A few thoughts on The Making of Americans by director Jay Scheib and composer Anthony Gatto, a Walker commissioned evening-length opera based on Gertrude Stein’s largest and most intimidating novel; a novel I have never read and never will read, for I have several impossible to read novels on my list already and, frankly, I’ve given up reading novels for watching Lil Wayne videos on Youtube
(Not really. I’m reading Child of God by Cormac McCarthy right now. Remind me never to time-travel to pre-1975 Tennessee. Or, if I have to, remind me to bring Lil Wayne with me. That’d be awesome.):
Even though I’ve not read Americans, I know enough things about things to know that Stein is perhaps America’s greatest literary obsessive modernist, so certain she was that truth or beauty or something of value can be extracted from the act of writing. In and of itself. It’s true. She thought that. Stein somehow convinced herself that she could conjure up universals through repetition, that the singular act of doing (writing) the same thing over and over again (with slight variation to move things forward) could establish impossible monuments that floated before us, simultaneously permanent and ephemeral. More than that old gravy boat of a phrase “bits and pieces gathered to present the semblance of a Whole,” Stein wanted the whole Whole, in fact, not simply appearance. She didn’t get it.
Hence, Modernism’s big, fat failure.
Because Stein was so typically (grandly) Modernist, I was intrigued to see how Anthony Gatto approached his score. Considering Stein’s reputation as perhaps literature’s greatest repeater, would he succumb to the temptation to treat her Modernist obsession with a Reich-style commitment to canons? Would The Making of American’s assertion that “repeating is the whole of living” force Gatto’s hand into some sort of minimalist night-drive where Stein’s theme was fed to us through repeated figures like spoonful after spoonful of cherry cough syrup? Thankfully, Gatto (mostly) resisted this choice. The composer seems to have understood that Stein’s work was teleogical, goal-centered and that to treat it with the fascination for process that marks the work of the great minimalists would be to miss the point. While not composed in a grand Wagnerian arc, Mr. Gatto’s music was at its best moments (Bradley Greenwald’s first act, for example, which approached the strange psychic landscape of Britten’s Canticles) probing and inquisitive.
Of course, much of the reputation of The Making of Americans was also established through the novel’s excess and the resulting unrelenting tedium. Here, too, Gatto represents well, especially during Mr. Echelard’s Second Act. Ms. Stein would approve, I think.
Speaking of the novel’s author, I wonder where she went. It was admirable that the production’s authors would attempt to rescue the story and its characters from legend of Stein and her impossible novel. But, while I may not deserve this desire after having admitted never reading the book, I was looking forward to getting to know the novel’s narrator, a character more famous than any of the Herslands, for she was Stein herself, learning to write how she would write and learning the limits of writing itself. Tanya Selvaratnam did a fine job at expressing some of the fundamental themes at work, but, as I’ve heard, the struggle that makes up the novel’s essential architecture is the struggle of the author to get it all out and rather than exploring the tension between maker and work, this production seemed content to simply show product without producer.
Any comments would be appreciated. Thanks to Michele S. and the Walker for the show and the forum.