Yale's Beinecke Library Shows Off Two Valuable Collections with Staged Show

Yale University will celebrate the unique partnership of writer Gertrude Stein and composer Virgil Thomson with a production of "Four Saints in Three Acts," on February 19-21.

Yale University will celebrate the unique partnership of writer Gertrude Stein and composer Virgil Thomson with a production of “Four Saints in Three Acts,” on February 19-21.

Sponsored by Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library and by Jonathan Edwards College, the opera will be performed by Yale undergraduates with cameo Yale faculty appearances.

The production team of musical director Richard Lalli, artistic director and designer Matthew Suttor, choreographer Bronwen Mac Arthur and assistant director Alex Yang are collaborating to bring a new vision of the work to the stage.

As famous for the friends who frequented her salon in Paris as she is for her literary output, Stein wrote the play in 1927. Thomson, a fellow American expatriate, studying composition in Paris at the time, wrote the music.

Yale is a logical place to stage the rarely performed play: The Beinecke houses the Stein Papers-which include paintings of her, two of her waistcoats, and a pair of fireplace chairs-and the Irving S. Gilmore Music Library at Yale has the Thomson Papers.

As described by Timothy Young, who is Assistant Curator of Modern Books and Manuscripts at Beinecke and the dramaturge for the play, “Four Saints in Three Acts” was written as a play then was turned into an opera. It is, he notes, neither about four saints-he reckons dozens of holies make their way on the stage in the course of the play-nor does it take place in three acts.

Stein, according to Young, could not herself say what the play was “about,” in terms of a story line. Rather, says Young, “Four Saints” is “simply a landscape populated by things and pieces of things.”

Stein’s synopsis of the action is: “Act I is scenes from the life of Saint Teresa of Avila. Act II is a garden party in the country near Barcelona. Act III is about Saint Ignatius of Loyola. Act IV is the memory of the other saints and the ending.”

Thomson, who was a student of famed composition teacher Nadia Boulanger in Paris, set Stein’s words to music that is modern yet quite reflective of American musical traditions. Foxtrots, folk dances and Protestant hymns are heard throughout the score.

The play premiered as the inaugural event of the Avery Memorial Theatre of the Wadsworth Atheneum in Hartford, Connecticut on February 8, 1934.

“Four Saints in Three Acts” will be performed four times at the theater in Holcomb T. Green Hall, 1156 Chapel Street. Performances are: February 19 at 8 p.m., February 20 at 5 p.m. and 8 p.m.; and February 21 at 8 p.m.

The event is free and open to the public, but seating is limited. Tickets can be obtained by sending an e-mail request to megan.stern@yale.edu.

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Dorie Baker: dorie.baker@yale.edu, 203-432-1345