Reading Group Home Page


Online Forum

Contact the Reading Group

Contact Aaron Hamburger

Prepare for Saints: Gertrude Stein, Virgil Thomson, and the Mainstreaming of American Modernism by Steven Watson

A Review by Aaron Hamburger

Most authors dream that someone will make a film version of their book. Steven Watson did it himself.

While doing the research for his recently-released Prepare for Saints: Gertrude Stein, Virgil Thomson, and the Mainstreaming of American Modernism (Random House), Watson realized he had the material for a documentary. Prepare for Saints tells the story of the unique collaboration of Gertrude Stein, Virgil Thomson, Frederick Ashton, and John Houseman which resulted in Four Saints in Three Acts, the longest-running (and perhaps the most unusual) opera in Broadway history.

In 1988, Watson began filming the interviews he was conducting with the principals involved in the opera who were still alive then (they have all died since). When the Houston Grand Opera, which put on their own production of Four Saints in 1996, granted him one thousand dollars to edit the interviews, Watson made a nineteen-minute rough cut. He then showed that version to Connecticut Public Television. They gave him enough money to complete the film, which will air on March 31 at 10:30 p.m.

"It’s almost impossible to make a living as an independent scholar," says Watson, who earned his Ph.D. in psychology and worked as a staff psychologist in a mental health clinic outside of New York City for nineteen years while writing several books about collaborative art circles of the twentieth century like the Beats and the Harlem Renaissance. He notes that although he has lectured widely and curated several art exhibitions, he remains unaffiliated with any academic institution.

"I wanted to bring back the history of modernism to the non-specialist," Watson says. "I worry about it getting academicized." To that end, Watson constructed the narrative of Prepare for Saints like a novel, swiftly and sure-footedly laying out the history of the opera, and introducing readers to the colorful personalities who comprised the bohemian set of Paris and New York in the thirties. "Objective number one is that people will pick up this book and actually finish it. Not a lot of books attain that."

Watson devotes much of his book to examining the sexual lives of his characters, several of whom, like Thomson and Stein, were involved in long-term same-sex relationships. He says he is struck by, "the fluidity between being gay, being married, having children. None of these things were mutually exclusive." While Watson is pleased the book has been so widely-reviewed, he also notes that in almost all of the reviews, "they have essentially wiped out the gay stuff as if it wasn’t there."

Though Watson does not agree with Gertrude Stein’s pronouncement that all great art was produced by homosexuals, he does not think it a coincidence that most of the interesting works of twentieth-century art has been done by outsides like Jews, Blacks, and gays and lesbians. "There’s a perspective one has as an outsider that forces you to think differently, that prevents you from plugging along in life like everyone else."

Currently Watson is working on a book about the Warhol Factory. At the same time he is shooting interviews with the oldest residents of Harlem who were part of the Harlem Renaissance in connection with his earlier book The Harlem Renaissance: Hub of African American Culture 1920-1930 (Pantheon, 1995). Although he has yet to raise money for the latter project, Watson, who is excited about the possibilities of new technology like digital video, says he finds it interesting to "tell the same story in a different way."

Prepare for Saints: The Making of a Modern Opera, hosted by Jessye Norman, was broadcast earlier this year on Public Television .

copyright © Aaron Hamburger. All rights reserved.

Back to Top