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
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.
"Its 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 wasnt there."
Though Watson does not agree with Gertrude Steins 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. "Theres 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.
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