This account of the making of George Gershwin’s great “folk opera” — the term used by Gershwin himself to describe what was, at the time of its premiere, an almost entirely new genre — takes its title from the closing scene. This is how Joseph Horowitz describes it: “Porgy — a crippled beggar who ambulates on a cart pulled by a goat — learns that Bess, whom he loves, has left for New York. Porgy is in Charleston, South Carolina, and New York is far away — but he will somehow get there. ‘Bring my goat!’ he says. When this request is met with stupefaction, he repeats it emphatically. The goat is brought. Porgy mounts his cart. He leads the community in an ecstatic final song,” the essence of which is: “Oh Lawd,/ I’m on my way./ I’m on my way/ To a Heav’nly Lan’.”
The song, Horowitz correctly argues, is Porgy’s bold assertion of courage, love and strength of character, the testament of a cripple determined to rise above his limitations, to claim his life, and his love, for himself. It is one of the most powerful moments in a production that has been transformed, in the nearly eight decades since “Porgy and Bess” opened in New York in the fall of 1935, from the subject of at times bitter controversy into a cherished American masterpiece. Horowitz is here to tell us about the central role played by director Rouben Mamoulian in shaping not merely the original production but also the script that has since been performed by innumerable artists in innumerable places.
Horowitz, who has written frequently about American music, is a man with a mission: to give Mamoulian his due. He writes: “More than anyone else — more than DuBose or Dorothy Heyward, more than George or Ira Gershwin — it was Mamoulian who transformed DuBose Heyward’s 1925 novella ‘Porgy’ from a quasi-realistic regional cameo into an epic theater work, a parable of suffering and redemption.” Though the evidence he presents suggests that Mamoulian did no more than what would be expected of any skilled director attempting to bring to life a production venturing somewhat uncertainly into unknown territory, it’s useful to have this assessment of an important and pretty much forgotten figure.
Accustomed as we are now to having “Porgy and Bess” at the center of the American cultural landscape, it is a bit difficult to understand fully just how revolutionary it seemed in 1935 and just how many noses it managed to bend severely out of shape. It dared to assume the form of opera at a time when that was assumed to be the sole province of the great European composers, conductors and singers; its music was written by a man principally known for jazzy Broadway show tunes, a man whose ventures into “serious” music — “Rhapsody in Blue,” “Concerto in F,” “An American in Paris” — were sneered at by critics and flag-wavers for modernism; its cast was entirely African American, and its black characters were mostly portrayed as real human beings rather than racial stereotypes.
Mamoulian seems to have been the ideal person to direct it. For one thing, he had directed the original dramatic version of Heyward’s novella, which opened on Broadway in 1927, was lavishly praised by Alexander Woollcott and others and “ran for 217 performances on Broadway, then took to the road.” For another, he was deeply attuned to music: “Mamoulian the director was obsessed with rhythm, with tempo and meter; that he directed with metronome and baton was a singular accoutrement. As a youth, he played the violin; as an adult, he revised and abridged musical scores as vigorously as he did scripts.” He had honed his talents in Rochester in the 1920s, where he was co-director of the Rochester American Opera Company and where this native of Armenia “picked up on American slang, vitality, and . . . informality. And, like many another adaptable exile, he appreciated things American in ways Americans did not . . . one root of his subsequent success appropriating the folk traditions of southern blacks.”
But Gershwin, Horowitz accurately acknowledges, is “the opera’s presiding genius”; the “contributions of Heyward, Mamoulian, and Gershwin cannot be regarded as equivalent, or equivalently gratifying.” Himself principally a critic and historian of classical music in the United States, Horowitz is uncommonly perceptive about Gershwin’s place in our music. He understands that “Gershwin was in his lifetime enveloped in an impenetrable fog of opinion that categorized him as an interloper — ultimately, an outsider, however naturally gifted, to the citadel of high culture,” but he also understands that Gershwin rose far above all that. He was “the one [American] composer of genius who could mediate between the high culture of performance and a popular musical culture in which creativity and performance were never severed from one another.”
Then, “in 1937 at the age of thirty-eight, he died of a brain tumor. Had he enjoyed a normal span of years, the course of American music would have changed. More than anyone else, he commanded the talent to heal the schism between what had become . . . mutually estranged worlds of American music.”
Later Horowitz writes that “Gershwin and Mamoulian were intended for one another,” and he continues: “With their mixed origins and bold intentions, they were inspired exemplars of cultural exchange, beneficiaries of the rubbing action of widely intermingled influences. Born in Brooklyn to Russian parents, Gershwin embraced Tin Pan Alley and Hollywood, Broadway and Yiddish theater, Paris and Vienna. . . . Mamoulian was an Armenian born in Tiflis (now Tbilisi). English was his seventh language, after Armenian, Russian, Georgian, French, German, and Latin. As a youth, he lived in Paris, studied experimental theater in Moscow, and debuted as a professional stage director in London at the age of twenty-five. Both Gershwin and Mamoulian achieved controversial early fame and influence. They concurrently brought a layered aesthetic complexity both to Hollywood and to Broadway. They moved up and down the cultural ladder with clairvoyant assurance.”
Horowitz places more emphasis than many other commentators have on Gershwin’s early and deep immersion in classical music. He admired Stravinsky and Shostakovich, and “a mission to find American identity in music, fusing New World and Old, came naturally to him.” He was determined “to seek ‘American’ variants of the ‘high’ musical genres,” yet he was deeply loyal to the “low” genres in which his fame had been won and shrugged off complaints that “Porgy and Bess” was redolent of Broadway: “Gershwin was unashamed of writing songs for ‘Porgy and Bess.’ ‘Song hits’ may be found in Verdi and Bizet, he wrote,” and he was right.
Mamoulian’s precise role in shaping the great folk opera will never be known. Scraps of dialogue and lyrics in his handwriting indicate an active presence, but there is no definitive record of what was said and done in rehearsals and behind the scenes. We do know, from Horowitz, that Mamoulian eventually came to feel that his contributions were underappreciated, but that probably had as much to do with the disappointments of his post-“Porgy” career as with the facts. The mercurial and authoritarian Sam Goldwyn fired him as director of the film adaptation of the opera and turned it over to Otto Preminger, who had little feeling for it and made an overblown, insensitive mess of it.
Mamoulian died in 1987 at the age of 90, disappointed and forgotten. This book gives him a measure of deserved recognition, but “Porgy and Bess” remains what it is — an American monument — because of George Gershwin.
“ON MY WAY”
The Untold Story of Rouben Mamoulian, George Gershwin, and “Porgy and Bess”
By Joseph Horowitz
Norton. 282 pp. $26.95