Porgy and Bess, libretto by DuBose Heyward, lithographs by Kara Walker, Arion Press (2013)

The latest publication from Arion Press is the libretto, written by DuBose Heyward, from Porgy and Bess. First performed in 1935, the opera has music by George Gershwin and lyrics by DuBose Heyward and Ira Gershwin. The opera was based on the play Porgy, written by DuBose Heyward and his wife Dorothy Heyward, which in turn was based on DuBose Heyward’s novel Porgy. George Gershwin described Porgy & Bess as an “American folk opera”, which remains an excellent classification of the work. The focus is on African-American life in the fictitious Catfish Row (based on the real area of Cabbage Row) in Charleston, South Carolina, in the 1920s.

Porgy and Bess is, first and foremost, a tragic love story that transcends race and the setting of the story. Man loves woman, woman loves man, tragedy and circumstances cause their separation, leaving pain and angst. Yet, the setting of Porgy and Bess, especially considering the horrible conditions thrust upon the African-American community at the time, provides the soul of the story, lifting it from yet another love story to one which resonates deeply in the American consciousness.

A look at some of the dialogue gives one a good feel of the tone of the story and the melody of the writing. Here, early in the story, some of the characters have a discussion that has been had a million times before:

Robbins

I have been sweatin’ all day. Night time is a man’s time. He got a right to forget his troubles. He got a right to play.

Serena

If you hadn’t been drinkin’ you wouldn’t talk to me that way. You ain’t nebber hear Lord Jesus say nuttin’ ’bout got to play.

Men

A man’s got a right to play.

Robbins

Yes, sir, that’s right. That ole lady of mine is hell on savin’ money o join the buryin’ lodge. I says spend it while you is still alive and kickin’.

Porgy, poor and crippled, falls for Bess, sweet, but with a reputation for easiness and drinking. Initially, Porgy denies liking her, though in a manner that leaves the door open and certainly gets the reader in deep sympathy with him.

Porgy

Can’t you keep yo’ mouth off Bess? Between Gawd fearing’ ladies and the Gawd damnin’ men, that gal ain’t got a chance.

Jake

Ain’ I tells you Porgy sof’ on her?

Porgy

No, no, brudder, Porgy ain’ sof’ on no woman. They pass by singin’, they pass by cryin’, always lookin’. They look in my do’ an’ they keep on movin’. When Gawd make cripple, He mean him to be lonely. Night time, day time, he got to trabble dat lonesome road. Night time, day time, he got to trabble dat lonesome road.

Eventually, Porgy and Bess do become a couple, producing glorious verse-like folk hymns of love in a distinctly American style.

Maria

I tells you dat cripple’s happy now.

Women

Happy.

Porgy

I got plenty o’nuttin’, an nuttin’s plenty for me. I got de sun, got de moon, got de deep blue sea. De folks wid plenty o’ plenty, got to pray all day. Seems wid plenty you sure got to worry how to keep de debble away, away. I ain’t a frettin’ ’bout hell till de time arrive. Never worry as long as I’m well, never one to strive to be good, to be bad, what de hell, I is glad I’s alive. Oh, I got plenty o’nuttin’, an nuttin’s plenty for me. I got my gal, got my song, got Hebben de whole day long. No use complainin’. Got my gal, got my Lawd, got my song!

Later, along the same line’s:

Porgy

Boss, dat bird mean trouble. Once de buzzard fold his wing an’ light over yo’ house, all yo’ happiness done dead. Buzzard keep on flyin’ over, take along yo’ shadow. Ain’ nobody dead dis mornin’, livin’s jus’ begun. Two is strong where one is feeble.; man an’ woman livin’, workin’, sharin’ grief an’ sharin’ laughter, an’ love like Augus’ sun. Trouble, is dat you over yonder, lookin’ lean an’ hungry? Don’t you let dat buzzard keep you hangin’ ‘roun’ my do’. Ain’ you heard de news this mornin’? Step out, brudder, hit de gravel; Porgy, who you used to feed on, don’ live here no mo’. Ha, ha, ha, ha, ha! Ha! Buzzard, on yo’ way! Ole age, what is you anyhow? Nuttin’ but bein’ lonely. Pack yo’ things an’ fly from here, carry grief an’ pain. Dere’s two folks livin’ in dis shelter; eatin’, sleepin’, singin’, prayin’. Ain’ no such thing as loneliness, an’  Porgy’s young again. Buzzard, keep on flyin’, Porgy’s young again

….

Oh, Bess, my Bess! De real happiness is jes’ begun.

Bess

Porgy, I’s yo’ woman now, I is, I is! An’ I ain’ never goin’ nowhere ‘less you shares de fun. Dere’s no wrinkle on my brow, no how. But I ain’ goin’! You hear me sayin’, if you ain’ goin’, wid you I’m stayin’. Porgy, I’s yo’ woman now. I’s yours forever: mornin’ time, an’ evenin’ time, an’ summer time, an’ winter time.

Porgy

Mornin’ time, an’ evenin’ time, an’ summer time, an’ winter time. Bess, you got yo’ man.

Without giving away too much, later dark clouds of trouble (fate?) come in between Porgy and Bess, first in the form of a former lover of Bess (named Crown), and eventually in the form of a long-time admirer of Bess (named Sporting Life).

Porgy

You ain’ got nuttin’ to be afraid of; I ain’ try to keep no woman what don’t want to stay. If you wants to go to Crown, dat’s for you to say.

Bess

I loves you Porgy. Don’ let him take me. Don’ let him handle me an’ drive me mad, If you kin keep me, I wants to stay here wid you forever. An’ I’d be glad.

While Crown does not succeed with his designs, Sporting Life does (through nefarious means), leaving Porgy crushed.

Porgy

I ain’ axin’ yo’ opinion. Oh, Bess, oh where’s my Bess? Won’t somebody tell me where? I ain’ care what she say, I ain’ care what she done. Won’t somebody tell me where’s my Bess? Bess, oh, Lawd.

….

Ain’t you say Bess gone to Noo York? Dat’s where I goin’, I got to be wid Bess. Gawd help me to fin’ her. I’m on my way. Oh Lawd, I’m on my way.

Porgy and Chorus

I’m on my way to a Heav’nly Lan’; I’ll ride dat long, long road, if You are there to guide my han’. Oh Lawd, I’m on my way. I’m on my way to a Heav’nly Lan’, oh Lawd. It’s a long, long way, but You’ll be there to take my han’.

Porgy and Bess is now considered one of the great American opera’s. Though first performed in 1935, it was not until the 1970’s that it attained the high critical acclaim that it now receives. The work has always been somewhat controversial, occasionally accused of being racist due to its portrayal —  some say stereo-typed, negative connotations — of African-Americans. However, the work has gained large amounts of acceptance in the African-American community, especially the music which not only was influenced by the New York Jazz scene, but also by southern black music and traditions.

This Arion Press release is a livre d’artiste featuring the work, in the form of sixteen original lithographs, of the renowned African-American artist Kara Walker.  Walker (b. 1969) is known for her “candid investigation of race, gender, sexuality, and violence through silhouetted figures” that have appeared in numerous exhibitions worldwide.  Is her artist statement for this work she writes:

Unable to break free, seems appropriate as a way to describe my images for this edition. It’s hard to claim ownership of these characters, and impossible to wrest them away from their archetypal status. They are archetypes beyond the grand opera theme of “star crossed lovers”; they’ve become archetypes of another no less grand drama, that of: “American Negroes drawn up by white authors, and retooled by individual actors, amid charges of racism, and counter charges of high-art on stage and screen, in the face of social and political upheaval, over generations.” Because they are fraught, I chose to simply let them be paper cut-out caricatures whose full dimensions are alluded to by rubbing. In a sense I wanted to subject those paper figures to pressure, satisfying some implied demand that the artist perform with due diligence, an unpacking of the signifiers “Porgy” and “Bess”. But haven’t they been through enough heartbreak?.

In 1997, while only 28, Walker received a MacArthur fellowship. In 2012, Walker was elected a member of the American Academy of Arts and Letters. Her work is included in numerous museums and public collections including The Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, New York; The Museum of Modern Art, New York; The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York; The Tate Gallery, London; the Centro Nazionale per le Arti Contemporanee, Rome; Deutsche Bank, Frankfurt; and the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art. Born in 1969, she lives and works in New York City and is on the faculty of the MFA program at Columbia University.

This edition from Arion Press is beautifully done in a manner perfectly reflecting the time and place of the story. The binding is eye-catching with a red goat skin spine and patterned calico cloth reminiscent of fabric used in the 1920’s African American community, with a design containing hurricane flags relevant for the setting and the story itself. The bright white paper — French mouldmade Johannot — has a soft, luxurious feel and is a perfect media for the red and blank inks and the multiple types used (Craw Clarendon, Craw Clarendon Modern Bold, Lining Gothic, News Gothic, and Gloria). According to Andrew Hoyem, this is the most typefaces he ever used in a book design. My opinion is they work perfectly, and in fact may go down as one of the best selection of typefaces in Arion’s storied history of excellent design choice of type. The lithographs from Walker are narrative-based, foreboding and emotional, successfully complementing the feel and soul of the story. The work combines aspects of her signature silhouette-based style, in this instance with stereotype and caricature, sometimes grotesque, with what seems to me to be classical elements and what even seems to be some Cubist aspects (which I am probably just dreaming!). Her work has sometimes been controversial, but there is nothing of that sort here. The role of an illustrator, even in a livre d’artiste, should be to complement the work being illustrated, not to dominate it. Here, Walker succeeds.

About the Edition

  • Sixteen original lithographs by Kara Walker, hand-sewn into each volume
  • Kara Walker drew on frosted Mylar with lithographic crayon and inks; drawings were made into plates for printing on a large lithographic proofing press at Derriere L’Etoile Studio NYC, under the supervision of Maurice Sanchaz
  • Prints attached to hinges of thin Japanese paper, which are pasted to folded three page signatures within sewing sections
  • The paper is French mouldmade Johannot, thinner for the text, heavier for the prints
  • The types are Craw Clarendon, Craw Clarendon Modern Bold, Lining Gothic, News Gothic, and Gloria, printed by letterpress
  • The title and headings are in red ink
  • The binding has a red goatskin spine with stamped title and calico cloth over the boards, reminiscent of fabric used by the black women of Charleston, South Carolina, in the period, a pattern of triangles that recalls hurricane flags
  • The book is housed in a slipcase covered with dark grey cloth, with titling on the spine, stamped in red
  • Large quarto in format, 12 1/2″ x 9 3/4″, 108 numbered pages plus 16 leaves for the lithographs, total of 140 pages
  • Limited to 400 copies, 40 of which accompanied by an extra suite of four prints
  • Signed by Kara Walker

Pictures of the Edition

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{Ed. Note: A complete gallery of images from the book exists here.}

Porgy & Bess, Arion Press, Slipcase
Porgy & Bess, Arion Press, Slipcase
Porgy & Bess, Arion Press, Spine and Covers
Porgy & Bess, Arion Press, Spine and Covers
Porgy & Bess, Arion Press, Macro of Spine
Porgy & Bess, Arion Press, Macro of Spine
Porgy & Bess, Arion Press, Cover
Porgy & Bess, Arion Press, Cover
Porgy & Bess, Arion Press, Macro of Cover
Porgy & Bess, Arion Press, Macro of Cover
Porgy & Bess, Arion Press, Title Page
Porgy & Bess, Arion Press, Title Page
Porgy & Bess, Arion Press, Macro of Title Page
Porgy & Bess, Arion Press, Macro of Title Page
Porgy & Bess, Arion Press, Contents
Porgy & Bess, Arion Press, Contents
Porgy & Bess, Arion Press, Sample Text #1 (Introduction)
Porgy & Bess, Arion Press, Sample Text #1 (Introduction)
Porgy & Bess, Arion Press, Sample Text #2
Porgy & Bess, Arion Press, Sample Text #2
Porgy & Bess, Arion Press, Macro of Sample Text #2
Porgy & Bess, Arion Press, Macro of Sample Text #2
Porgy & Bess, Arion Press, Sample Illustration #1 with text
Porgy & Bess, Arion Press, Sample Illustration #1 with text
Porgy & Bess, Arion Press, Sample Illustration #4 with text
Porgy & Bess, Arion Press, Sample Illustration #2 with text
Porgy & Bess, Arion Press, Sample Text #3
Porgy & Bess, Arion Press, Sample Text #3
Porgy & Bess, Arion Press, Sample Illustration #5 with text
Porgy & Bess, Arion Press, Sample Illustration #3 with text
Porgy & Bess, Arion Press, Macro of Text
Porgy & Bess, Arion Press, Macro of Text
Porgy & Bess, Arion Press, Sample Illustration #6 with text
Porgy & Bess, Arion Press, Sample Illustration #4 with text
Porgy & Bess, Arion Press, Colophon
Porgy & Bess, Arion Press, Colophon

One thought on “Porgy and Bess, libretto by DuBose Heyward, lithographs by Kara Walker, Arion Press (2013)

  1. Gorgeous book! Certainly my favorite of all recent Arion editions–for once the illustrations are a asset and not a cause for regret.

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