A Dumbed Down "Porgy and Bess"
The generally favorable reviews of The Gershwin’s Porgy and Bess shows what is wrong with Broadway: stories are dumbed down and emotionally muted so as to provide a feel good experience for the bridge and tunnel crowd, including what are now the many black patrons of the theater. The question is no longer what a play or a musical demands of its viewers, even if just a bit of leverage on conventional opinion—or a lot, as was the case with Showboat back in the Twenties, or so many of the Steven Sondheim musicals—so long as that was made palatable by romance, cleverness, and hummable tunes. The question is how to placate the comfort level of the audience or what the audience is supposed to be or even the comfort level of the people who are putting on the production.
So set aside the following weak points of the production: the first act is rather mushy in pace and tone; Andrea McDonald is miscast as Bess because she is so full of good cheer and a smile that knocks you out that you cannot imagine her as that kind of woman, so dependant on any man who happens to come along; and, as Ben Brantley identified in his review of the musical, there is a lack of specificity in the setting. You should smell the honeysuckles; instead, you have tin walls. Wouldn’t tar paper or something else more appropriate to the time and place been cheap enough to serve as a stage setting? This is not Catfish Row; it is Everytown. But think instead about how Porgy and Bess was made into a feel good musical, given that it is about very low down types living largely on their own, however much their lives are also part of a white dominated society.
That is accomplished by making just about everyone into a good person. Bess is supposed to have finally fallen for Porgy, and so headed for a better life than she had known, a bad woman redeemed by a good man, when closer to the root of the thing is the fact that in this production Porgy is made out to have a crippled leg, and so not outside the bounds of someone who could be an acceptable lover, when he originally was carried around in a goat cart. In the original, his was the tragic role in that he could think even for a moment that he was anything but a man who would be used until his services were no longer required and Bess found some other man to lean on, Bess always needing one. In the present version, her’s is the tragic role because she turns away from a good and acceptable man so she could head North with Sportin’ Life. If you prefer to think Bess did so only because Porgy was in jail and might never come back, that only means the coincidences of fate have been substituted for the fate of character, and that is to turn this kind of tragedy into mere melodrama. Couldn’t she have waited a few days to be certain he wouldn’t make it out of jail?
Even Bess’s former lover is made out to be a good guy in that he goes out in the storm and dies trying to rescue the fishermen who had been caught in the storm. The women in the chorus come out ahead because they come to the rescue of the baby Bess had herself taken in and because, way ahead of their time, they wage a war with men in a dance number when a real portrait of the time would have them much more cowed.
The only bad people are the white cops who come to investigate two black on black murders. This struck me as off. Why would white cops have bothered looking into or even treating such events as crimes? Those are the kinds of things racist cops would expect to happen. Why bother? It has been suggested to me that racism works by deliberately humiliating its victims. In this case, drag a black man into custody and hound him into a confession just for the sake of feeling righteous. I don’t buy that. Jews in Eastern Europe weren’t humiliated as part of a program to decertify them as human beings. Cutting off the beards of the Orthodox was just for the fun of it. You put them on cattle cars when you wanted to efficiently dispose of them. Similarly, sharecropping and segregation and poverty were enough to humiliate blacks in the Jim Crow South. Why bother with them if they don’t matter?
All in all, what the producers provide is a portrait of life in the segregationist South that is not offensive, that doesn’t dredge up all the awful things that were done to the spirit of people because of their economic and social condition. But if you do not face up to the toll on the human spirit of racism and poverty, then you are making it merely into a past usable to people who have not lived through that experience and don’t want to. It is as if Coppola had created mobsters who didn’t kill people or as if poor people didn’t always have hearts of gold—a charge that can also be made against the feel good movies of the Forties, as when Henry Fonda plays an Okie in The Grapes of Wrath just as he played Lincoln in a movie made the same year.
There is a larger point. The presentation of a stereotype in literature can lead to the legitimation of the stereotype. That is usually taken to be a bad thing, and that is certainly what happened in this production. The producers admitted that they changed the meaning of the song, “I’ve Got Plenty of Nothin’” into a song where “nothin’” is a euphemism for sex rather than a song about the character of the singer, who proclaims that he is an idler, which is a stereotype of black people that nowadays gives offense. But there is something else that a stereotype can do. Handled sympathetically, it can allow that character type to become part of the acceptable rather than the deviant or transgressive world, and so allow an ethnic group or other marginalized group to be accepted for what it is. That is a long step on the road to the acceptance of the humanity of all the members of the stereotyped group. As Joe Biden said in his speech about gay rights, “Will and Grace” had done much to make gay life acceptable to main stream America. That is because it accepted the effeminacy of Will’s sidekick along with Will’s straight-laced ways as just various aspects of what it is like to be gay in America without making judgments. What fills our imaginations changes our judgments outside the four corners of the screen.
That contrarian view of the functioning of stereotypes is certainly applicable to Shylock. However well motivated his reasons for doing so (the betrayal of his daughter, the disdain shown to him by the Christians), he reverts to type. He becomes the money grubbing and angry and blood stealing Jew known to legend. And yet even this wretch cannot but be a pathetic and eloquent figure who Shakespeare makes a character out of whose eyes you look, as touching a figure as the Moor who also reverts to type—or maybe only to the resentments which a type is heir to. O.K. Gershwin and the Heywards were not Shakespeare, but they still enough knew the elements of drama, and the way it transforms heroes into villains and back again by just introducing a new line of development into the drama and by filling out a character any way the playwright pleases.
But the producers of The Gershwin’s Porgy and Bess were not interested in that. They only wanted to consult what they know now to be acceptable views of the relation of the races and so they put a little Black Pride into the old vehicle. And that looses so much of the power not only of this musical but of any entertainment to transform people out of themselves long enough to consider different thoughts, to do the job of looking at the past that allows them to see how different it was and therefore how far people have come that they should not need the comfort of thinking that those Southern accented people were just like them, even though they weren’t. Rather than wrestle with a welter of stereotypes, which is what the Gershwins and the Heywards did, they chose to elide them. They are still in a state of cultural consciousness where there is amnesia about what really happened in the past.