Monday, June 10, 2013

Porgy and Bess (Libretto) by DuBose Heyward

Source of book: I own this. (It’s my wife’s book, actually, but close enough)

It is always interesting to read a controversial work, and attempt to comment in a meaningful manner, while knowing that one can never really understand all of the issues from other perspectives.

Although it was hardly the first time that a white male had written about the African-American experience, by the 1930s, it was already acknowledged to be fraught with danger of condescension and unconscious racism. Eighty years later, we are even more aware of the inherent problems of a work like this. However, like other works that are worthwhile, even while a product of their times, Porgy and Bess deserves a read - and a listen.

There are actually three versions of Porgy and Bess. DuBose Heyward originally wrote a novel, entitled Porgy in 1925. Two years later, he and his wife Dorothy adapted the story into a play, Porgy and Bess, which had some changes in the plot from the book - most notably the ending, which was more pessimistic in the novel. Composer George Gershwin latched on to Porgy, and began to collaborate with the Heywards even before the play was complete. The text of the play was further adapted into an opera libretto, and set to music by Gershwin. That version is the one best known to us today. It is also the version that I read - it is nearly impossible to find the novel, and the play and opera are substantially similar.

(l-r) George Gershwin, DuBose Heyward, Ira Gershwin

From its debut in 1935, the opera was surrounded by controversy. Virgil Thompson (a white composer) and Duke Ellington both criticised what they perceived as racial stereotyping - particularly the assumption that African Americans lived in poverty, took drugs, were sexually loose, and solved their problems with violence. (These stereotypes are alive and well today. In addition, there is the assumption that they are on welfare as well.)

Ellington, however, changed his mind later in life, and came to admire Gershwin's music in particular. The opera continues to split opinions within the African American artistic community. It is clearly an important artistic work, full of history - and still arguably the best opera composed by an American composer. The characters do suffer from some stereotyping, but are more nuanced than that. They are not played for laughs the way that the blackface of the time was, and Heyward and Gershwin intended for them to be taken seriously as complex persons.

I found it intriguing that George Gershwin insisted that the actors be African American rather than white actors in blackface. In addition, his brother Ira (who inherited the rights on George’s untimely death) absolutely refused to grant permission for the opera to be performed in South Africa using white actors.

For my part, I have decided to treat the work the same way that I would any in literature that display problematic elements. When reading Tom Sawyer to my children, I had to explain the offensive racial epithets, including why they were acceptable 150 years ago, but were not now. We discussed slavery and racism - it really was a good starting point. I had to point out that even Mark Twain, who was far ahead of his time in treating minorities as fully human, unconsciously looked down on them occasionally. I also think of the casual anti semitism and acceptance of domestic violence that are scattered throughout literature - particularly literature from Europe from the Middle Ages forward. (See my discussion of Medieval Drama, The School for Scandal, and Richard Wagner. The Merchant of Venice also comes to mind as a work that is commonly performed today, despite its thorny issues.) All of these works have merit, but one must acknowledge the problems, rather than gloss over them.

So what of the opera itself? Porgy and Bess is set in “Catfish Row,” Charleston, South Carolina. It is a poor community of fishermen, peddlers, and lowlifes. Among these is Porgy, a crippled beggar. During a clandestine craps game, Robbins wins some money off the violent Crown, who kills him. Crown flees the scene, leaving his woman Bess behind, but promising to return for her when things blow over. Bess falls in love with Porgy. Later, Bess and most of the others have a picnic on a nearby island (Porgy can’t get on the boat due to his disability), and Bess discovers that Crown is hiding out there. He forces himself on her (the line between seduction and rape is rather fine in context - one of the disturbing elements of the opera), and promises again to come from her, despite her pleas to the contrary.

Soon after, the men are out on their fishing boat when a hurricane blows in, terrifying the women. In the middle of the storm, Crown appears, having somehow swam from the island during the storm. When Crown tries to take Bess by force, Porgy intervenes, and manages to kill Crown.

Porgy is arrested, not as a suspect, but as a “material witness” necessary to identify the body. (Everyone else denies any knowledge of Crown or the murder.) The drug dealer, “Sportin’ Life,” convinces Bess that Porgy will be convicted and never return, and talks her into going to New York City with him. Porgy, instead, is held overnight for contempt of court for refusing to view the body, and manages to win a bunch of money off his cellmates. He returns looking for Bess, and eventually heads for New York to find her.

Religion and superstition are intertwined throughout the opera, with references to “faith healing,” judgment day, spirituals, and, of course, Sportin’ Life’s irreverent song, “It Ain’t Necessarily So.” I always found the sinuous tune for this song to be fascinating. It combines a chromatic descent in a triplet meter with an accompaniment in double meter. Like other Gershwin tunes, it is an odd amalgam of jazz and Jewish liturgical music. It resembles a Spiritual in its call and response, but draws as much from the blues as from the altar. Here is David Whitehead’s performance. (The scene starts with Crown hiding out in view of the picnic.

I think it instructive to note Sportin’ Life’s summary of “The Gospel:”

To get into Hebben
Don' snap for a sebben !
Live clean ! Don' have no fault !
Oh, I takes dat gospel
Whenever it's pos'ble,
But wid a grain of salt.

Not too far off from the old doggerel: “Don’t Smoke, Drink, Dance, and Chew or Date Girls Who Do.” Here’s the list of cultural “don’ts” to observe - and that’s how to get into heaven. The specifics have changed a bit with time, but all too often, this has become the mantra, the focus on easily observed externals.

Another thing that hasn’t changed nearly enough since 1935 is the casual injustice of law enforcement. After Crown murders Robbins, the police, not able to find Crown, take Peter (a poor peddler) into custody, again as a “material witness,” even though it is clear that he is not guilty of anything. Throughout the play, the (white) authorities of various sorts are completely oblivious to the damaging effect they are having on the finances and families of the main characters - and on their reputation within the community. I’ve heard far too many tales from friends and clients about their experiences being stopped and frisked for, essentially, “driving while being a young minority” to believe that this attitude has entirely gone away. I would also note here the hidden camera video (done by ABC, not some shady PAC) that has gone viral recently.

On a lighter legal note, there is one comic scene in the opera involving a shady lawyer (Frazier), who offers to get Bess divorced from Crown.

FRAZIER:    Ah ha, ah ha, Porgy's Bess, eh? Den I guess she'll be wantin' divorce.
FRAZIER: Ef de woman livin' wid you now, she got to have divorce from Crown or else it ain't legal.

(Takes document and shows it to Porgy)

PORGY: How much dat t'ing cost?
FRAZIER: One dollar. Dat is, if there ain' no complication.
PORGY: Bess, you likes to have divorce?
BESS: What you think, Porgy?
PORGY: I'm agoin' to buy you a divorce.

(Hands Frazier money)

FRAZIER: Wait a minute, it ain't legal yet. Yo' name?
ALL: Bess!
FRAZIER: Yo' age?
BESS: Twenty year.
ALL: Lord, Lord, listen what she say. Dat girl's thirty if she's a day!
FRAZIER: You desire to be divorce from dat man Crown?
ALL: Sho' she do, sho' she do, Yes suh, yes suh, sho' she do!
FRAZIER: I'm askin' you.
BESS: Yes, boss, dat's true.
FRAZIER: Address the court a "Yo' honor."
ALL: Yes, yo' honor. Yes, yo' honor.
FRAZIER: When was you an' Crown marry?
BESS: I don't rightly remember, yo' honor.
FRAZIER: One yeah, five yeah, ten yeah, what?
LILY: Dat gal ain' never marry!
FRAZIER: Ah, dat's a complication!
ALL: Dat's a complication. Dat's a complication, Lord, Lord --
is a complication.
PORGY: You can't sell her divorce, gimme back my dollah!

(Everybody laughs)

FRAZIER: 'Course I sells divorce. You got no right to laugh, but it take expert to divorce woman what ain't marry, an' it cos' you, ahem, a dollar an' a half.
BESS:  Don't pay him, Porgy. Don't let him take you in.
FRAZIER: All right, go on livin' in sin.

(Porgy counts out money and gives it to Frazier,
who signs and seals paper and hands it to Bess)

Good day to you, Missis Porgy. Only dollar an' a half to
change from woman to lady.

Creative marketing at its worst, or best...

Ultimately, the story is one of the choice that Bess faces. There is the hardworking but violent Crown, the cheap thrill of “happy dust” and Sportin’ Life, and the kind but impoverished Porgy.

The story and dialogue are interesting to read, but what makes the opera is the music. George Gershwin's composing was at its best and most creative at this time, and many of the tunes have endured as true classics. While Ira Gershwin is credited as assisting with the lyrics, most were written by DuBose Heyward, and are likewise memorable.

Sadly, George Gershwin would be dead of a brain tumor at age 38, two years after the debut of Porgy and Bess. One can only wonder what other masterworks he might have written.

While I have not had the opportunity to play the entire opera, I have played two orchestral suites arranged by Robert Russell Bennett. One is a pops oriented arrangement, which is pleasant enough. The other is better, in my opinion, as it contains more of the music, including scene music, rather than just the big tunes.

Several songs have become vocal standards, and are still a source of inspiration for artists today.

“Bess, You is My Woman Now” sung by Willard White and Cynthia Haymon, with the original orchestral accompaniment.

A modern jazz arrangement of “Summertime” by Norah Jones

Norm Lewis for I Got Plenty o’ Nuttin’ 


  1. Love the videos. Porgy and Bess will be performed in San Francisco later this year. I hadn't planned on going, but now I think I'll get tickets.

    Tim, do you by any chance go running with your children? I was in Bakersfield for a few days, and when my dad returned from his walk yesterday he mentioned that he saw the man running with his 5 children again. He said there's one in a stroller, and one little girl that always trails behind. He thought they may be home schooled because he occasionally sees them out during the week. Based on what I've read on your blog, I thought it could be you. I showed my dad the photo you have posted here, and he said "maybe", but he couldn't tell for sure. My parents live in Rosedale.

    1. Yes, indeed, that would be us! My second daughter isn't as enthusiastic about running as the others, so she rides her bike after we finish the first mile.

      Porgy and Bess will also be performed at the Ahmanson in Los Angeles April 22 to June 1, 2014. I am planning to go to that one.

  2. That sounds like a good compromise with your daughter. If a man in his late 70s, glasses, bald, slim build asks you your name that's my dad. He said he was going to ask you. His name is Clell.