Gershwin’s Porgy and Bess has been subjected to much musicological study, criticism, and praise. The prevailing argument among those who extoll the opera is that, at the very heart of the production, lies a compelling and relatable story with complex, realistic characters. Perusing through the multitude of musicological sources on this Gershwin opera, Bess seems to be primarily defined as a loose woman with an uncontrollable desire for Crown. While there are authors who disagree with this assessment, many of them do not linger on the subject and offer no further explanation. This is both confounding and irritating to me, as it seems abundantly clear from he plot of the show that Bess is more of a victim than anything; why is Bess largely being written off as a woman who is unable to control herself when there is substantial evidence for her as a victim of abuse? The song, “What you want wid Bess,” is often discussed to explain Bess’s morals or—more accurately—the lack-thereof. Musicologists reference Gershwin’s music and claim that its contrast of anxious rhythms and sweet melodic lines present an internal struggle for Bess between her love for Porgy and lust for Crown. However, if examining the music in the scene and duet, it becomes even more clear that Bess is a victim of abuse.
Over the course of the opera, Crown has proven an aggressive, powerful, and violent individual. Not only is this obvious in the plot, but in Gershwin’s music as well. When Bess is on Kittiwah Island, trying to catch the boat back to the main land, the music is frantic and anxious, wandering in and out of unstable tonalities in the higher instruments like violins and flutes, but once she hears the distinct whisper of Crown’s voice, the music drops to a much more deliberate rhythm in the lower range on instruments, demonstrating both Crown’s threatening nature, as well as Bess’s initial response to seeing her former abuser once again. As the scene progresses, sweeter motifs are utilized as Crown attempts to coerce her into staying with him, however they are short-lived and quickly change again to a much faster, more anxious and intimidating rhythm as he grows irritated with Bess’s admittance that she is living with Porgy and has quit her drug use. Bess denies Crown’s advances multiple times before, during, and after the duet, but he refuses to listen to her and declares that he’s going to get what he wants from her no matter what she says. This is a clear trademark of an abusive relationship, so why are Bess’s morals brought into question when Crown is clearly the party at fault? Bess even explicitly references other physical abuse in their relationship when she says, “These five years I been yo’ woman/ You could kick me in the street/ Then when you wanted me back/ You could whistle, an’ there I was/ back again, lickin’ yo’ hand.”
The circumstances of this scene alone are enough to state that Crown has been Bess’s abuser for a number of years. In addition, Gershwin’s music also communicates the real threat that Crown presents; so why is it that more focus is placed on Bess’s supposed struggle between love and lust, when the problem goes so much deeper? It is safe to say that she is a woman that has made some poor decisions in life, both in selling her body and abusing drugs, but like many victims of abuse or addiction, these are likely the only things she knew and did not know how to free herself, which is why she had to ask for Porgy’s help later on. Although it is not an easy subject to discuss, to ignore these implications would result in a gross misunderstanding of the show, as the authors and composer strove to create a story and characters that reflected real-life circumstances.
By Jacque Hale
Conrad, Jon Allen. “Porgy and Bess.” In The Viking Opera Guide. 1st edition. Edited by Amanda Holden. New York: Penguin Books USA, 1993.
Crawford, Richard. “Porgy and Bess.” Grove Music Online. 30 Jan. 2018. http://0-www.oxfordmusiconline.com.lib.utep.edu/grovemusic/view/10.1093/gmo/9781561592630.001.0001/omo-9781561592630-e-5000004106.
Starr, Lawrence. “Toward a Reevaluation of Gershwin’s Porgy and Bess.” American Music 2, no. 2 (1984): 25-37. doi:10.2307/3051656.