At last someone is willing to admit that Sanders Theatre has theatrical possibilities. The man who dares make this dubious assertion is the director of a forthcoming opera, The Mother of Us All. And he has unqualified backing from the work's composer: "If I had to design the set," Virgil Thomson '22 once said, "Sanders is how it would be."
The opera has a history of three performances, and composer Virgil T. as he is called in the libretto, laments that there has yet to be a definitive production. "Every other time it was performed in a setting that wasn't right," he says. Virgil T. will come up from New York on March 9 to enjoy the "scenery" and look for his "definitive production."
Considerable legend surrounds the origin of the title. According to sentimental reports, Gertrude Stein, who is the author of the opera's text, was lazing disconsolately on her bed at Radcliffe on a chill spring night of 1895. Trying to cheer her up, a room-mate suggested they attend a feminist rally at Sanders, led by suffragette Susan B. Anthony. Gertrude S. was dubious. "Oh, let's go," the friend urged. "Afred all, she's the mother of us all."
How much effect this reminiscence had when Gertrude S. got together with Virgil T. in 1946 to write their third major opera is unknown. The influence of the indefatigable Miss Anthony, whose 86-year life span is the opera's subject, seems certain. Librettist Gertrude S. hints at the link in Scene Four of The Mother of Us All: "If people are rich," says Susan B., "they do not listen to anybody; if they are poor, they listen; but all they perceive is the fact that they are listening. As for me, there is no wealth nor poverty, as long as my pen has ink to write."
Susan B. Anthony, who lived from 1820 to 1906, pushed political and social reform; Gertrude S.'s reform was artistic. Though Gertrude led the deflation of 19th century romanticism, and Susan B. lived it, they fought essentially similar enemies. To Gertrude, the commonplace was not necessarily banal; it had, rather, a universality which made it significant. Gertrude S.'s favorite course at Radcliffe, in those calm pre-General Education days, was in cloud formations. ("San Francisco and the Rhone Valley have the nicest clouds of any!")
If love for the commonplace and the heroism of Miss Anthony partly inspired the 1946 creation of The Mother of Us All, there were other historically contributing factors. Gertrude S. and Virgil T. had long been thinking independently about the artistic expression of America's 19th century. They met early in the 1920's, quite naturally in Paris, where Gertrude's flock then and later included Hemingway, Sherwood Anderson, and Thornton Wilder.
The result of their friendship was the first collaboration--Capital, Capitals. When it opened in 1929, Virgil T. wrote from New York: "Some thought it a good joke, some a bad joke and one or so got quite angry ... The audience's way of taking it proved to me the possibility of having a regular boob success with opera, at least it might run long enough to pay its expenses...."
In 1934, the second startling fruit of the liaison, Four Saints in Three Acts was presented in Hartford by "The Friends and Enemies of Modern Music." Four Saints met with phenomenal success--in its cellophane settings, biting themes, and all-Negro cast. When informed that some residents of Hartford looked askance at the colored performers, Virgil T. quipped, "Tell the cast to go on whiteface." He chose the Negroes, he said, for their beauty of voice, clarity of enunciation, and fine carriage. Gertrude remained in Paris, despite this word from Virgil:
"Rumors of your arrival are floating about and everybody asks me is she really coming and I always answer that it wouldn't surprise me. Certainly, if everything goes off as fancy as it looks now, you would be very happy to be here and to see your opera on the stage and I would be very happy to see it with you and your presence would be all we need to make the opera perfect in every way."
The Mother of Us All was conceived in 1946 when Virgil T. received a commission from the Alice M. Ditson Fund, New York, to write a new opera. Gertrude immediately set to work on the libretto, though the first pains of her fatal cancer slowed progress. Virgil's only stipulation, in suggesting 19th century Americana as the subject, was that it have "nothing to do with Abraham Lincoln."
The opera which Gertrude S. and Virgil T. produced was considerably more coherent than Four Saints in theme and form. The music is a distillation of rural American harmony--Mid-West gospel hymns, old English ballads brought by settlers, and corn-husking and square dance themes. This rural middle class tone, as opposed to the urban, low-class music of jazz and other contemporary American opera, makes the work distinctive. In its new lyric quality is a dissonance and irony which Four Saints, in all its tour de force, does not capture.
The Mother of Us All is likened by its creators to a pageant of the passing 19th century. Across the stage in its course pass Daniel Webster, Andrew Johnson, Thaddeus Stevens, Anthony Comstock, Lillian Russell and Ulysses S. Grant. "The costumes," the authors specify, "should sharply exemplify regions, decades, and social circumstances. The variety of these against a more generalized historical background should offer a spectacle no more anachronistic than that suggested to the mind by the perusal of a volume of old photographs."
While Gertrude was still sketching the text, Virgil grew obviously impatient: "I have a can opener for Alice and a book for you. Write for what else I can bring you. And do send me The Mother of Us All if it is done. Or a couple of acts. I like to look at things a while before I start writing music to them. Affection. Virgil T."
Alice B. Toklas, 20th century Boswell, confidante, and incidentally, author of a remarkable cookbook, eventually got her can opener. When she heard of the prospective production of The Mother of Us All, she wrote Roger Graef, Eliot House junior who is staging the opera: "The opera is based on the indignation G. S. felt at the shabby way the Massachusetts abolitionists treated her. Gertrude S. considered the play clear to a literal reading of it."
Virgil T. will be up from New York to see.