Porgy and Bess Synopsis

The Summary of Gershwin’s 3-Act Opera

Men playing piano
Amy T. Zielinski / Contributor


George Gershwin


Autumn, 1935 - Carnegie Hall, New York City

Other Popular Opera Synopses:

Strauss' Elektra, Mozart's The Magic Flute, Verdi's Rigoletto, & Puccini's Madama Butterfly

Setting of Porgy and Bess:

Gershwin’s Porgy and Bess takes place in the made up town of Catfish Row in 1920s’ South Carolina.

The Story of Porgy and Bess

Porgy and Bess, ACT 1

On a hot summer evening in Catfish Row, Jasbro Brown plays the piano while the townsfolk listen. Clara, a young woman, sings a lullaby to her baby (the famous "Summertime"). Meanwhile, a small group of men set up for a game of craps. Robbins, who is preparing his things to join in the game, is told by his religious wife, Serena, that he cannot play. Robbins gets angry and snaps at her, saying that it's a Saturday night and it's his right as a man to play. Clara is unsuccessful getting her baby to go to sleep, so her husband, fisherman Jake, takes a shot and sings another lullaby ("A Woman is a Sometime Thing"). Despite his efforts, their baby is not falling asleep. Men from around town trickle in to join the craps game, including fisherman Mingo and Jim, who works down at the docks loading and unloading cargo from the ships. Jim expresses that he has grown tired of his job and decides to try and make a living by joining Jake and Mingo as a fisherman. Porgy, a poor, disabled beggar, arrives with his goat cart ready to organize the game, while Peter, the honeyman, follows behind pushing his vendor stall. Crown, a brute of a man, and his girl, Bess, arrive, before walking over to Sportin' Life, the local drug dealer, to purchase a bottle of whiskey and "happy dust." Serena and Maria turn their noses up to Bess, criticizing her ungodly, hedonistic way of life. Sweetly, Porgy defends Bess. The evening is all well and fine when the game begins, but as the night progresses, things turn sour, especially after Crown has nearly drank the entire bottle of whiskey. When Crown and Robbins are the only men left in the game, the belligerent Crown reacts violently to Robbins' winning dice roll. Crown will not let him take the winnings. They begin to fight, and the short and intense brawl ends with Crown stabbing Robbins with a cotton hook. As Robbins lies lifelessly on the floor, Crown bolts out of town, telling Bess that she'll have to manage life on her own until he can return without fear of persecution. Sportin' Life gives Bess a dose of happy dust and tells her that she can travel with him to New York. Bess turns down his offer and starts frantically knocking on door after door. Sadly, she is refused by everyone in town. When she knocks on Porgy's door, however, he is kind enough to let her stay with him.

The next day, Serena hosts her deceased husband's wake. Robbins body has been prepared for burial with a large saucer placed on his chest for mourners to donate money to help cover the burial costs. Bess and Porgy enter the room. Bess places a small sum of cash onto the plate, but Serena immediately withdraws Bess' donation. Bess explains that she now lives with Porgy. Abruptly, the wake is interrupted by a detective. As he begins to accuse Peter the honeyman of murder, Peter is quick to name Crown as the killer. Peter is arrested none the less, and will serve as the key witness forced to testify against Crown. When the undertaker arrives, he finds only $15 in the collection plate. Burials cost $25. Serena talks him in to accepting the $15 as long as she pays him the remaining $10 balance in due time. Bess, who has distanced herself from the rest of the women, largely due to their nonacceptance of her, is moved by the the undertaker carrying away Robbins' body and begins to sing a gospel. The other women take notice and begin joining her, finally easing up on their unkindness to her.

Porgy and Bess, ACT 2

A month has passed and life in Catfish Row seems to have gone back to normal. As Jake prepares to leave for his job on the fishing boat, Clara asks him to stay. Every year around the same time, dangerous storms take place, and today happens to be the day the storms begin. Jake knows they are in desperate need of money and assures her of his safety. From his window, Porgy looks out into town. Sportin' Life peddles his wares and merchandise to anyone willing to listen, but Maria scolds him and chases him away. Moments later, a man pretending to be a lawyer knocks on Porgy's door, seeking Bess. Bess and Frazier discuss her divorce from Crown, and even though they weren't really married, Frazier increases his price and convinces Bess to sign the divorce papers, and he collects his fare. Another lawyer enters their home and tells them that Peter will be released within the coming days. When a buzzard is spotted flying over town, Porgy believes it to be a bad omen, and yells at it to go away. In this moment, he is happy and content with his life with Bess.

The men, women, and children of Catfish Row are gathering their things to participate in the church picnic on Kittiwah Island. Bess is approached by Sportin' Life and he asks her to go with him to New York for a second time. After she refuses, he offers her some happy dust. Bess tells him she no longer uses drugs. Porgy catches Sportin' Life talking to Bess and he scares him away. Before exiting, Sportin' Life tells Bess that he will always be there for her. Porgy and Bess confess their love for one another. As Maria heads to the boat, she invites Bess to come along with them to the church picnic. Bess declines initially, but is persuaded by Maria to join. Porgy stays behind since his disability prohibits him from traveling on the boat. As Bess leaves, Porgy watches them embark.

The townsfolk are enjoying themselves at the picnic, while Sportin' Life points out the Bible's flaws. Serena is quick to shut him down. As the picnic winds down to a close, people start making their way back to the boat. Bess is one of the last ones to leave, and is nearly tackled by Crown who has been hiding in the bushes. Crown demands that Bess return to him, but Bess tells him about her happy life with Porgy. Crown laughs at her situation, telling her that it is only temporary. She pleads with him to forget about her, but he refuses to give her up so easily. Crown holds her back as she attempts to flee to the boat. As the boat departs, Bess is left behind with Crown who forces himself upon her.

After a week has passed, Jake gets ready to head to the waterfront, despite the storm warnings from one of the fishermen. Peter returns to town, timid and unsure of himself, while Bess has remained bedridden with a fever after escaping from Kittiwah Island. Serena pays a visit to Bess and prays to Jesus for Bess' healing. She promises Porgy and Bess that the lord will heal Bess when the clock strikes five. Throughout the day, street vendors make their way through Catfish Row. Finally, at five o'clock, Bess' fever miraculously breaks and her health returns. Porgy admits that he knows Bess has been with Crown. Bess confesses that it is true, but she doesn't love Crown. She loves Porgy, but fears that Crown's hold on her is too strong. Porgy tells her she is free to do what she wants. She tells Porgy she would rather spend her time with him rather than Crown, and begs Porgy to protect her. Overcome with joy, Porgy vows to protect her, promising that she'll never have to fear for her life again. Meanwhile, Clara has been fretting and worrying for her husband Jake. The storms seem usually strong this time. Maria comforts and consoles her, but her efforts are interrupted by the sudden ringing of the hurricane bells.

The following morning, most of the Catfish Row residents take shelter in Serena's home. Singing prayers and hymns, the thunderous winds can barely be heard above the melodious voices. Clara sings her baby a lullaby, hoping to calm her and her baby's nerves. When a loud knock bellows from the door, everyone believes Death has arrived to take them away. To their dismay, it turns out to be Crown searching for Bess. He tells them that he and God are friends after a hard struggle from escaping the island. Just then, Clara shouts when Jake's fishing boat floats upside-down by the window. Clara gives Bess her baby and rushes outside hoping to find her husband. Bess shouts at the men to help Clara, and Crown mocks Porgy for his disability and inability to help. Finally, Crown offers to help Clara and leaves the house mocking God for one more round.

Porgy and Bess, ACT 3

When dawn breaks the following day, the storm surge recedes, and folks begin to take inventory of their life and belongings. Women mourn the loss of Clara, Jake, and the other fishermen. They even mourn for Crown. Sportin' Life begins to tease them, telling them that just because they cannot find Crown doesn't mean he is dead. He proceeds to explain to them that if a woman has one man, she has him for life, but if she has two, she'll end up with none. Maria chases him away again. Bess comforts Clara's baby by singing Clara's lullaby. When the sun sets and darkness falls, Crown sneaks into Porgy's home to reclaim Bess. Porgy is alerted to Crown's entering and intercepts him. As the two men fight, Porgy delivers a fatal blow and Crown falls to the floor dead. Porgy proclaims to Bess that he is the man for her.

The next day, the detective arrives seeking information about both Robbins' and Crown's deaths. All the women confronted by the detective play dumb to even knowing Crown. Frustrated, the detective finally takes Porgy in to identify the body after Porgy confesses that he knew of Crown. Happy to see Porgy escorted away by the police, Sportin' Life tells him that corpses only bleed when they are confronted by their killer. When Porgy is asked to identify Crown's body, he refuses to do so but is dragged off to jail anyway. Without the threats of Porgy, Sportin' Life approaches Bess once more. He tries convincing her to move with him to New York, especially now that Porgy will be in jail for a very long time. After refusing happy dust for a third time, Sportin' Life forces her to breathe in the drug. While high, Bess is persuaded by Sportin' Life's dreamy depiction of their new life together in New York. When she comes down from her high, she regains her mental strength and runs inside her house, slamming the door behind her. Happy with his accomplishment, Sportin' Life leaves a small bag of happy dust on her doorstep.

Porgy is released from jail in only one week's time since he was only booked for refusing to identify Crown's body. While incarcerated, Porgy won a large sum of money playing craps with the other inmates. When he returns to Catfish Row with a bag full of gifts, he begins to hand them out to his friends. Saving Bess' gift for last, a beautiful red dress, he asks the women where she is. Porgy becomes uneasy when he hears their ambiguous replies, especially after seeing Serena in care of Clara's baby. He finally learns the truth after speaking with Serena and Maria. Bess has relapsed and run off to New York with Sportin' Life. Determined to find her, Porgy prays to God and sets out to New York City.

Even More Popular Opera Synopses:
Donizetti's Anna Bolena, Wagner's Die Meistersinger von Nurnberg, Verdi's Ernani, Handel's Giulio Cesare, and Wagner's The Flying Dutchman. Also see Verdi's Opera