The George Gershwin we never knew
When a great artist or composer dies young, some people comfort themselves with the consolation that his work will survive in his place. “George Gershwin died on July 11, 1937,” John O’Hara once famously remarked, “but I don’t have to believe that if I don’t want to.”
That’s one approach. After attending the Opera Company of Philadelphia’s recent uncut production of the original 1935 version of Gershwin’s Porgy and Bess, I would suggest another: Gershwin’s death at age 38 was a far greater tragedy than we realize, because at that point this great composer had barely scratched the surface of his potential.
Somewhere in his youth, I believe, Gershwin sensed a connection between his own suffering Jewish soul and the suffering souls of black people. He sensed it intuitively and emotionally long before he was able to articulate it on stage or in his music. He sensed it even though he barely knew any black people and had probably ingested most of his knowledge of black culture from the old blackface minstrel shows of the 19th Century (just as, say, Leonard Bernstein and Arthur Laurents didn’t know any Puerto Ricans when they created another stunning artistic achievement, West Side Story). Like Bix Beiderbecke trying to play a note on a trumpet that nobody before had ever hit, Gershwin was chasing a vision that neither he nor audiences of his day understood.
Cartoonish black characters
In 1922, when he was just 24, Gershwin wrote a short all-black one-act jazz opera called Blue Monday (later renamed 135th Street), presented as part of the George White’s Scandals review. To watch it today is to cringe at Gershwin’s cartoonish view of Harlem blacks gambling, dancing, strutting, fighting and stabbing each other. Yet all of that patronizing blackface nonsense is trumped by the power of the music: Blue Monday was probably the first significant attempt to take jazz and African-American culture seriously by fusing it with a classical form like opera. (See for yourself: There's a five-minute snatch of Blue Monday in the 1946 biography film Rhapsody in Blue.)
Porgy and Bess, produced 13 years after Blue Monday, represented a further evolution in Gershwin’s vision. Many of the old black stereotypes— drinking, drugs, violence— remained, but the characters were more fully developed. And the music was more powerful than ever. Subsequent productions of Porgy polished and refined this product, which is as it should be.
The trouble with the uncut version
I had assumed that the uncut P & B would offer additional great Gershwin music that I hadn’t heard before (true) while further fleshing out the characters (not true). In fact, the extra material in the original uncut version does nothing to advance the story or develop the characters the way the later versions did. Some of the opera’s most famous songs seem to pop up without context: Porgy sings I Got Plenty of Nothin’ in response to nothing in particular; the same applies to Sportin’ Life, who in this version launches into It Ain’t Necessarily So when Serena has barely begun reciting from the Bible. In the conventional P & B, the swaggering bully Crown murders the pathetic Robbins, whose only offense is winning a hand in a dice game; in this version, Crown kills Robbins in self-defense after Robbins attacks him first with a brick and then with a cotton hook. Worst, in this original version the relationship between Porgy and Bess never develops: One minute they’re strangers, the next Porgy is singing that she’s his woman.
Nevertheless, the Opera Company’s excellent production of the original represents a valuable contribution not because it’s a good version of Porgy and Bess but because it reminds us that Gershwin, barely two years before he died, was just beginning to realize his potential. Ironically, thanks to Gershwin's music, Porgy and Bess has become enshrined as the great black American opera, even though it deals with a relatively trivial and un-operatic subject: the unlikely love between a crippled beggar and a woman of easy virtue. Had Gershwin lived longer, ultimately he would have applied his music to the truly operatic American black tragedy: slavery. His sensitivity would have benfitted from a generation of sophisticated and scholarly work in the new field of black studies.
Instead, it was left to Richard Danielpour to compose the music for last year’s Margaret Garner, a haunting slave drama of operatic proportions undermined by soporific music. What do you suppose Gershwin could have done with that!
To paraphrase John O’Hara: George Gershwin died on July 11, 1937, and we are all the poorer for his passing.
To read responses, click here.
To read Lewis Whittington's review of Porgy and Bess, click here.
To read Steve Cohen's review of Porgy and Bess, click here.
The George Gershwin we never knew