17 January 2020
Harris, David. “The Original ‘Four Saints in Three Acts.’” The Drama Review: TDR, vol. 26, no. 1, 1982, pp. 101–130.
This article is an exploration of the work of the creative team of the original production of Four Saints in Three Acts, an opera composed by Virgil Thompson with a libretto by Gertrude Stein. It was first presented at the Wadsworth Atheneum in Hartford, CT in 1934 and went on to a successful Broadway run. The article pays considerable attention to Florine Stettheimer, the show’s set and costume designer, and Frederick Ashton, the show’s choreographer. Harris draws from the creators’ personal correspondence and biographies to illuminate their personalities, methods and working relationships. Using published reviews, film footage and other historical sources, he also provides a scene-by-scene (or act-by-act) description of the physical production. This includes many specific references to set, costume and lighting elements, such as the the show’s famous cellophane cyclorama. Additionally, the article includes photographs of the original production. Overall, the article provides a general account of the creation of this important American opera production, largely from a design standpoint.
How does it relate to scenography?
This article is important for showcasing the work of Florine Stettheimer, a successful and important female set designer who is known mostly for her work in fine art. While Four Saints was Stettheimer’s first set designer project, as the article reveals she seems to have taken to it naturally. Her confidence and singular vision are inspiring. Also, she insisted on using non-traditional and unusual materials in the set for Four Saints, and this article is a good demonstration of the problems and successes related to that decision.
In particular, Harris pays attention to the coordination of all the design elements within the production, such as the cyclorama material and the article serves as a demonstration of theatrical collaboration which is neither idealized or necessarily happy but is highly successful. This is an important but little discussed aspect of the collaborative process.
Also, this article provides an examination of an artistically risky but successful non-naturalistic theatrical production and would be inspiring to students.