Eighty Years On, What Exactly Is 'Porgy and Bess'?

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Members of South Africa's Cape Town Opera dance and sing during a performance to promote the opera show "Porgy and Bess" at Principe Pio train station in Madrid, Spain, June 5. Gershwin’s ‘folk opera’ has defied categorization since it was first performed in 1935, the author writes. Susana Vera/Reuters

This article first appeared in the Wilson Quarterly.

Eighty years ago, on October 20, 1935, New York’s Alvin Theatre hosted one of the most important performances in the history of American musical theater: the Broadway premiere of Porgy and Bess, an “American folk opera,” with music and lyrics by George and Ira Gershwin and based on Charleston literary notable Dubose Heyward’s best-selling 1925 novel Porgy.

Those in attendance knew that they were witnessing history. Gershwin’s reputation and ambition suggested that his opera could be a work for the ages, and everyone who was anyone in the New York cultural and social scene wanted to be present for it.

The opera’s creators sat nervously toward the back of the orchestra-level seats that first night, trying to discern how others were reacting to their creation. They waited until the finale brought an explosion of boisterous curtain calls that seemed to last forever.

For the next eight decades, one question has hung over everything that transpired on stage that evening: What, precisely, is Porgy and Bess? A musical? An opera? Is it high art or middlebrow culture? A sympathetic and path-breaking treatment of African American life, or a racist regurgitation of demeaning stereotypes.

Enthusiastic audiences aside, critics were divided about the show, often disparaging George Gershwin as little more than an overly ambitious pop music parvenu. If he had written an “opera,” why was it being staged in a music hall like the Alvin Theatre?

One undeniable dimension of the Porgy and Bess tale was answered definitively as soon as Abbie Mitchell launched into the opening notes of the show’s first melody, “Summertime.” No one could deny the transcendental beauty of George Gershwin’s score.

Theater is a product of collaboration among many artistic associates. This was especially true of Porgy and Bess. The story’s original creator, DuBose Heyward, inherited considerable social prominence and little wealth from his distinguished Charleston family (his great-great-grandfather, Thomas Heyward Jr., signed the Declaration of Independence). Deciding to become a writer, Heyward tossed aside a career in selling insurance to devote time to his new craft.

Looking for a tale to tell, he picked up a local Charleston News and Courier on his way to have breakfast one morning at his sister’s place down the street from “Cabbage Row,” an 18th-century courtyarded building inhabited by African American workers and servants.

In the paper, Heyward read a story about how a crippled beggar named Samuel Smalls—well-known for getting around town in a cart drawn by a goat—had been arrested for aggravated assault after having attempted to shoot Maggie Barnes. The tale inspired the plot of Heyward’s novel.

DuBose and his wife Dorothy collaborated in writing what became one of 1925’s top literary hits, the novel Porgy. Dorothy saw Porgy’s theatrical potential and adopted the tale for the stage. Produced by New York’s prominent Theatre Guild, the play proved to be one of the great successes during Broadway’s successful 1927–28 season.

Porgy’s accomplishments rested on more than a compelling, if melodramatic, story. Since childhood, DuBose had been fascinated by the African Americans on whom every white person in Charleston depended in any number of ways.

His mother Jane had become something of an amateur specialist on the region’s distinctive “Gullah” language and culture, handed down from generation to generation among the descendants of West African slaves who had been brought to South Carolina to farm rice. The term “Gullah,” probably derived from the word “Angola,” refers to a form of English infused with vocabulary and grammatical structures preserved from several West African languages. Like all Charleston children of his social station, DuBose grew up surrounded by Gullah-speaking nannies, servants and workers.

DuBose’s stories, which included other African American oriented works as Jasbo Brown and Other Poems (1924), Mamba’s Daughters (1929), and the screenplay for Eugene O’Neill’s The Emperor Jones (1933), appeared at a time when white Americans knew little or nothing about African American life and culture.

Although DuBose’s works are now dated and have long been open to charges of promoting derogatory stereotypes, they stand out among other white writings of the era as unusually knowledgeable about and sympathetic to African American culture.

Around that same time, George Gershwin, set on writing an American opera, began looking for a story to put to music. One night, unable to fall asleep, he picked up Porgy. The next morning, he wrote to the Heywards, initiating a creative journey that would last nearly a decade.

Gershwin labeled his masterpiece a “folk opera,” a term that has deeply confused American critics ever since. Slavic creators like Modest Mussorgsky would have needed no explanation for the concept, as they simultaneously drew on local “folk” music and traditions to create distinctive national operatic traditions. Gershwin was well aware of these connections, comparing Porgy and Bess to Mussorgsky’s Boris Godunov as well as Georges Bizet’s Carmen (indeed, the plot of Gershwin’s opera closely tracks that of Bizet’s Carmen.)

Once Porgy and Bess had gained greater recognition following World War II—having been validated enthusiastically on the stages of Milan, London and Paris through touring performances—Americans could no longer deny its significance.

After circling the globe and being performed across the United States, George Gershwin’s monumental “folk opera” finally entered the repertoire of New York’s exalted Metropolitan Opera in 1985, more or less simultaneously with its first performance in Charleston and a full half-century after it premiered.

Three decades later, there is no longer any question about the importance of this work. Porgy and Bess has become an American classic.

Blair A. Ruble is vice president for programs at the Wilson Center and director of the Center’s Urban Sustainability Laboratory. He is the author of Washington’s U Street: A Biography (2010).