Saints and Sinners: Revisiting Four Saints in Three Acts

Image: George Platt Lynes, Dancers, 1934

4 Saints in 3 Acts: A Snapshot of the American Avant-Garde, presented at The Photographers’ Gallery, is the first exhibition worldwide to focus on the photographic dimensions of the American modernist opera, Four saints in Three Acts. Through a series of rare photographs from luminaries such as Lee Miller, Carl Van Vechten, George Platt Lynes and Thérèse Bonney, it offers unique visual documentation of a landmark operatic production – one that enjoyed unprecedented Broadway success in its time. Yet the images also reveal a darker sensibility, exposing a problematic relationship between the predominantly white, privileged “creatives” and the African-American cast.

Four Saints in Three Acts, the progeny of composer Virgil Thompson and modernist doyenne, Gertrude Stein, was the first opera to open on Broadway and the first mainstream production to feature an “all African-American” cast.  As such it was hailed as ground-breaking; an exemplar of the avant-garde and proof of a golden era for black performers (arriving as it did at the tail end of the the Jazz Age and the Harlem Renaissance). However, under a contemporary radar, and with the benefit of hindsight, the production’s much heralded inclusivity demands further scrutiny.

Juxtaposed against King Vidor’s Hallelujah (1929), which set a precedent (both negative and positive) for black on-screen representation, or Gershwin’s Porgy and Bess (1935), which continues to be regarded as a pioneering platform for autonomous black performances,  Four Saints doesn’t quite hold up – and interestingly hasn’t really endured, even within the operatic canon. Despite the musical contribution from choral director, Eva Jessye and the calibre of the cast themselves (many went on to appear in Porgy and Bess) the narrative and thematics of Four Saints display a lack of genuine cultural focus, understanding and – most importantly – integrity at its heart. Especially now – when the spectre of racial politics in the US is alarmingly re-energised and looms large over contemporary issues of representation – the opera feels alarmingly tokenistic and fetishistic.

This is not something, however, that the curators of the exhibition, Patricia Allmer and John Sears have shirked from drawing attention to. Through a carefully choreographed display and series of texts, they do shine a light on the less palatable credentials of the production and its racial implications both then and now. 

The exhibition is laid out sequentially. You enter the gallery into a “foyer” styled space where reproductions of the Broadway theatre billboard provide a “way in” to a range of externalised viewpoints of the production, including letters, original programmes, tickets and official photographs of the lavish stage sets. The middle section of the gallery presents a series of photographic portraits of the cast – taken variously by the aforementioned photographers, alongside homoerotic groupings of the singers and dancers presided over by choreographer, Frederic Ashton. The arrangement of these images is intended to give the performers (rather than the illustrious composer and librettist) top billing; to show their central role in the opera as well as to provoke questions around ownership and identity. Finally, you move into a “listening” room where the full opera soundtrack plays out to a slideshow of production stills.

The representation of black culture has, more often than not, been skewed through the filter of a white lens. Lynes’ portraits in particular have courted their own controversy, foreshadowing the ongoing debates that have accompanied the likes of Robert Mapplethorpe or Jean-Paul Goude regarding the over-eroticisation of the black body in more recent years. While it is also true to say that the work of the participating photographers actively traversed many of the cultural norms and taboos of their day, especially around race, gender and sexuality, it also seems fairly impossible to try and consider the photographs independently of their wider historical context. 

And in this sense, although some concerns surrounding the requisition of the black voice and body within the opera can be partially attributed to the myopia of a bygone age, they are also emblematic of a more pervasive and disturbing aspect of appropriation. In balder terms a systematic and endemic cultural pilfering. From Paul Whiteman, the self proclaimed “King of Jazz” through to the “King” [Elvis] himself, the disavowal of a formative black cultural heritage, particularly in the US, in shaping a plethora of modern Western cultural forms, particularly music, has not only been persistent but also pernicious and often quite ridiculous. In this light it is difficult not to regard Four Saints as merely utilising a black cultural idiom, not in celebration but as a backdrop – as if painting on someone else’s canvas. Virgil Thompson’s desire and insistence on using black performers in this work (evidenced through his letters to Gertrude Stein) never really manifest itself as anything beyond an aesthetic consideration, lacking any true political or cultural conviction. Conversely, Stein’s reluctance to feature a black cast at all conveys a more overt racist stance which required considerable persuasion from Thompson to get past.

As the seminal figure for America’s “Lost Generation” Stein’s greatest contribution to contemporary culture stemmed from the life she built around herself in Paris from 1903 where she live until her death in 1946. As a writer, poet and champion of modern art, her salon established a haven for the modernist ideal to establish itself and thrive. Almost certainly Stein’s stature acted as the catalyst for some of the biggest names in photography to be lured into documenting and promoting a production that could have so easily slipped from the annals of history. The official launch of Four Saints in Three Acts, in Connecticut, was staged to accompany Picasso’s first solo exhibition in the United States, a fact that further helped to facilitate the opera’s reputation and subsequent transference to Broadway. Yet Stein’s continued success in Paris, throughout the war years, also casts one of the darkest shadows over her career. Unlike some of her art world contemporaries such as Peggy Guggenheim, Nancy Cunard and Josephine Baker (not to mention Miller and Bonney’s war work) all of whom took an active stance against the rise of fascism in Europe, Stein’s attitude towards the Vichy government can be seen as at best ambivalent and at worst collaborative, spending the entire war period in France along with her art collection, without persecution or harassment.

While the flow of history is never static and the interplay between fact and speculation require only the slightest shift for a parallax effect to skew our notions of right and wrong, rather like any revision of the Cotton Club through contemporary eyes and its construction of an idealised “blackness” for wholly white audiences, it is hard to look at a piece such as Four Saints in Three Acts today without feeling the legacy of racial bias hanging over it. And perhaps that is the true value of this presentation. It takes the apparent harmony out of the opera and shows the evidence of how manipulated the figures involved were as well as making transparent the white-gloved hands of the puppeteers.   

Joel Karamath

Joel Karamath is Course Leader for BA (Hons) Interaction Design Arts at London College of Communication, UAL

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