By Kelley Rourke
Show Boat, Edna Ferber’s 1926 novel, spans four decades of American life and features a sprawling cast of characters. In addition to the diverse group of performers and workers aboard Captain Andy Hawks’ floating theater, there is, wrote Ferber, “such an audience as could be got together in no other kind of theater in the world. Farmers, laborers, Negroes; housewives, children, yokels, lovers; roustabouts, dock wallopers, backwoodsmen, rivermen, gamblers.”
Perhaps the novel’s most pervasive presence—after Magnolia Hawks, the young girl who grows up on the Cotton Blossom—is the river itself, which is whipped into a terrific, unexpected storm as the story opens. The mighty Mississippi also runs through the musical version of the story, created in 1927 by Jerome Kern and Oscar Hammerstein II. At key moments, the action pauses for a majestic reflection on “Ol’ man river,” who “jes’ keep rollin’ along.”
In the decades during which the impassive river carries the Cotton Blossom, he rolls through an America of growth—and growing pains. The country witnesses the openings of the old Metropolitan Opera House and Buffalo Bill Cody’s Wild West Show; the first “talkies”; “Jim Crow” laws; the introduction of the Model T Ford; the Ziegfeld Follies; the Parliament of the World’s Religions; the founding of the NAACP; the sinking of the Titanic; the completion of New York’s Grand Central Terminal and D.C.’s Union Station; Prohibition; Marian Anderson’s debut with the New York Philharmonic; the passage of women’s suffrage; the first trans-Atlantic flight; and the introduction of Cracker Jacks, Cream of Wheat, and Juicy Fruit gum.
The rapidly changing American landscape is more than just backdrop for Show Boat. Prominent in the plot’s rich tapestry are timeless yarns of romance and ambition, but Ferber—and later, Kern and Hammerstein—did not hesitate to weave in more controversial threads, such as racism and addiction. At Show Boat’s 1927 premiere, audience members may have felt a mixture of pride, dismay, and hope as the story sailed through three decades of recent history before finally docking at the present day.
Nearly a century later, we bring a slightly different set of sensibilities into the theater. Show Boat’s integrated cast no longer strikes us as daring, nor does Kern’s inclusion of songs modeled after traditional African-American music. (When Ferber wrote her novel, she was inspired by the very recent introduction of spirituals to the concert stage by artists including Roland Hayes, Jules Bledsoe, and Paul Robeson.) However, we can appreciate, as early audiences could not, how Show Boat represents a first step in the creation of a new American art form. In a period otherwise dominated by vaudevillian revues, Kern and Hammerstein crafted a serious drama whose magnificent score was an essential part of its storytelling. As Washington National Opera prepares to celebrate American composers in the coming seasons, it is only appropriate that we begin at the beginning, with this marvelous work that Francesca Zambello has called “our first American opera.”
—Kelley Rourke is the dramaturg for Washington National Opera.