THE BOOK SHELF: "On My Way: The Untold Story of Rouben Mamoulian, George Gershwin, and Porgy and Bess"

By Steven Suskin
11 Aug 2013

With Mamoulian, it seems. Horowitz plays detective, working from various manuscripts. He explains how the original production script of the play incorporates certain changes from Heyward's novella. Mamoulian's working script, though, is heavily annotated in the director's own hand with more changes, additions and deletions. This doesn't necessarily mean that these were in fact made by Mamoulian; he could have just jotted them down. But they are described elsewhere, by Mamoulian, the Heywards, and Theresa Helburn of the Guild, as Mamoulian's suggestions. One of the too few pictorial illustrations offered in Horowitz's book is a page of the typescript on which Mamoulian has written in lines and direction for the final scene, including that immortal line, "Bring m' goat!" Mamoulian goes on, with words that any lover of Porgy and Bess will be able to sing right back at you: "Ain't you say Bess gone to Noo Yawk, dat's where I goin', I gots to be wid Bess." Mamoulian continues into "Oh, Lord, I'm on my way to heavenly land" — and this is in 1927, long before Gershwin's involvement.

If this key material was indeed devised and written by Mamoulian, then we have a new element to consider when we think about the Gershwin/Heyward collaboration. (While the various estates now call the piece The Gershwins' Porgy and Bess, Ira is hardly mentioned.) According to Horowitz, this final scene pulled from Mamoulian's promptbook was used in the 1927 production of Porgy. These lines do not appear in the published version of the play, he says, although this wouldn't be the only time that a published script — authorized by the playwrights — did not include changes forced upon them by directors or playdoctors. There was, indeed, some ill feeling between DuBose and Mamoulian; when the Guild agreed to produce the Porgy and Bess, Heyward insisted they offer it to other directors before finally agreeing to go back to Mamoulian.

Horowitz has plenty more to say about the adaptation, but I'll leave it to you to discover. He offers separate sections on the play, the opera, and the film version. What I find most remarkable about "On My Way," though, are the descriptions of Mamoulian's staging. These, too, are taken from the director's working scripts, where he meticulously denoted the blocking. Porgy and Bess had an enormous ensemble — a cast of 82, including 27 children, and Mamoulian describes the staging using the names of the individual ensemble members.

We learn how, in the fight between Crown and Robbins, the crowd "weaves in and out like a serpent, following them, coming in close and backing to walls again." Mamoulian directed the male ensemble members to individually act as if he feared that he himself would get in Crown's way and be stabbed. The same sort of staging can be found in the hurricane scene, when the terrified ensemble is "thrust forward in supplication or propelled backward by Crown."

Most remarkable is the extended discussion of the funeral scene. This was built on four musical episodes: the opening lament for the chorus, "Gone"; "Overflow," in which the crowd pleads for people to fill the saucer with coin for the burial — and in which Porgy arrives at the wake, bringing Crown's Bess despite objections from the God-fearin' women; "My Man's Gone Now," Serena's soaring and haunting aria (a section not found in novella or play); and "Leavin' fo' de Promise' Lan'", in which Bess leads the mourners to exultation.

Horowitz gives us four pages on this. As "My Man's Gone Now" begins, Mamoulian has the chorus, standing, "lean backward, heads to heaven, swaying slowly with eyes closed"; Porgy and Bess sit together back-to-back, "heads together like masks." The number builds to Serena's haunting wail near the end. Everybody leans forward, heads to their knees. As Serena starts the glissando, "she sweeps the floor with her right hand as she circles and rises to a standing position." As she sings her final keening descent, "Ross, Yeates, Hines, McLean fall flat on the floor." Finally, Serena collapses sobbing.