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messing with the classics

August 12, 2011

I’ve been following the controversy over Diane Paulus’ new interpretation of Porgy and Bess with some interest. First, the New York Times ran a piece about the collaboration between Paulus, Audra MacDonald (Bess), and Suzan-Lori Parks (writer). Then Stephen Sondheim responded with vehemence against messing with what he regards as the Gershwins’ and DuBose Heyward’s masterpiece. Then New York Magazine’s Vulture theater blog, Stage Dive, took up the story and eventually got to the heart of the matter:

The Times piece that touched Sondheim’s nerve makes only passing reference to Porgy’s still-clicking-hot racial radioactivity. It’s a story of “black life” penned by a white Southerner, scored by a New York Jewish composer, written in dialect (cartoonish, by today’s standards) and containing strong whiffs of well-intentioned paternalism, tourism, and exoticism. This isn’t much discussed by the Times or Sondheim, but it might help explain the apologetic posture Paulus and her collaborators strike on Porgy’s behalf. …

By attacking the alleged thinness of the story and characters — by attempting to transform “archetypes” into “full-blooded characters” — they’re really promising to bring humanity to characters many feel were originally denied it, not by conspiracy or malice but by the de facto limitations of the show’s original authors, white men writing in 1935.

I find myself wondering whether Sondheim thinks Porgy and Bess should always be done with the racist and sexist aspects in tact, if it should never be done at all, or if he believes that nothing about the piece is racist or sexist.

I was interested in the original Times piece because of the nature of the collaboration between the three women. They are attempting to address the fact that the central female character is not as well written as the male ones. In MacDonald’s words, Bess is “often more of a plot device than a full-blooded character.” But I am not of the school of thought that back story is what makes interesting characters. Character is created structurally through writing, through the nature of the dialogue. Word choice, rhythm of speech, use of idiom, and even tenses of verbs create character, not a fictional relationship with a fictional mother. What new words Parks is using and how they function in relation to the music will tell us whether they have actually deepened the character and her story or simply added details.

More generally, the discussion of whether it is “okay” to mess with a classic text begs the question of whether doing it the traditional way or messing with it results in good art or not. That should be the criteria, not whether the original text is sacred. A version of Porgy and Bess done just the way the original creators wanted would likely have far less relevance now than one created with both the history of the piece and the present moment in mind. Why ignore the negative aspects of an otherwise beautiful piece when dealing with them directly might actually allow what works about it to function even more effectively?

(Similarly, the movie of Kathryn Stockett’s The Help had the opportunity to correct any inaccuracies in the dialect, to heighten the discomfort that one feels with its reluctant protagonist, and to utilize it’s precipitous ending to cast doubt on the black characters’ historically improbable happily ever afters. I don’t know about the first one, but from the reports I’ve read, it does not do the second two things.)

From a feminist perspective, the question to ask is whether Bess is the agent of her own fate or not. Is she a subject, who thinks and acts and has an effect on the action, or is she an object, acted upon, thought about, activated only by others. If Paulus and co. have found a way to make Bess a subject, I am all for it.

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