By Anthony Tusler
The story of Porgy and Bess is back on Broadway, and Porgy’s disability is almost lost in the revisions.
As fans know, Porgy is a beggar who most likely has paraplegia and so, given the era in which the original 1925 novel, Porgy, is set, uses either a push board or goat cart for mobility. But in the new, shortened musical, called The Gershwins’ Porgy and Bess, both push board and goat cart are gone, ultimately replaced by a leg brace and cane. Just when the theater world started to face the reality that their lead character actually had a disability, they went and changed him.
The book inspired a play and the folk opera Porgy and Bess. In the novel and every production of the play and opera from 1927 to 1975, Porgy uses a push board around Catfish Row and a goat cart when he goes out into the world. Those mobility devices seem almost ridiculous in the world of titanium wheelchairs and iBots, but for a poor beggar in the ’20s, the push board was as good as it got. The novel explains how, out of necessity, Porgy fashions the goat cart out of junk and a smelly old goat. It gave him immense freedom that anyone with a mobility impairment would instantly recognize.
Present day disabled people would likely recognize and relate to the Porgy of the novel. He is proud, hates to be seen as needy, and is inventive when the need arises. Most importantly he can be loving and a steadfast father and partner when given the opportunity. In the community where he lives, Catfish Row — a falling down mansion converted to tenements — he is tolerated.
The Porgy in the novel is such an accurate portrait of a disabled man it is no surprise that the author, DuBose Heyward, had a significant disability. Heyward contracted polio in his late teens and it permanently affected his right arm and hand. A few years later he became bedridden from typhoid and then pleurisy. Although a poor student when in school, he discovered how much he liked writing during his recuperation. Heyward returned to one theme again and again — the exploration of disability and manliness. He wrote the unproduced plays Be a Man, A Man’s Job and Making a Man of Raburn. The Mayfield Miraclewas a drama set in a rehabilitation facility with a disabled man as the hero.
The novel Porgyis irrefutably written from a disability insider’s perspective. While devoting less than a sentence to the origin of Porgy’s disability, Heyward writes a full chapter describing how Porgy invented his goat cart from the barest scraps of materials, followed by his exultant tour of the sights and sounds of Charleston, S.C. Through an insider’s understanding of what is truly important for someone with a disability, Heyward wrote about the tools and attitudes used to cope every day.
Heyward used his knowledge of Charleston’s black community to write what is considered to be one of the earliest accurate accounts of black Americans. Porgy was hailed as the first portrayal of blacks that avoided the caricatures, both negative and positive, that had been common at the time. In fact, black poet Langston Hughes said of Heyward that he saw “with his white eyes, wonderful, poetic qualities in the inhabitants of Catfish Row that makes them come alive.”
Soon after the book was published, George Gershwin expressed interest in writing a folk opera adaptation of Porgy. Heyward was enthusiastic at the possibility. Gershwin, whose diverse musical works — from Porgy’s “Summertime” to the classic “Rhapsody in Blue” to Broadway tunes like “Fascinatin’ Rhythm” are legendary among composers — was not able to begin collaborating with Heyward until 1933.
The opera Porgy and Bess was first staged on Broadway in 1935 with an all-black cast. The folk opera tells the love story and redemption of the “crippled beggar” Porgy, and Bess, a drug-addicted prostitute. The music was written by Gershwin, the libretto or text and the majority of the lyrics by Heyward, while the rest of the lyrics were by Gershwin’s brother Ira.
A Tragic Love Story
Porgy is the story of a beggar who takes in a beautiful, fallen woman, Bess, despite his disability. Together, he and Bess discover and are redeemed by love, only to have it melt away. It is a universal story that resonates with anyone who has dreamed of freedom, love and family. The attention given to Porgy’s day-to-day life and activities further deepens his character and makes him more three-dimensional. Porgy’s inability to walk and assistive devices were presented consistently throughout the novel, play, and original opera, all of which were created and guided by the disabled Heyward.
Porgy found love because, being at the bottom of the social order, he could not deny refuge to Bess. Through their love for each other, Porgy came out of his self-imposed shell and Bess regained her health. They became a complete family when they were given an orphaned baby. Everything that Porgy had not allowed himself to dream came into his life.
And, like many disabled people, Porgy had his stubborn pride. It led him to be stuck in jail, while Bess went back to her old ways and departed for New York City. Porgy was devastated at his loss. The opera ends with Porgy valiantly, and foolishly, going off in his goat cart to search for Bess.
As in all tragedies, the hero — Porgy — must suffer and be punished. It is not just his pride that led him to a week of jail that causes him to be punished; it is because Porgy aspired to gain what nondisabled men have. Porgy thought he could have love, a mate, a child, a family, just like other men. And in the Greek tragic tradition, he must be punished for his hubris. It is his downfall. Porgy valiantly fights to be a full-fledged man, while knowing some place in his heart that his world says it is not possible for him.
From the original 1935 production until 1975, producers and directors of the opera Porgy and Bess continued to have Porgy use mobility aids. Even in the now out-of-print 1959 Goldwyn movie version, Sidney Poitier as Porgy uses a push board and goat cart. But that began to change with the 1976 Houston Opera production. By the 1970s the public’s understanding of disability was shifting. The producers were more aware and comfortable with people with disabilities. The goat cart and push board had become more and more old-fashioned and undignified, even though they were necessary, available, and affordable mobility aids at the time of the opera’s setting. Producers tried to figure out, usually without disabled people’s insight, how Porgy should get around. Simultaneously, race was also more in people’s consciousness — obscuring the disability focus of the opera.
Beginning with the 1976 Houston Opera’s successful revival of Porgy and Bess, stage directors have been trying to reconcile Porgy, his disability status and his mobility needs. Over the years their solutions have lifted Porgy from his inventive goat cart and useful push board to a single crutch, dragging himself around.
One of the better known renditions was the 1986 Glyndebourne stage production directed by Trevor Nunn. Nunn could not comprehend Bess falling in love with someone so pitifully lacking functional legs. Instead, he, too, has Porgy using one crutch as if to say better to be standing than use a mobility device. This production was presented on the TV show American Playhouse in 1993. The DVD of the show is the only way to see a recorded performance of Porgy and Bess.
The latest production opened on Broadway Jan. 17, 2012, and is the most disability-phobic to date. Renamed The Gershwins’ Porgy and Bess, it is an attempt to turn the folk opera into a successful Broadway musical. Based on the original three-and-a-half hour opera, it has been trimmed to two-and-a-half hours. The show has drawn controversy, not the least of which was a highly critical New York Times letter from musical theater composer Stephen Sondheim. He is particularly critical of the lack of recognition for Heyward. Sondheim is one of the few to question Porgy’s de-crippling, saying, “[They have even] taken away Porgy’s goat cart in favor of a cane.”
Throughout this production, Porgy is not shown to be a disabled person finally gaining access to love, but a damaged man who just needs to go to the doctor and get fitted for a leg brace. Then he can sample and lose love. In addition to the now regulation crutch, after getting the leg brace he uses a less-stigmatizing cane to become a more normal and acceptable man to Bess.
Thus, the perfectly useful push board and goat cart have been banished. Admittedly, it is impractical to have eight performances a week with a live goat. Also, it is difficult for nondisabled singers playing Porgy to spend so much time sitting on their feet while robustly singing. Unfortunately, to solve the problem, producers and directors rely on stereotypes rather than having a disabled actor or even a disabled expert to guide the stage business.
Few of the post-1975 productions have found a way to show Porgy as the physically powerful paraplegic described in the novel and played on Broadway in 1935. Most of the directors, producers, and critics of the opera do not realize how important it is to show Porgy as strong and non-walking for the performance to work.
The strongest criticisms of the newest version have been that the drama is missing. If Porgy is not a visibly disabled man who finds and fights for love, then the key tension is lost. It is Porgy and his disabled status that gives the opera its majesty and strength.
Manliness and Disability
Porgy and Bess is one of the few popular works that presents a bona fide disabled person. The author of the popular novel Porgy had a visible disability from polio. Hayward showed an interest in what it means to be a man with a disability. He describes reading a news article about Samuel Smalls, a goat-cart using beggar. Smalls tried to elude police in his goat cart after shooting at a woman. It was not the first time he had tried to murder a woman.
Heyward knew the beggar, Samuel Smalls or Goat Cart Sammy, by sight, but did not recognize their shared disability identity. Upon reading about Sammy’s second run-in with the police, Heyward realized that this beggar had strong emotions that Heyward could not have guessed. Perhaps he did not consciously see that his disability made him a peer to Goat Cart Sammy, but Sammy’s story awoke in Heyward a new opportunity to plumb the nature of manliness and disability.
Heyward’s wife, Dorothy, quotes him saying, “From contemplation of his real, and deeply moving, tragedy, sprang Porgy, a creature of my imagination … upon whom, being my own creation, I could impose my own … conception of a summer of aspiration, devotion, and heartbreak across the color wall.”
The story of Porgy and Bess is one of redemption, strength, pride, and love, in addition to misfortune. At its core, it is an authentic disability story, told by the disabled poet and writer Dubose Heyward. Instead of the typical stereotypes seen today on television and the movies, Porgy was unique. He did not seek a cure for his disability, nor pine to be nondisabled. He discovers, in his isolation and loneliness, that he wants what nondisabled men have — freedom, love and a family. With those he flourished — until fate took it all from him.