No one who has heard the hypnotic strains of “Summertime” will ever forget – a soulful trumpet, and then, like an angel from heaven, a high soprano sings, “Summertime, and the living is easy. This is a prophecy of hope over a new baby – nothing can harm you, your daddy is rich and your ma is good looking. You will someday take your wings and fly, the child of promise.”
Forget for a moment that the composer is a New York Jew in his 30s, and the scene is a 1920s Charleston barrio for the children and grandchildren of Southern slaves. Summertime is not easy – there are corn, beans, and tomatoes to can, fish to catch and preserve, and the evils of life to battle. But this is America, where it is always summertime, and hope makes life seem easy.
Porgy is Everyman – disabled, lonely, living hand to mouth, but with a pure heart. Bess is involved with Crown, a hard-drinking, womanizing cad suspected of murder. She is addicted to “happy dust” and unable to handle the world, the flesh and the devil arrayed against her. Sportin’ Life is a demonic prototype singing in a high falsetto about the glories of evil and the errors of God: “It Ain’t Necessarily So.”
The Catfish Row family tries to help Bess, while Porgy elects to be her savior and protector. Bad weather kills the new father in his fishing boat, and Crown tries to take over the encampment. Porgy defends Bess and murders Crown. After Porgy is jailed, Sportin’ Life lures Bess into a trip to New York. The local bureaucracy, like governments everywhere, is either overly involved or indifferent, and it lets Porgy off. Finding Bess gone, Porgy plans to leave for New York. Our hearts in the audience drop like a stone.
I was 13 when I heard this drama. I remember that even at that age, I gasped, knowing that poor crippled Porgy was no match for New Yawk City. He will be shredded and left for dead in a Harlem sewer somewhere. But he is hopeful. His love for Bess and his dream set him forth. He takes up his wings and flies.
There is a reason this drama is called the American opera. In no other country do you ever hear of a national dream – a Russian dream, a Brazilian dream, even a British dream. Only in America do we have an identifiable prophecy in the words of this song: your daddy is America, he’s rich, and also good looking; America will watch over you and protect you, no matter how poor or ignominious your birth. And someday you will take up your wings and fly. That is America.
We’ve hardly noticed this, but Jews in the arts have defined us. Irving Berlin wrote the rousing “God Bless America,” which prefaced World War II and became an anthem to a generation. A group of Jews produced The Wizard of Oz, the persistent search for a sense of self, our weaknesses and our strengths in a nation with a permanent rainbow, Somewhere. The American dream is the Jewish dream, a place where all people will be treated equally, and no one jailed or ruined because of his religion, or looks, or cultural patrimony. And until the formation of the nation of Israel in 1948, there was no other place on earth the Jew could feel safe and join in the promises.
But Porgy and Bess is more than just the story of the American Prophecy. It is also George Gershwin’s story. He is Porgy, crippled by drink and self-neglect; he is Bess, lured by addictions. The accolades of the New York glitterati could not save him. His doctors too were careless, according to later reports. But he defined America for us.