In our recap of the story, where we left off: Bess, practically starving and at the end of her rope, has made one final, desperate attempt to save herself: She gives herself to Porgy. In Bess’ world, a woman needs a man to survive. Previously she was Crown’s woman, now she is Porgy’s woman. When she made that decision to enter Porgy’s room, she believed she was debasing herself to the nth degree; to her, Porgy is the bottom of the barrel, the street beggar with the goat. But her biological survival instinct, barely flickering within her, pushed her to this one, last, desperate step.
God’s grace comes in mysterious ways, as the saying goes. Or: “Salvation might appear from an unexpected direction.” Even to a woman who has fallen so hard, and so far, as our Bess.
In Heyward’s story, we don’t find out right away, or really at all, how things went in that room across the alley from Maria’s cook shop. Did they make love? Probably, but we don’t know for sure.
Come to think of it, we don’t know much about Bess’ relationship with Crown. We know that he is a violent brute and probably an abuser, we know that Bess has a scar on her face, but we don’t know for sure (and never learn, in fact) whether it was Crown who cut her, or somebody else in her debased, wretched life.
Even after Bess hooks up with Porgy, we don’t see or learn much about their relationship. We have just some basic observations to go on. The next time we see this “couple”, it’s when Serena Robbins comes knocking on Porgy’s door, and finds a woman within. It’s pretty clear that she knows who this woman is. They all know. And they all disapprove. The residents of Catfish Row do not send a Welcome Wagon to greet Bess. We shall see Bess’ struggles to fit in and find a friend.
Serena uses her contacts to help get Old Peter out of the slammer
In any case, when Serena comes a’knockin’, it’s not in relation to Bess. Instead, she bears some news about Porgy’s chum, Old Peter. Recall that Old Peter is still cooling his heels in the jail, detained as a “material witness” in the Robbins murder case. Robbins’ killer, Crown, is still on the lam, while Crown’s woman, Bess, is now living with Porgy in Catfish Row. Got all that? Also recall that Robbins’ widow, Serena, is working her fingers to the bone night and day, providing for her three children. Serena has one ace in the deck, however: She is on good terms with some influential white folks who are willing to help out with Old Peter’s case. During slavery times Serena’s family used to belong to this particular white family, and now she is their maid. They are actually decent people and try to help out where they can. We’ll see later that these white folks help the Catfish Row folks to hire a lawyer, Mr. Archdale, who works some kind of magic behind the scenes with the assistance of a $10 bribe. But first we have to meet a new, and very important, personage in this saga…
Enter the Sleazy Octoroon
The “octoroon”, Sportin’ Life appears out of nowhere in Maria’s cook show, just off the boat from New York City. And determined to get lynched right out of the gate, apparently:
“Yuh sho got good-lookin’ white gals in dis town,” drawled a slender young octoroon. He was attired in sky-blue, peg-top trousers, yellow spats, and in the centre of a scarlet bow-tie gleamed an immense paste horseshoe.
For those not in the know, an “octoroon” is a person with one-eighth African blood, and the other 7/8 European stock. Not unlike Russia’s national poet, Alexander Pushkin! I knew that already, but I did have to google “peg-top trousers”, apparently they were the height of fashion in the 1920’s and 1930’s, especially among fashionable negro dandies, the waistband is higher than the actual waist (I think), and when cinched in tight it looks like the top of a peg. (?) Obviously, one has to be slender and fit to pull this off, otherwise it would just be a ferocious muffin-top.
“Hey dudes, check out my peg-top trousers!”
So, we know that our new octopus friend is a male fashion model. We also learned, from the first words out of his mouth, that he likes white women and is used to dating them.
In the ensuing scene we learn something that we only just suspected before: that Maria the cook is the undisputed leader of Catfish Row. She is the one who sets, and enforces, the laws. And one very important law is this: Nobody will get lynched on her watch. She needs to set the new guy straight, since he is clearly bringing risk to their community, with his loose talk about dating white women. And in Maria’s intervention, we also see signs and portents of the writer, Heyward, defending his (white) community as well; making the point that Charleston is a civilized place, it’s not like barbaric Mississippi, there has never been a lynching here, and, if Maria has anything to say about it, there never shall be! Maria’s heavy tread shook the room as she crossed and stood, with arms akimbo, scowling down at her iridescent guest. The man looked up, lowered his eyes quickly, and shifted uneasily in his chair.
“[N-word]!” she finally shot at him, and the impact almost jarred him from his chair. “I jus’ tryin’ ter figger out wedder I bettuh kill yuh decent now, wid yuh frien’s about yuh; or leabe you fuh de w’ite gentlemens tuh hang attuh a while.” [“I’m just trying to figure out if I should kill you decently now, with your friends about you; or leave you for the white gentlemen to hang after a while.”]
Sportin’ Life starts to protest, that back in New York City where he came from..
But Maria won’t let him get a word in edgewise. In her ensuing tirade she informs that he is not in New York any more and that he better straighten up his act. There has never been a lynching (yet) in this county, and she would not like to see him as the first, however much she might despise him and regards him as a complete rattlesnake.
While this interesting exchange is going on, a white man enters the courtyard, and all chatter ceases. The protective curtain of silence which the negro draws about his life when the Caucasian intrudes hung almost tangibly in the air. No one appeared to notice the visitor. Each was busily preoccupied with his task. Yet the new-comer made no move that was not noted by fifty pairs of inscrutable eyes.
This could have been Mr. Archdale in his office.
The white dude is looking for Porgy. There is some ensuing slapstick comedy as one negro after another first deny they know any Porgy, until it is clarified that the man comes in peace and actually brings good news about Old Peter. Then it’s like, “Oh, that Porgy!”
The white man is the attorney, Mr. Alan Archdale. We shall see more of him in the story, but for now he is just involved in the project to get Old Peter out of jail. But it is an interesting start to the future relationship between these two very different men.
In the dim light, Porgy leaned forward and looked long into the keen, kindly face of his questioner. Archdale gave a surprised exclamation: “Why, you’re the old man who used to beg in front of the apothecary shop on King Charles Street!” he said. Then, after a moment of scrutiny: “But you are not old, after all, are you?” and he studied the face intently. There was a touch of grey in the wool above the ears, and strong character lines flared downward from the nose to corners of a mouth that was, at once, full-lipped and sensuous, yet set in a resolute line most unusual in a negro. With the first indications of age upon it, the face seemed still alive with a youth that had been neither spent nor wasted.
[This exposition, and the ambiguity of Porgy’s age, is an important foreshadowing of the end of the story; when Porgy, once and for all, becomes “old”.]
Important note: In the opera version, it is Crown rather than Sportin’ Life who takes up the “likes white woman” theme with his song about the Red-Headed Woman. The Gershwin Brothers concatenated something like 10 different themes from the story, into this rousing song. Either way, Maria would still be appalled, I reckon.
Next: Old Peter returns and is made whole again.
[to be continued]