When “Four Saints in Three Acts,” the Gertrude Stein-Virgil Thomson opera, opened at the Forty-fourth Street Theatre, it was expected to stay but two weeks. The management has now decided, because of the great interest expressed by the public, to keep the play indefinitely. The box-office reminds you of one in a movie house where a Mae West picture is playing. New Yorkers are actually fighting for the privilege of paying $3.30 a seat to see a show that they can’t understand.
After the opening night I was very much confused by what I had seen. I know that I had enjoyed the experience, yet I was not satisfied. Last night I visited the Forty-fourth Street Theatre again to see and hear St. Theresa (indoors), St. Theresa (outdoors), St. Ignatius and the other dark-skinned boys and girls go through their seemingly meaningless lines. I am still puzzled, but “Four Saints in Three Acts” is not something you can ignore. It makes a tremendous impression upon you. The fine music, tuneful and stirring; the superb acting by the all negro cast who by facial and bodily gestures manages to convey definite and emotional moods to the audience; the colorful stage settings and the full rich voices of the singers, all contribute to a thoroughly enjoyable evening.
“Four Saints” is undoubtedly the most discussed production of the year and Jews have been mainly responsible for its appearance. Gertrude Stein is a Jewish woman; her family in San Francisco are well known in the Jewish community. Harry Moses produced the piece; John Houseman was the director and to him must be given credit for the staging; Florine Stettheimer created the scenery and costumes and Alexander Smallens conducted the orchestra. Even the all Negro cast has its Jewish member in the person of Leonard Franklyn, who appropriately enough plays the part of St. Chavez. His Jewishness was discovered when he was found reading a Yiddish newspaper.
I was interested in knowing how the cast was assembled and John Houseman contributed the information that it was gathered entirely from Harlem. Most of the actors are making their first stage appearances. Many of them were found singing in choirs in Negro churches and the majority are trained students of music. The roles were exceedingly difficult to learn and the cast rehearsed for ten solid weeks.
People refuse to accept the theory that Gertrude Stein lyrics have no meaning in the ordinary sense of the words. She wrote the libretto to make good sound and not good sense. If an audience insists on a plot one can be found for them. Nathan Zatkin, who handles the publicity for the show, says the following:
“But for those who cannot rest easily in a theatre without a plot, it may at least be revealed, that there is one in “Four Saints in Three Acts.” It is only the vague tracery of a plot, however. It conveys impression, rather than concrete things, and beautifully leaves much to the imagination. There should be, however, an explanation of those two figures, the Compere and Commerce, who have excited so much wondering comment. Miss Stein has lifted these bodily from the ancient French revues. They are merely a master and mistress of ceremony, announcing stage directions, scenes and sometimes the first line of an aria. They are allowed but few scenes of their own, and visitors to the opera who remember their thrilling love scene, with its impressions of langorous jungle passion, in the second act, need not be told how little words mean in conveying emotion. The dialogue there, printed badly on white paper is “Scene eight. To wait.” “Scene one. And begun.” “Scene two And to.” Scene three. Happily be”… etc. But few works, whether operatic or dramatic, and no matter how overladen with words, can convey pure physical love better than Abner Dorsey and Altonell Hines do in this bit of musical dialogue.”
Controversy or not, “Four Saints” is something that you simply must see. Ignore the libretto, refuse to be puzzled by such lines as “the pigeons on the grass, alas.” Go simply to be amused or to find out how you react to one of the strangest performances of the age.