The 1934 Broadway debut of “Four Saints in Three Acts,” a then-shocking and much celebrated avant-garde opera with a libretto by Gertrude Stein and a score by Virgil Thomson, featured an all-Black cast of 46 singers and dancers and actors portraying a stage full of 16th century saints from Spain (both historical and invented), amid a set made of cellophane, as well as two stuffed lions.
David Greenspan has stripped the opera of everything except himself and Gertrude Stein’s script – no singers, dancers, set (except for a carpet), certainly no stuffed lions, and especially none of Thomson’s music.
In its promotion of the production, the Lucille Lortel Theater, which is presenting “Four Saints in Three Acts” at Target Margin Theater in Sunset Park through October 9, tells us that Greenspan is portraying “66 unique roles” over the 90 minutes of his solo show. What might be most impressive about this boast is that Greenspan has been able to figure out how many characters there are.
In Stein’s original script (which is what we’re told Greenspan uses), none of the lines are attributed to specific characters. And that is far from the only impediment to understanding the work. Its inscrutability is the most famous thing about it.
”Gertrude was wonderful to set to music because there was no temptation to illustrate the words,” Thomson once observed. ”For the most part you didn’t know what it meant anyway…”
In 1934, Stein parried with a radio interviewer who suggested that nobody understood her opera. “After all, when you say they don’t understand Four Saints, what do you mean? Of course they understand or they would not listen to it. You mean by understanding that you can talk about it in the way you have the habit of talking, putting it in other words. But I mean by understanding, enjoyment. If you enjoy it, you understand it,” Stein said.
That’s a good point. It’s difficult to come up with my own words that capture Gertrude Stein’s collection of words, which are neither about four saints nor in three acts, and are repetitive, fragmented; almost never straightforward.
But I did find some enjoyment in David Greenspan’s performance of “Four Saints in Three Acts.”
Some of the reasons for my enjoyment might sound backhanded. I was impressed by his feat of memory, as well as his – and my – endurance. I also have to admit to the cachet that I feel I acquire in traveling to inconvenient locations to see impossible works of theater. I cherish the time I went to Westchester to see a stage adaptation of Dostoevsky’s “Crime and Punishment” in Polish, a language I don’t know.
It would hardly seem an improvement on a notoriously difficult work to remove all the aspects of a production – the music, the costumes, the scenery, the choreography of a large cast – that don’t innately require “meaning” the way words do, and that also help guide us through the words.
What guides us now is Greenspan’s vocal inflections, which are minimal, and his gesturing, which is so varied and vigorous that it borders on the eccentric (hardly an out-of-place adjective for a work by Gertrude Stein.) Yet, he still somehow manages to illuminate Gertrude Stein’s text — not its meaning, but its poetry (its sounds, its emotion.) He winds up showcasing certain phrases (the most famous: “pigeons on the grass, alas.”) He highlights the mocking conventions (“June follows moon and moon follows soon.“) He revels in the childlike wordplay (“An egg and add some/ Some and sum./Add sum. Add some/Let it in around/With seas/With knees/With keys/With pleases.”)
He allows the rhythm of such sentences to pop. After a while – is it just exhaustion? — his mass of words sound like an incantation; sound holy.
I’ve read that Gertrude Stein modeled the opera’s two leading characters, St. Teresa and St. Ignatius (or at least the two names that are most often mentioned in the text) after herself and James Joyce, and that the invocation of the lives of early Spanish saints was intended as a sort of metaphor for the lives of artists. David Greenspan is a downtown theater artist who has forged his own path as playwright and performer for almost forty years. I won’t go as far as to compare him to a saint, but he is an embodiment of the artist religiously committed to his art.
Four Saints in Three Acts
At Target Margin Theater through October 9
Running time: 90 minutes with no intermission
Tickets: $20 to $40
Text: Gertrude Stein
Director: Ken Rus Schmoll
Dramaturg: Jay Stull
Scenic and lighting design by Yuki Nakase Link
Cast: David Greenspan