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George Gershwin

Porgy and Bess (1934)

Thomas Carey and Carol Brice
Thomas Carey and Carol Brice
in "Porgy & Bess"
Photo courtesy of Sooner Magazine

In 1926 George Gershwin read Porgy by DuBose Heyward, a native of Charleston, South Carolina, and immediately wrote to the author suggesting that they collaborate on a folk opera based on the novel. Heyward was enthusiastic, but it was 1934 before Gershwin's composing and performing schedules permitted him to begin actual work on the project. Meanwhile, Heyward and his wife Dorothy dramatized Porgy for a 1927 production which incorporated spirituals into the action. This Theater Guild presentation of Porgy ran for 367 performances and elicited interest from others, among them Al Jolson, in using it as a basis for some sort of musical production. However, nothing came of these ideas and in 1934, after years of correspondence, George and Ira Gershwin joined DuBose Heyward in Charleston to write the opera which had been germinating in George's imagination for several years.

They settled for the summer at Folly Beach, located on a barrier island about ten miles from Charleston, where they could observe the Gullahs an isolated group living on adjacent James Island who became the prototypes of the Catfish Row residents. It was a happy collaboration as DuBose Heyward wrote the libretto, and Ira Gershwin and Heyward wrote the lyrics. (Heyward's contributions included the lyrics to Summertime and My Man's Gone Now.) By mid-August the Gershwins left Charleston, and George applied himself to finishing the recitatives and orchestrating the opera. When it was finally completed in July, 1935, the 700 pages of music represented his most ambitious creation and his favorite composition. According to David Ewen, Gershwin's first biographer, he "never quite ceased to wonder at the miracle that he had been its composer. he never stopped loving each and every bar, never wavered in the conviction that he had produced a work of art."

Next, Gershwin involved himself with the casting and production of his opera. Todd Duncan, the first Porgy, recalled that Gershwin was "going around the country looking for his Porgy." Music critic Olin Downes recommended that Gershwin hear Duncan, who was teaching at Howard University as well as singing, but Gershwin rejected the idea because he felt that "he didn't want any university professor to sing." For his part, Duncan was not interested because Gershwin was "Tin Pan Alley and something beneath me." Finally the two arranged a meeting during which Gershwin played and Duncan sang, and Gershwin asked Duncan to take the part of Porgy. Gershwin arranged an evening for Duncan with Ira Gershwin and his wife, the Theater Guild board, and prospective backers. Duncan recalls that he was supposed to sing three or four songs, but "I sang an hour, an hour and a half." Then Ira and George got out the score of Porgy and Bess and sang the entire opera in "their awful, rotten voices." Duncan continues "I just thought I was in heaven. These beautiful melodies in this new idiom it was something I had never heard. I just couldn't get enough of it when he ended with I'm on My Way I was crying. I was weeping."

Gershwin chose to have Porgy and Bess given a Broadway run at the Alvin Theater rather than a full operatic production, to assure more performances, and the word opera was carefully avoided. The first cast of nineteen singing principals included, with Duncan, Anne Brown as Bess, John W. Bubbles as Sportin' Life, Warren Coleman as Crown, and the Eva Jessye Choir; Rouben Mammoulian produced and directed, and Alexander Smallens conducted. Porgy and Bess tried out in Boston and opened In New York on October 10, 1935, for a disappointing run of 124 performances; it was years later before the show's backers got their money back, and more.

Porgy and Bess was George Gershwin's longest and most ambitious creation, but it was not truly successful during his lifetime. Some of the songs had achieved popularity before Gershwin's death in 1937, but the work earned real approval and favor only after the 1940 Theater Guild presentation of a slightly revised version. For years it was performed more frequently in Europe, where it was considered a true American opera, than in America. Porgy and Bess received its first uncut production in Houston in the 1970's, conducted by John DeMain, to great acclamation, and it was finally produced at the Met some 50 years after the first production. It is probably the only opera founded on 1920's and 30's jazz which has survived past the post-World War II period, when composers began to use jazz satirically.

Heyward's novel was inspired by a newspaper article about a maimed black man who committed murder in the height of passion, and was based on a real-life well-known local character called "Goat Sammy," who could not stand upright and was forced to travel about in a goat-drawn cart. The three-act opera takes place in Catfish Row, once an aristocratic mansion, now a crowded waterfront tenement.

The opera opens with a brief overture, then a piano is heard playing Jasbo Brown Blues. It is night and Clara sings a lullaby, Summertime, to her baby as a crap game takes place in the background. Jake, Clara's husband, sings A woman is a sometime thing to the baby, and we hear the call of the honeyman. Porgy enters in his goat cart as his friends tease him about caring for Bess. He protests that When Gawd make a cripple, He mean him to be lonely. As the crap game continues (Boxcars again) a drunken Crown enters with flashily-dressed Bess and joins the game. Enraged by his losses, Crown attacks Robbins before the horrified Catfish Row inhabitants, and kills him with a cotton hook. Bess gives Crown money as he goes to hide, and Sportin' Life offers to take Bess to New York with him. She refuses, but as the police whistles are heard she pleads for shelter and Porgy opens his door to her.
Scene ii opens in Serena's room where Robbins' body lies on the bed with a saucer on his chest to receive donations for burial expenses. Many people cluster around singing spirituals to mourn Robbins and comfort his widow, Serena. Porgy and Bess enter and put money in the saucer as the people exhort one another to do the same, in Overflow, overflow. A detective arrives with policemen and accuses Peter, a half-deaf old man, in an attempt to get the others to accuse Crown. Peter is taken off as a "material witness," and Serena sings My man's gone now. Bess leads a last spiritual, ending the scene.
Act II takes place a month later in Catfish Row. Jake and the fishermen sing It take a long pull to get there as they repair their nets and prepare to go to sea, despite warnings about September storms. Porgy appears at his window singing I got plenty o' nuttin, and the people comment on the positive change in Porgy since Bess came to live with him. Sportin' Life struts in and Maria, the cook, blows white powder from his hand. He protests, but she tells him nobody ain' goin' peddle happy dust roun' my shop and threatens him with a carving knife. He runs off as Lawyer Frazier enters looking for Porgy, to whom he sells a divorce' for Bess, pointing out as he does so that it is much more difficult to divorce someone who has never been married. Next Mr. Archdale appears, offering to provide bond for the still-jailed Peter. (NB: Sometimes the Buzzard Song is left out, sometimes it is placed elsewhere in the opera; Gershwin himself excised it in an attempt to cut the role of Porgy slightly, as it is fatiguing.) Porgy sees a buzzard, and he and the chorus sing the Buzzard Song, warning of bad luck if the bird alights. Sportin' Life reappears and again suggests to Bess that she go to New York with him, but she declines, saying that she hates the sight of him. Porgy warns him to stay away from Bess, who now tells Porgy that she will not leave him to go to the picnic, as he cannot go. They sing the beautiful love duet Bess, you is my woman now, and Maria insists that Bess must join the picnickers as they start on their way. As they leave Porgy happily sings I got plenty o' nuttin.
Scene ii opens on Kittiwah Island at evening. The picnic is in full swing, and the participants sing and dance to I ain' got no shame; next Sportin' Life treats them to a sermon on the virtues of skepticism in the brilliant It ain't necessarily so. Serena comes upon the scene and denounces everyone as sinners (Shame on all you sinners), further reminding them that they must hurry or the boat will leave them behind. As Bess lingers for a moment, Crown appears and tells her that he will soon return for her. She pleads to be allowed to remain with Porgy and to live a decent life, but Crown laughs and tells her that her living arrangement is temporary but permissible, and will cease the moment he comes back. She asks him to find some other woman (What you want wid Bess?), but his old attraction reasserts itself and as the boat leave Bess remains behind with Crown.
As Scene iii begins Jake and the fishermen are preparing to go fishing, singing a bit of It takes a long pull to get there. Peter has been released from prison, and we hear the sound of Bess' delirious voice from Porgy's room, indicating that she has returned from Kittiwah Island. She was lost for two days, and incoherent when she returned home. Serena prays for her, and tells Porgy that Bess will soon be well as she sings Oh, doctor Jesus. We hear the cries of the strawberry woman, the honeyman, and the crab man; finally Bess, sounding recovered, calls for Porgy. She talks with Porgy, who tells her that he knows that she has been with Crown, but that he loves her all the same. She says that although she told Crown she would go with him she really wants to stay with Porgy and is fearful of the effect of Crown's presence on her, singing I loves you, Porgy. Porgy assures her that he will take care of Crown if he bothers Bess again. Clara watches the sea anxiously as a storm approaches, and the fearful sound of the hurricane bell is heard as the scene ends.
The Scene iv curtain rises on Serena's room as a terrible storm rages outside. People huddle in anxious groups, singing Oh, doctor Jesus. Peter sings I hear death knockin' at de do' and almost immediately a real knock is heard on the door as the people rush to hold the door closed. It is Crown, who has come for Bess, and he throws Porgy down as he attempts to come between Crown and Bess. Serena warns Crown that at any moment the storm might get him, but he scoffs at her warnings, singing If God want to kill me He had plenty of chance tween here an' Kittiwah Island. The frightened keening continues until Crown stops it as he strikes up a cheerful number, A red-headed woman makes a choo-choo jump its track. Suddenly Clara thrusts her baby at Bess and runs out because she has seen Jake's fishing boat floating upside-down (Jake's boat in de river). Bess urges the men to follow her but only Crown will brave the storm. He leaves, promising that he will return for Bess, and the act ends with the people again pleading for mercy in Oh, doctor Jesus.
Act III opens in the courtyard again, with the people mourning Clara, Jake, and Crown, all of whom they fear are lost. As they start to pray for Crown, Sportin' Life interrupts them with laughter. Maria scolds him, but he hints that Crown is not dead and he slyly wonders about the result of the rivalry between Crown and Porgy over Bess. Bess sings Summertime to Clara's baby, and everyone drifts off. Suddenly Crown is seen at the gate, moving stealthily across the court toward Porgy's door. As he passes the window an arm extends, grasping a long knife which is plunged into Crown's back. As Crown staggers, Porgy seizes him around the neck and throttles him. Porgy exclaims Bess, Bess, you got a man now.
Scene ii takes place the next afternoon as the police arrive to investigate Crown's death. Serena says she was ill and knows nothing of the death of the man who, as everyone in Catfish Row will swear, killed her husband Robbins. Porgy is brought in and dragged away to identify Crown's body, protesting that he will have nothing to do with Crown. (His reluctance has been increased by Sportin' Life, who said that Crown's wound will begin to bleed when the man who killed him comes near the body.)
Bess comes in and Sportin' Life offers her some happy dust to help her over her nerves at the prospect of losing Porgy. She tries to refuse, but cannot, and Sportin' Life again urges her to come to New York with him, singing There's a boat dat's leavin' soon for New York.
The final Scene is again in Catfish Row, a week later. Life seems normal, children dance and sing, and the people greet one another in Good mornin', sistuh. Porgy returns after a week in jail for contempt of court because he would not look at Crown's body. He has brought presents for everyone (after some successful crap-shooting in jail), as the people sing It's Porgy comin' home. He finally realizes that Bess is not there, and sings the heartbreaking Oh, Bess, oh where's my Bess? Serena and Maria join in, one condemning Bess and one explaining and excusing her, and in this trio Porgy expresses his longing for her. Told that she has gone to New York, Porgy asks that his goat-cart be brought to him. As he starts out of Catfish Row to find Bess wherever she may be and bring her back, he and the chorus sing the finale, Oh Lawd, I'm on my way.

Copyright © 1994, 1996 by Jane Erb. All Rights Reserved.