Anton BRUEHL | Porgy and Bess

Australia 1900 – United States of America 1982
United States from 1919

Porgy and Bess 1942
tri-colour carbro colour photograph
titled with "Sample" in pencil verso print.
image 32.3 (h) x 26.0 (w) cm
NGA Photography Fund (donation by Dr Peter Farrell)
National Gallery of Australia, Canberra
NGA 2000.379


The 1924 novel Porgy, by Dubose and Dorothy Heyward, told the story of impoverished African-Americans in fictitious Catfish Row (based on real life Cabbage Row) in Charleston, South Carolina, in the 1920s. It followed the lives of Porgy, a crippled beggar, and his love, Bess, and presented confronting social issues revolving around race and class. Gershwin read the novel in 1926 and was so moved by the story that he immediately wrote to Dubose Heyward suggesting that they collaborate on a folk opera based on the novel. The now famous American folk opera, Porgy and Bess premiered in October 1935 at the Alvin Theater. With jazz and folk inspired music by Gershwin and lyrics by Ira Gershwin and Dubose Heywood, it contained memorable classic numbers including ‘Summertime’ and ‘It ain’t necessarily so’.

For the role of Bess, Gershwin cast Anne Brown (in red at the rear). Gershwin worried that Brown’s complexion was too light and Bess, he pointed out, was little more than a street walker. Brown admitted that mastering the role had been a challenge: ‘I was young and came from a terribly conservative middle-class black family…My father didn’t like the way negroes were portrayed. There was so much drinking and all that sort of thing, killing and fighting. “One more stereotype”, he thought. We had to accept that sort of thing then.’

Bruehl’s tableau was made for the 1942 Broadway revival, directed and produced by Cheryl Crawford. Drastically cut down from the first staging which had run for four hours, it opened at the Majestic Theater in January. Todd Duncan and Anne Brown reprised their title characters though in June, the contralto Etta Moten, whom Gershwin had first envisioned as Bess, replaced Brown. This became Moten’s signature role.

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