More than any other American writer, Herman Melville creates a distortion in the fabric of the author spacetime continuum. A complex and moody man whose early books gave no indication he was capable of writing the greatest American novel, Melville engenders a devotion today that is famously passionate, intractably opinionated and deeply personal. (Melvilleans have been arguing among themselves for years about whether Herman abused his wife Lizzie and pushed her down the back stairs.) Melville is the measure of…everything.
Moby-Dick; or, The Whale takes place on a ship at sea, is full of unballasted digressions, and has virtually no female characters. That is not the précis one would tag for literary immortality. Published in 1851 when the United States was on the cusp of a civil war, Melville’s book was met with critical disdain. From the London Athenaeum: “We have little more to say in reprobation or in recommendation of this absurd book … Mr. Melville has to thank himself only if his horrors and his heroics are flung aside by the general reader, as so much trash belonging to the worst school of Bedlam literature—since he seems not so much unable to learn as disdainful of learning the craft of an artist.”
Posthumous recognition of genius isn’t uncommon, and Melville keeps company with the likes of Emily Dickinson, Vincent Van Gogh and Henry David Thoreau. Appreciation for the genius of Moby-Dick took over 50 years. Melville scholar Nathaniel Philbrick, author of Why Read Moby-Dick, believes that it was the harsh reality of World War I that made it possible to see that the book contains the “genetic code” for much of what happens in America. “Instead of writing history, Melville is forging an American mythology,” writes Philbrick, noting that the book cycles into particular relevance during times when the nation is heading into an imminent cataclysm.
So the time is well suited to welcome another iteration of this wild and outlandish book, this time a theatrical one: Moby-Dick: A Musical Reckoning, now being featured by American Repertory Theater in Cambridge. Dave Malloy, whose creative efforts have become a staple at ART, began this project five years ago in collaboration with his cohorts from his War and Peace-inspired production, Natasha, Pierre & and the Great Comet of 1812—director Rachel Chavkin and scenic designer Mimi Lien.
Let’s be clear: it takes some serious cajones to step up to this kind of challenge. Even Melville was aware that the task he was taking on was enormous. “Give me a condor’s quill! Give me Vesuvius’s crater for an ink stand!” he wrote. But that enormousness is at the heart of what makes the book an irresistible artistic challenge. (Dave Malloy’s list of over 75 artists who have been inspired by Moby-Dick—including the likes of Toni Morrison, Tom Stoppard and Jean-Michel Basquiat–is included in the printed program.)
In interviews with Malloy and Chavkin, both talk about their love of the book and its essential messiness. Most artistic responses to Moby-Dick address its oceanic expansiveness and scope, a quality Chavkin refers to as its “exuberance of form.” She also resonates with its epic scale:
I find it most interesting when different layers of meaning are layered on top of each other. Nothing is ever just one thing. That, in and of itself, brings an epic quality. I love the sense of a massive journey being taken, because I want art to have those kinds of epic ambitions. But for me, epic doesn’t necessarily mean scale of production, so much as the scale of the interior journey, which can be refracted in very large themes.
I love the sense of a massive journey being taken, because I want art to have those kinds of epic ambitions. I am also an advocate for art that embraces risk, for efforts that lean into big and messy rather than small and safe. Roll the dice of your intuition and insights, then hope your efforts can hold the attention of an audience for 3 ½ hours.
This production is neither small nor safe. Its big and messy energy comes with many au courant theatrical trends: Staging that brings the entire theater into a “we are all in this boat/whale together” set, larger than life puppets and props made from “waste stream material” (AKA trash,) “aggressively diverse” casting (every character is a person of color except Ahab, with many of the roles played by women,) audience participation (almost a requirement for any production at ART these days,) live music making on the stage, stylistic toggling between the 19th century and the 21st, and most viscerally, a full array of bodily fluids that come in many colors. Whaling, like the survival of a nation, is physical, dangerous and difficult.
“I think the audience’s experience is going to be really eclectic. I experience the show as alternately profoundly funny and exuberant (in terms of theatricality and epic messiness), and other parts are devastating,” Chavkin said.
Eclectic is a good word to describe this production. Parts of the play exhibit the theatrical inventiveness that won Chavkin a Tony for Hadestown, a song cycle/folk opera retelling of the Orpheus and Eurydice myth written by Anais Mitchell. Moby-Dick: A Musical Reckoning is brand new, and it is still finding its center of gravity. It has not yet determined its high risk/high reward formula, something that Hadestown achieved after years of meticulous adjustments and intrepid workshopping.
For example, the pacing in Moby-Dick: A Musical Reckoning is not resolved. Some sections, like the one focused on child sailor Pip, are way too long and out of step with the narrative arc. The play’s treatment of certain accounts in the book that are particularly significant—like the spiritually-infused, communal squeezing of the sperm oil by all hands on deck—fall flat. In the book the scene brings rarefied transcendence into a harsh tale. In the production it is closer to a children’s game, dumbed down and embarrassingly off the mark.
There are many theatrical strategies for dealing with larger than life source material. In the Punchdrunk production of Sleep No More, the core theme is Shakespeare‘s Macbeth. But there is little in the way of narrative adherence. The entire Sleep No More theatrical experience—first brought to Boston by ART from London before it took up residence in New York—is an example of what can emerge if the connections to larger-than-life source material are intentionally tethered lightly. Sleep No More is no retelling of Macbeth, but it is steeped in the spirit of Shakespeare’s dark, Scottish, witchy, incantatory, mad tale.
Moby-Dick: A Musical Reckoning is much more tightly coupled with its material than Sleep No More. But some of its most successful scenes touch into the story’s core by taking a less literal approach: More innuendo than inflection, to quote Wallace Stevens. For example, the final scene of the Pequod’s demise is an abstracted one. A large bank of bright lights flash on the audience directly, a moment when the visceral realization of impending death arrives. Caucasians, Indians, African-Americans, South Pacific islanders, are all, as Melville wrote, “federated along one keel” of the “death-glorious” Pequod, a ship both “hearse” and “fading phantom.” That ship and its crew save one are taken down, in Philbrick’s words, by “a man divided, seared and parboiled by the conflagration raging inside him,” one who willingly sacrifices everyone who gave their allegiance to him. The stony silence in the theater is palpable. And so appropriate.
Many of my friends have expressed criticisms similar to my own. But almost everyone said they were glad they saw the production. After all, we all love this book so much, and we appreciate the gargantuan scope of an undertaking like this. I am also comforted by the fact that a gifted team of people are associated with this production. There is nothing in the play that can’t be tweaked, tuned or tightened. I have no doubt Moby-Dick: A Musical Reckoning will eventually find its proper ballast.
One last comment, on a more personal note. I can’t help but feel that there is a deep connection between Boston/New England and Melville/Moby-Dick. Just about everyone I know bought tickets to this production early, and the entire run was sold out in advance.
Would that response have happened in San Francisco, my home town? I think not. Melville was born in New York and lived there for many years of his life, but he wrote Moby-Dick while living in Pittsfield, Massachusetts. Somehow this feels like the perfect place for this latest iteration of that impossible book to be born. Beyond a long history of whaling, Boston and New England are drenched in so many other lingering and conspiring energies: Cotton Mather, John Winthrop, Anne Hutchinson, Paul Revere, Ralph Waldo Emerson, Nathaniel Hawthorne, Louisa May Alcott, Edgar Allen Poe, Margaret Fuller, Henry David Thoreau.
It is a commonly held belief that Melville is essentially unknowable. Hart Crane ends his poem, “At Melville’s Tomb,” with these words: “This fabulous shadow only the sea keeps.” I also like the words of Ishmael from the book, spoken upon encountering an unknown Polynesian island:
“It is not down in any map; true places never are.”