Thursday, November 10, 2011

Telling Melville's tale (of a whale)

Conor Lovett in Moby Dick.

One of my favorite stories about my stint writing for the Globe revolves around the time I tried to work a ref to Moby Dick into my review of a stage version of The Old Man and the Sea. I remember my editor was quite put out by the whole idea. "Why do you always have to show off about the big books you've read that nobody else has?" she wanted to know, an edge of irritation rising in her voice.  When I countered that hey, I thought quite a few people had actually read Moby Dick - I read it in high school, after all - I could sense her rolling her eyes (even over the phone). "People only say they've read it," she snapped. "They haven't really!"

Now that may be true of most Globe readers, I suppose.  But looking back on that exchange, I smile when I think of Globe reviewer Don Aucoin's peculiar predicament when faced with the new one-man adaptation of Moby Dick by the Gare St. Lazare Players playing at ArtsEmerson through the weekend.  He must, I think, perforce, mention the book - how could he not?  But oddly enough, it strikes me his appreciation of the show will be enhanced if, like my own Globe editor years ago, he hasn't actually gotten through the novel.  Indeed, you'll certainly enjoy this production much more if you haven't encountered Herman Melville's literary leviathan than if you have.

Which isn't to say this performance isn't remarkable in some ways.  Actor Conor Lovett (who has already starred in a one-man show based on Beckett's Molloy, Malone Dies, and The Unnamable, believe it or not!) manages an intriguingly low-key and diffident rendering of the text that does hold (if not quite grip) your sympathies in its direct simplicity.  (His stance intrigues, perhaps, because his Ishmael seems to be asking us what his strange experiences can possibly mean.)

And Lovett and his wife (and director) Judy Hegarty Lovett have arguably succeeded in distilling the narrative of Melville's novel down to its inevitable essentials; indeed, I was sometimes surprised by how swiftly Melville dispatched events that loomed far larger in my memory (such as the death, or rather the final disappearance, of Ahab).  I even went back to check a few passages after the show, thinking "It had to have been longer than that!"  But every time I discovered that Melville's text - which the Lovetts  seem to have edited but rarely amended - was indeed just as terse as what had been delivered in performance.

So in short, the Lovetts have boiled the gigantic Moby Dick down to the skeleton of its story - which is rendered, sometimes in the softest tones, on basically a bare stage.  For sheer theatrical daring, they deserve our respect and praise.

Only Moby Dick isn't just a story.  It's an allegory.  And more than that - it's a kind of overstuffed encyclopedia of seafaring (and human) oddity, with its curious chapter-long asides on such topics as "The Whale as a Dish" and "Ambergris."  And to be honest, the novel's willful, wandering weirdness, its very difficulty, even its stretches of boredom, begin to work on you as you read it, just as the same strategies work a similar magic in lengthy classics like Ulysses and Tristram Shandy and Don Quixote.  Yes, all these books are too long.  Yet via their very discursiveness they open up a huge, meaningful space in your mind as few other art forms can.  (In theatre, only Shakespeare - and maybe Chekhov - can really compete.)

Rockwell Kent's famous vision of Moby Dick.
Indeed, I wound up with so much affection for Moby Dick that I took the famous Random House edition that I read (with terrific illustrations by Rockwell Kent, like the one at left) from my father's library upon his death. In fact I'm leafing through it again right now, musing on how some passing frustration may actually be necessary to apprehending a truly titanic vision.

And I'm also noticing all the things that Mr. and Mrs. Lovett cut out that perhaps they shouldn't have.  It's almost funny, I admit, how much blubber you can carve from this literary leviathan before you hit narrative bone.  But at the same time, surely something basic to the story is lost when you leave out Queequeg's embrace of Ishmael in bed - or when you drop entirely Father Mapple's famous sermon on the fate of Jonah.  Even the unforgettable last glimpse of the sinking Pequod - which mysteriously drags a passing sea-hawk down into the deep - has gone missing.  To be blunt, the Lovetts have shorn Moby Dick of both its homo-erotic undercurrents and its full spiritual dimensions.

And then there's the unfortunate fact that of Melville's wide cast of characters, Lovett only truly fleshes out Ahab (which he does quite hauntingly at times, aided enormously by the eerie playing of violinist Caoimhin O'Raghallaigh).  Beyond Ahab, however, few characters make much of an impression; Ishmael himself is a bit blurry, and Queequeg and especially Starbuck are sketches - Stubb and Flask aren't even that - and minor, but key, figures like Fedallah are never really drawn at all.

To be fair, Lovett sometimes captures the queer, stoic comedy of the novel, and he conveys Ahab's tortured intensity and craziness, too (no small feat).  And he demonstrates that he and his wife were quite right to realize Melville's sternly gothic prose could hold the stage all by itself, and even raise a few goose bumps.  But in the end, theirs is a Moby Dick in miniature (it could be Samuel Beckett's Moby Dick).  Only Melville's vision was not a miniature; it was an enormity.  So it was hard for me not to feel as I left the theatre that folks who had only seen this production, but not read the novel - well, they still don't know Dick.

No comments:

Post a Comment