I guess this is our week for citing the New York Times. Yesterday I was going through the half-read papers, filling the recycling bin, and I noticed the following obituary:
The name rang a bell, but I am not an opera buff, so I guessed a Frank O’Hara reference. Which was close: Gloria Davy sang the libretto that James Schuyler wrote for Paul Bowles, about which my colleague Paul Bauschatz wrote a fine essay, “James Schuyler’s ‘A Picnic Cantata’: The Art of the Ordinary.” It appeared in The Scene of My Selves: New Work on New York School Poets, edited by Terence Diggory and Stephen Paul Miller, a book brought out by the NPF in 2001 (link).
The picture of Davy in the Times was taken four years after the premier of the Schuyler-Bowles collaboration, which occurred on March 24, 1954. Four singers performed: Davy and Martha Flowers were the sopranos; Mareda Gaither sang mezzo-soprano; Gloria Wynder, contralto. Arthur Gold and Robert Fizdale, who commissioned the piece, played piano. There was also a percussionist, Al Howard. Columbia then released a recording with this delightful cover:
As the arrows indicate, Davy is sitting beside Schuyler, on his right, in the back row of the car. His libretto, apparently, also appears on the cover, bearing a dedication absent from the text in Collected Poems: “to Mrs. William Esty” — arts patron Alice Swanson Esty. Her paper are kept at Bates College, and there’s Schuyler material included there [link]. I’ll have to make a day trip.
Schuyler’s libretto — his poem — is divided in six sections, the action of which is easily summarized: a surprise visit from friends, who propose a Sunday drive and picnic, then the planning of the picnic and the drive itself (section I); arrival and lunch (II); a reading of the Sunday paper, beginning with horoscope (III), followed by advice column (IV) and garden section (V); then the packing up and return home (VI). Given how much of this matter is supplied by a newspaper, it’s appropriate, I suppose, that the New York Times led me back to Schuyler’s poem. Or maybe not appropriate; but ironic, since the Times had no use for this text in ’54, characterizing it as nonsense, adding: “Absurdity can sometimes be delightful, but this … is merely absurd.” A judgment I find hard to fathom: Schuyler’s poem is a hymn, so to speak, to “The Art of the Ordinary,” to quote the subtitle of Bauschatz’s essay. Yes, there are dizzying moments, especially if one wants to differentiate characters amid the lovely bubbling of voices. But absurd? Nonsensical? As Bauschatz notes, “Schuyler’s typical poetic practice presents an ordinary mind or minds, somewhat befuddled, trying to organize or make coherent sense of ordinary events in ways that also let us, his readers, partake in the organizing process.” The Times, obviously, had no interest in partaking.
Not in the fifties, anyway. A 1992 revival was more fortunate in its reviewers, with Bernard Holland bestowing his approval, after a fashion: “thin to the point of triviality, … this glassy-eyed account of four women on a picnic has a zany and wholly winning ingenuousness.”
Four women, one of them, once upon a time, Gloria Davy. I clipped her picture yesterday, and put the rest of the paper in the bin.