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“Four Saints in Three Acts”

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Everything that happens once can never happen again. But everything that happens twice will surely happen a third time. —Paulo Coelho

“A few figs from thistles…”

by Howard A. Tabor

“Four Saints in Three Acts”

We’ve all seen the sign stating “On this date in [fill in the blank] nothing happened.” Somehow I can’t believe that’s a defensible claim. Things are happening all the time, and, like the tree falling in the forest that goes un-witnessed, it happened none-the-less. With luck, there were a number of witnesses to an event in Agincourt that occurred seventy-five years ago next Sunday: on Friday the 13th, 1939.

Still stalled in the Depression and only a dozen days after Hitler’s invasion of Poland (and ten days following Britain’s declaration of war), a group of local musicians staged a provocative local performance of Virgil Thomson’s opera “Four Saints in Three Acts”. Oh, to have been there. I wasn’t born until six years later, but I do seem to recall grandmother Tennant saying something about it.

With text by Gertrude Stein and music by her friend Virgil Thomson, the unconventional “Four Saints” had a Hartford premier in February 1934 and a Broadway opening two weeks later. Those who know Stein’s writing—”A rose is a rose is a rose” and “When I got to Oakland there was no there there”—shouldn’t have been surprised by Saint Ignatius’ aria “Pigeons on the grass alas” (and the choral reply “And a magpie in the sky”) or an all-Black cast singing amid cellophane sets. But that’s New York. What could the good citizens of Fennimore county have anticipated that Friday night?

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Rennie Gleason was in New York on business that week and hoped to see “Pimlico Rose” which opened the same night, but he went to the wrong theater and had no time to correct his mistake. His misfortune was our luck, I suspect. “Pimlico” ran only two weeks to lukewarm reviews, and though “Four Saints” had far fewer performances, it stunned audiences with Stein’s wordplay and Thomson’s elemental score. Gleason came back to his teaching position at Northwest Iowa Normal and set in motion events that brought “Saints” to our Auditorium in Agincourt five years later.

How Rennie Gleason persuaded Virgil Thomson to allow what can only be described as an amateur production of “Saints” is anyone’s guess. Perhaps the distance from those at the top of America’s cultural pecking order made it possible. But the resources for such an undertaking were beyond the means of the Normal School, the community theater group, local musicians and the handful of others that might be conscripted into the effort. It required an organization, and Gleason was forthcoming with AREPO, a production company assembled for this one show and whatever else might follow in its wake. (Oooh, bad choice of word there—wake—but let’s go ahead anyway.)

AREPO is, of course, “opera” spelled backwards. But the two words are also integral with what classical historians know as the Sator Square

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found at Pompeii and other archaeological sites in the ancient Mediterranean. It has “magical” qualities, since it can be read (in Latin) from upper left to bottom right, vice versa, and upside down with the same nonsensical meaning: “The farmer Arepo works the land with his plow” or some such desperate translation. Gleason obviously gravitated to the word “opera” and thereby created one of the community’s few pretensions to culture in the Great Depression.

After some additional labor in the History Center, I’ll be able to tell you more about the production itself and its potential for meaning in those grim days of 1939.


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