Elizabeth Swados Edith Oliver - Essay

Edith Oliver

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Miss Swados' idea [in "Nightclub Cantata"] is to take poems and passages of prose by various hands (including her own), set them to music for various instruments (including her own guitar), and turn them over to the four young men and four young women of the company (including herself) for performance. Several of the numbers are fierce and angry, and they are delivered with passion—Muriel Rukeyser's "Waking This Morning"…, for example …, and Sylvia Plath's "The Applicant."… Something quite different is "Bird Lament," which Miss Swados sings entirely in bird language…. The weakest numbers, to get them over with as quickly as possible, are a passage from "The Ballad of the Sad Café," in which Carson McCullers makes several obvious points on the subject of love with unwarranted emphasis, and "Are You with Me?," a love ballad by Miss Swados that … made me long for Rodgers and Hart or the Gershwins, who handled this sort of thing with more finesse and just as much conviction. Lest I make the show sound too earnest (it is quite earnest), let me say right away that there is some comedy as well—a bit about two ventriloquists' dummies (written by Miss Swados and Judith Fleisher), and another bit, of venerable antecedents, about a troupe of maladroit acrobats. The strengths of "Cantata" far outnumber its weaknesses…. The climax of the evening (for me, at any rate) is Isabella Leitner's "Isabella"—a woman's horrifying, numbing memories of a concentration camp…. It must also be said that there are moments in the show when the delivery and the movements seem too intense for the material—perhaps a matter of over disciplined direction (Miss Swados again)—but the absolute clarity of everything more or less cancels that out…. Miss Swados' music is undeniably dramatic, original, and effective, though it does tend to evaporate rather quickly once it is finished. (pp. 64-5)

Edith Oliver, in The New Yorker (© 1977 by The New Yorker Magazine, Inc.), January 24, 1977.