” he said. “Their color is live.”) That first preview, chez Van Vechten, featured a cast and orchestra of one–the composer himself, who, while accompanying himself at a piano, sang every part in his flutey voice with such precise diction that the influential art critic Henry McBride wrote to Stein (who stayed resolutely in Paris): “We roared with enjoyment, but Carl Van Vechten, who sat opposite me, pulled a serious face and shook it at me reprovingly, as though to say, we were not taking it in the right way.”

By the time Four Saints had its first fully staged performance on Feb. 8, 1934, in Chick Austin’s Wadsworth Atheneum Museum in Hartford, Conn., everybody who was anybody was taking it in the right way. As Mr. Watson writes, ” Four Saints was America’s first avant-garde event that required not only critics to evaluate the work but a society writer to review the crowd.” Lucius Beebe wrote, “By Rolls-Royce, by airplane, by Pullman compartment, and for all we know, by specially designed Cartier pogo sticks, the smart art enthusiasts converged on Hartford.” Their reaction was more appropriate to a revival meeting. Mr. Watson reports that Alexander Calder admitted he would have joined in the general weeping over the show’s outré beauties, but that it might have diluted his punch. Two weeks later, when Four Saints opened at the Forty-Fourth Street Theater, success was guaranteed by the show’s press agent, Nathan Zatkin, a man ahead of his time, who sent free tickets to every art critic, music critic, theater critic, fashion writer, book critic and sportswriter in town. Most of the reviews were dutifully positive, though perhaps the most trenchant opening-night comment came from the fireman on duty, who looked around at the ecstatic audience and said, “Jeez, has everybody gone crazy or are they just stewed?”

The Broadway success of Four Saints –it ran for an astonishing six weeks–was a boon for its participants, giving impetus to the careers of director John Houseman, choreographer Frederick Ashton and music director Alexander Smallens, who went on to conduct the premiere of Porgy and Bess a year later. It prompted its chief collaborators, Thomson and Stein, to write a second–and superior–opera, The Mother of Us All . And, as the first “colorblind” Broadway show, it pointed the way for the eventual integration of black performers into the Metropolitan and New York City operas, as well as the New York Shakespeare Festival productions of Joe Papp. But, curiously, the opera has had very little subsequent life of its own. Three years ago, at the first Lincoln Center summer festival, Robert Wilson mounted a new production at the State Theater. Once again, the buzz was phenomenal; once again, the art swells turned out. Lovingly produced though the opera was, it seemed, to this critic, a dead, distant relic of a vanished, unrecoverable time. Thomson’s music, though whimsically appealing, seized very little of the imagination or the heart; Stein’s libretto seemed not so much charmingly elusive as maddeningly irrelevant.

Reading Steven Watson’s breathless description of that night in February 1934, I could only think: You had to be there.

Pogo Down to the Opera: Modernist Chic Circa 1934