Fellow Passengers: This week’s Poetry Passage* (Proverbs 16) transports me to the stage of Broadway’s Richard Rodgers Theatre for the newly revised revival of Gershwin’s great opera, Porgy and Bess. The scaled-down version, modernized and made to fit into the time frame of Broadway musicals, re-tells a story of driving passions and betrayals and conflicts experienced by a group of black characters inhabiting Catfish Row in 1930s Charleston, SC. Audra McDonald, the powerful soprano who embodies the persona of Bess, discovered before the show even opened that driving passions and betrayals and conflicts were not reserved for the hard lives of Catfish Row. She learned second-hand that her long-time soul friend, Stephen Sondheim, whose works she had been singing for years, and for whom she had sung happy birthday on many occasions, had written a scathing letter published in the New York Times, berating her and her colleagues for tampering with the original Gerswhin masterpiece. His passions drove him to very publicly denounce his old friend, with heated accusations of arrogance and disdain for the original opera. For her part, Audra McDonald has tried to understand and explain Sondheim’s betrayal as a consequence of his having so much passion for the work. Despite her gracious attempts at giving him the benefit of the doubt, I suspect that the public betrayal struck deep, and has given her some more material to access and work with as she steps into the character of the abused and confused Bess night after night.
The book of Proverbs has much to say about the power of driving passions and spoken words, both for good and for ill. Wisdom, prudence, shrewdness, understanding – when passions are channeled in these directions, the words that spring from one’s mouth has the power to transform enemies and unite them as friends. On the other hand, the scorching fire of speech flowing from the foolish heart of trouble-makers and slanderers has the power to separate, to divide friend from friend. This is a perversion of passion, the proverb tells us. Such fiery language, powerful though it may be, is in the end worthless. To engage in such divisive rhetoric may seem right at the time, but in the end it is deadly.
When I listened to Audra McDonald describe this episode in her life, and how it felt for her to be on the receiving end of such passionate words with the power to divide the best of friends, I began to wonder: What is it that drives us to put so much stock in our passions? What made Gershwin’s original opera so important to Sondheim, that he would sacrifice friendship over it? Was there not a way he could have channeled his passion in a wise way, that would have preserved and even strengthened his friendships? I thought about the passions of my own life and the people around me, the driving forces that take on such importance – issues of environmental and economic justice, human rights and civil liberties, diversity and faith – and I realize how easy it is to fall prey to the temptations of folly, to engage in speech and language that divides rather than invites, that separates rather than welcomes. The seduction of that negative energy, that destructive passion, can be as strong as Bess’ addiction to Crown’s happy dust. It makes us feel good to be right; it gives us a rush to be able to prove, especially to publicly prove, others wrong. Some voice may whisper to us and tell us how important it is to win a cultural war of words, but it ain’t necessarily so. May the wisdom of Solomon’s proverb serve as a counter to these seductions, so that we will learn to speak our passions with words that are more persuasive than destructive, more inviting that dividing, more welcoming than separating, trusting in the power that turns enemies into friends, and not friends into enemies.
How about you? Where does this Poetry Passage take you on your journey of faith? Feel free to comment, and to share with friends on Facebook, Google+, Twitter, etc.