Saints on the Dollar

What would happen if you asked Gertrude Stein about the difference between culture and capital? Well, of course, dollar bills would fall from the heavens like flurries, all below would fan snow ...

What would happen if you asked Gertrude Stein about the difference between culture and capital? Well, of course, dollar bills would fall from the heavens like flurries, all below would fan snow angels in the leaves of green, and eventually T. I.’s rap song “Bring Em Out” would blast in the background as if from nowhere.

This is the scenario recently staged by the artist collective Theater Plastique in their twice-awarded opera Gertrude Stein SAINTS! Plastique’s director Michelle Sutherland wrote the libretto by cutting and reassembling passages from Stein’s libretto Four Saints in Three Acts: An Opera To Be Sung, her play Saints and Singing, and her lecture “The Gradual Making of The Making of Americans.” To Sutherland’s words, an ensemble of 13 Carnegie Mellon students and recent graduates composed original scores that tracked a 20th-century development of “American” music. In mostly a capella they sang folk, bluegrass, hollerin’, jazz, doo-wop, and soul, closing climactically with rap—and lots and lots of money.

Sutherland turns into a coming-of-age story an opera and a play (appended with a lecture) that, by most estimates, flout narrative progression. Through a sequence of tableaus numbered 1 to 21, America’s legal age of adulthood, a group of kids work to croon their way to economic splendor. Of course, this is the story embedded in Stein’s original Saints and Singing, which in part mocks the artist who views her work purely as a yellow-brick road.  Featuring lines like “Are you famous for these embellishments” and “Mistinguett does not go away,” (lines Sutherland reuses) Saints and Singing critiques the Hollywood starlets famously parodied in Avery Hopwood’s play The Demi-Virgin (Stein called the play “a Protest against Demi-Virgins”)1.

While the worldly concerns of capital are clearly addressed in Saints and Singing, they are harder to see in the libretto for Four Saints, which is far more about landscape over plot, production over product, and difference over identity. But by focusing on issues of class Sutherland reminds us less of the original 1929 libretto than of the way it was staged. When the opera premiered in 1934, composed by Virgil Thomson, its scenarist Maurice Grosser added a scene in which Saint Ignatius sees through a telescope a “Heavenly Mansion.” Projected onto the backdrop, this was a building that would have almost replicated the United States Capitol if not for the fact the technical director cut off its dome, decapitated it. In the context of the Great Depression,  what a strike against Washington’s economic policy.  Comically, Saint Teresa lilted the lines, “how many nails are there in it … how many windows … how many doors,” poking fun at the quantitative measurement of value. To watch Gertrude Stein SAINTS! is to recall the history of its production, and so to confront the lessons of modernist theater for late capitalist times.

As much as she has historicized, Sutherland has looked to the future with SAINTS!  a title that reads like an urgent summons, since saints never appear ironically. Gazing into the golden sky, the characters sing to those paragons of care, offering them art in return for historical kitsch: at various moments a pink Cadillac (its license plate laughably reading “Mary Kay”), giant bottles of coke, vintage television sets, and, finally, an enormous pair of sunglasses, as if to warn the mortals that gold can blind, descended magically in the backdrop. Even the audience was given merchandise: at one point the characters threw us T-shirts branded in red with the play’s title, presumably as a reward for buying the ticket and showing up. I thought of the tea gown Bergdorf Goodman named “Saint” and advertised in his 1934 store windows to capitalize on the play’s popularity. Who knew that by rushing to the theatre of Lillian Wald’s Henry Street Settlement, a landmark for a national anti-poverty campaign, we were scuttling into an Oprah set?

Given that the characters receive their prizes only when they begin a melody in a new musical genre, Sutherland suggests that commodities do not only speak, they sing. Culture, in other words, cannot be disentangled from the circuitry of capital. Despite the best wishes of some major modernist authors, neither artists nor readers can withdraw in their boudoirs to contemplate the production of art uninterrupted by lowly strangers. To make art is to meet the comparatively strange and estranging market; the very attempt to hide away becomes the moment of confrontation.

Right before the flurry of greenbacks, a group of young women twerk as they rap the lines: “I am exercising I am exercised, I am exercised in mastering pieces, I am exercised in masterpieces. Capital. He capitally said, there is the basket of wood and of bread. Capital he said. Capitally he said.” The difference sounded between “capital” and “capitally” is one between reproducing and reappropriating cultural capital, between accepting and redirecting forms of culture already in service of capitalist accumulation. As the money starts to fall, everyone in chorus raps staccato, “Saint Chavez. Abundance,” and as it stops, “Saint Cecile. Obligation.” After jumping around excitedly, each picks up the cash and inspects it, dramatizing the final lines of the scene, “Saint Sarah. Their Wonder. And their wonder. Wonder wonder wonder wonder.” They are simply following the dictates of lyrics they didn’t write, letting the same piece of art that brought them to abundance and its obligations lead them to wondering, to thinking critically.

What follows as they lie supine is a simple recitation of the “Pigeons on the grass” passage. “If they were not pigeons,” one says, “what were they.” The modernist absorption in the process of creation is at once the way into capitalism and out. How better to distill this ambiguity than playing at the very end “Bring Em Out! Bring Em Out!” a brashly materialist and sexist song, while the now enlightened characters dash from the theatre into the lobby. They are at once escaping the reproduction of capitalist society and inevitably affirming it. Perhaps it is because Sutherland is looking to the future that with such exuberance she describes the play as “part concert, part séance, and all party,” and why, in a postscript on the back of the libretto, her team has summarized its meaning with Stein’s dictum, “If you enjoy it, you understand it.” When the world is collapsing, the possibility of true joy awaits its reconstruction.

I pull from my shelf a 1947 recording of a Four Saints radio broadcast, also composed by Virgil Thomson. I listen to all those arias in tonic and dominant chords and read Thompson’s message on the back of the dusty record case. He is hopeful:

If, by means of the poet’s liberties with logic and the composer’s constant use of the simplest elements in our musical vernacular, something is here evoked of the childlike gaiety and mystical strength of lives devoted in common to a non-materialistic end, the authors will have considered their message to have been communicated.

If Thomson and Stein had seen SAINTS! this past June, they would not have recognized some of the music but certainly they’d say, “Here’s to hope,” from what was done with it. icon

  1. Gertrude Stein, A Stein Reader (Northwestern University Press, 1993), p. 381.
Featured image: The cast of Gertrude Stein Saints!. Photo by Jordan Harrison.