The Gersh­wins’ Por­gy and Bess: A 75th Anniver­sary Edition

Robin Thomp­son
  • Review
By – August 23, 2011
Por­gy and Bess received its world pre­miere on the same day in 1935 that Franklin Roo­sevelt ded­i­cat­ed Hoover Dam. It is no less mon­u­men­tal a work, and its 75th anniver­sary was well worth not­ing and cel­e­brat­ing. Despite some glar­ing flaws — most notably, the title’s slight­ing of one of the opera’s prin­ci­pal beget­tors, DuBose Hey­ward — this vol­ume is an appro­pri­ate huz­zah. Iron­i­cal­ly, in light of its title, the book’s main virtue is its account of the work’s gen­e­sis, begin­ning with Heyward’s unlike­ly life expe­ri­ence among the Gul­lah com­mu­ni­ty of Charleston, South Car­oli­na. An aspir­ing poet who descend­ed from a promi­nent fam­i­ly of slave-own­ing planters that fell on hard times after the Civ­il War, Hey­ward paid trib­ute to that com­mu­ni­ty in his best-sell­ing nov­el Por­gy, which was sub­se­quent­ly adapt­ed for the Broad­way stage by his play­wright wife, Dorothy, and him­self.

Some years lat­er, the nov­el caught the atten­tion and imag­i­na­tion of George Gersh­win, who became deter­mined to com­pose an Amer­i­can folk opera” based on Heyward’s tale. After much toil, Por­gy and Bess—with music by Gersh­win, and libret­to and lyrics by Hey­ward (with assis­tance from Gershwin’s broth­er Ira, who con­tributed the words for a half-dozen songs and col­lab­o­rat­ed with Hey­ward on two oth­ers) — final­ly saw the light of day.

As Thomp­son notes, the opera pro­voked con­tro­ver­sy from the start on two broad fronts. Was it real­ly an opera, or a musi­cal com­e­dy with delu­sions of grandeur? Are the char­ac­ters it por­trays accu­rate and ennobling ethno­graph­ic por­traits or demean­ing stereo­types? Post­mod­ern analy­sis would show that these con­cerns were intrigu­ing­ly relat­ed, as both were based on arti­fi­cial, class-deter­mined bound­aries between artis­tic gen­res and eth­nic types. As such bound­aries came to be dis­card­ed as irrel­e­vant and ulti­mate­ly per­ni­cious con­structs, the inher­ent mer­its of indi­vid­u­als and works of art alike could be seen more clear­ly. In that light, Por­gy and Bess has right­ful­ly gained its cur­rent rep­u­ta­tion as a masterpiece.

Addi­tion­al Reading

Bill Bren­nan is an inde­pen­dent schol­ar and enter­tain­er based in Las Vegas. Bren­nan has taught lit­er­a­ture and the human­i­ties at Prince­ton and The Uni­ver­si­ty of Chica­go. He holds degrees from Yale, Prince­ton, and Northwestern.

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