A Guide to Modern Playwrights, Plays, and Productions
Four Saints in Three Acts

American author Gertrude Stein wrote two operas with composer Virgil Thomson.  Both have been revived recently, “Four Saints in Three Acts” by the English National Opera in London, and “The Mother of Us All” at the New York City Opera.

  Stein and Thomson were friends in Paris in 1927 when they decided to write the “Four Saints” opera about two Spanish saints, Saint Teresa and Saint Ignatius.  In Lectures in America, Stein tells how she got the idea for the two saints.  As she was walking on the Boulevard Raspail in Paris, she often looked in the window of a photo shop where she noticed a series of photos commemorating a nun and showing her first as a young girl in ordinary dress, and “little by little in successive photographs, they change it to a nun....I saw how St. Teresa existed from the life of an ordinary young lady to that of a nun.” The multiple photos may explain why there are two Saint Teresas in the work.

 A store window on the Rue des Rennes, she says, inspired her choice of Saint Ignatius.  In the window she spotted a porcelain group depicting a young soldier giving alms, as well as his helmet and his armor, to beggars, and “it was somehow just what the young Saint Ignatius did and anyway it looked like him as I had known about him.”  The opera also includes three additional saints, a commere, a compere, and a chorus of attendant saints. Because Stein loved Spain and its landscapes, she “made the saints the landscape…These attendant saints were the landscape and it the play really is a landscape,” she said.

Virgil Thomson explains, or attempts to explain, Stein’s style of writing, which has been compared to the cubist painting coming into vogue in her day: the bringing together of many parts into a multi-faceted, composite structure.  Her writing also has an affinity to the “stream of consciousness,” new then and popularized by avant-garde writers.  Thomson compares her writing to music:  “She wrote poetry…very much as a composer works.  She chose a theme and developed it; or rather, she let the words of it develop themselves through free expansion of sound and sense.”

Stein loved rhymes, word-play, and jingles; her word choice is simple and perfectly matched by Thomson’s score that incorporates the rhythms of hymns and folk songs.  He chose “the simplest elements in our musical vernacular,” says Thomson, to evoke “the childlike gaiety and mystical strength of lives devoted in common to non-materialistic end.”   There is much humor in the text, and of course, there is symbolism.  Saint Ignatius describes the Holy Ghost as “pigeons on the grass alas and the magpie in the sky. . .”  “When this you see remember me” is a magnificent choral communion hymn.

The recent production by the English National Opera in London was staged and choreographed by Mark Morris, whose imaginative interpretation and talented dancers achieved Thomson’s goal of “childlike gaiety and mystical strength.”  The Spanish folk costumes by Elizabeth Kurtzman and the set design by Maira Kalman, varying a bright-colored Miro-like background, contributed to the evocation of gaiety and strength in the saints’ lives.  Morris has a unique ability to match movement to music and produce meaning that is not literal, but more important, artistic.  His flowing stage images were memorable, as the chorus of saints circled the principals, moved in a religious procession, or paired and combined in patterns suggesting Spanish dance.  Morris goes to the edge, but being the true artist he is, he never ventures beyond it.  A daring yet compelling image in the finale is his use of a swing, combining child-like joy and ascension to heaven. Dancers Michelle Yard as Saint Teresa and John Heginbotham as Saint Ignatius were impressive in their solos and duets, Morris’s choreography serving to clarify and expand the verse, expertly sung by member of the English National Opera.  As the dancers held the floor, the singers had to be confined to the boxes at either side of the stage.  This was a wonderful production, and it is hoped that it will be seen elsewhere.

“Four Saints in Three Acts” – there are two principal saints and four acts – was originally presented by The Friends and Enemies of Modern Music in 1934, opening in Hartford, Connecticut, and then moving to Broadway where, surprisingly, it was a big hit, running for sixty performances.  The entire cast of singers and dancers were black, casting originally suggested by Thomson: “I had chosen them purely for beauty of voice, clarity of enunciation and fine carriage. Their …gift to the production was their understanding of the work.”  Choreography was by Fredrick Ashton and costumes and sets by Florine Stetheimer were constructed of a newly discovered material – cellophane.   The work was revived on Broadway in the sixties and toured to Europe.