MELVILLE DRAMATIZATIONS - American Literature of the Sea and Great Lakes

American Literature of the Sea and Great Lakes

MELVILLE DRAMATIZATIONS. Herman Melville* (1819-1891), himself influenced by dramatists as diverse as Shakespeare and Douglas Jerrold (British author of popular nautical melodrama), has, in turn, inspired numerous dramatizations of his own work. These include adaptations for stage, film, television, opera, dance, and even mime. The dramatizations are characteristically marked as much with the historical reflection and worldviews of their adapters as with the presumptions of their originals.

The adaptations develop a trend toward dramatizing rather than narrating evident in Melville’s own late work, as noted by Harrison Hayford and Merton Sealts, editors of Billy Budd,* Sailor (an Inside Narrative) (1962). This last novel of Melville has, in fact, been dramatized most frequently, though all but one of these dramatizations were written without knowledge of the scholarly edition that removed what was mistakenly thought of as the historical “preface” to the story and that documented Melville’s presumed intention to leave unresolved the contradictions his story raised. Paradoxically enough, the enticement of dramatic irony that allowed Melville to move among various narrative positions has eluded the many dramatizers of the novel, whose adaptations tend to resolve Melville’s ambiguities one way or another. Thus, Louis O. Coxe* and Robert Chapman, the first drama- tizers of Billy Budd (as Uniform of Flesh in 1947 and then rev. as Billy Budd and perf. on Broadway in 1951), supply the scene of Vere’s communicating the death sentence to Billy, which the novel’s narrator only conjectures; they show Vere’s begging forgiveness and telling Billy that the law is “wrong.” At the same time, they eliminate mention of Vere’s death, of the erroneous report of the events, and “Billy in the Darbies.” In this adaptation, Billy’s fate loses some of its implacability, and the drama seems to derive from the development of Vere’s conscience.

The libretto by E. M. Forster and Eric Crozier for the Benjamin Britten opera (1951; rev. 1961) narrows the focus of the action by framing the story with a prologue and epilogue delivered by an aged Vere. Their Vere is a more sensitive soul than Melville’s, and their Billy less of a radical innocent. The opera employs “Billy in the Darbies” melodramatically before the hanging, rather than in its narrative setting as playing a part in the mythologizing of Billy Budd. Peter Ustinov’s 1962 film, in which he took the role of Vere, also seems to place emphasis on Vere as a referee between good and evil, though critical reaction was divided over whether he was a tragic figure, a feelingless Pilate, or a martinet. In various adaptations, Clag- gart’s character is overdetermined as motivated by fear, pride, impotence, or homosexual attraction. A television adaptation in 1952 changed the setting to an American ship during the War of 1812 and featured a prologue presenting Vere as torn between personal feelings and duty to country but ultimately justified in maintaining discipline. This prologue was delivered on television by Admiral William Halsey. By contrast, in a 1969 musicalized stage version, Billy stands in for conscientious objectors, and his mates sing a song entitled “It Ain’t Us Who Makes the Wars.” Joyce Sparer Adler’s Melville, Billy and Mars (1989) likewise interprets the novel as being fundamentally antiwar and treats Vere as embodying the tragedy of civilization, which has found it necessary to follow the violent way of Claggart and to sacrifice the peace symbolized by Billy.

Moby-Dick* (1851) has naturally offered more challenges to dramatization, spurring adapters to experimentation in virtually all dramatic media. None of the three Hollywood films of the novel is considered a classic. A 1926 silent version and a 1930 sound film featured John Barrymore as Ahab* and eliminated Ishmael.* Ahab survives and comes back to marry the girl he left behind. The 1956 film version was written by Ray Bradbury,* directed by John Huston, and starred Gregory Peck as Ahab. The American painter Gilbert Wilson* was fascinated by Moby-Dick, having written a libretto and designed stage sets for an opera entitled The White Whale, and created a thirty-minute, 16mm film of the novel (1955), narrated by Thomas Mitchell. The experimental Iowa Theatre Lab toured with a mime adaptation of the novel in the 1970s. Charles Olson* wrote The Fiery Hunt, a dance drama in four parts, in 1948 for Erik Hawkins of the Martha Graham troupe. The drama features Ahab as protagonist and Ishmael as chorus, depicting the whale as manifestation of the conflict within Ahab’s psyche. It was never performed (pub. 1977). Peter Mennin composed Concerto for Orchestra (Moby-Dick) in 1952, an ominous and ruggedly virile modal piece that depicts the mystery and obsession behind Ahab’s relentless pursuit. The work premiered the same year and was recorded in 1996. In 1996 two operatic versions of Moby-Dick were presented. Moby-Dick: An American Opera (music by Doug Katsaros; libretto by Mark St. Germain) was produced by the Players Guild of Canton, Ohio, and Moby-Dick (music by Paul Flush and John Kenny; libretto by Paul Stebbings and Phil Smith) was produced by American Drama Group Europe and TNT Music Theatre Britain in Volos, Greece. A television adaptation of the novel (1998) featuring Patrick Stewart as Ahab and Gregory Peck (Ahab in the 1956 film) as Father Mapple* did not win wide acclaim. Also in 1998 the Snug Harbor Cultural Center on Staten Island produced the experimental, multimedia Ahab’s Wife* or the Whale by Ellen Driscoll and Tom Sleigh. This production was less an adaptation than a series of theatrical images inspired by the novel. A similarly adventuresome approach was followed by the avant-garde solo performance artist Laurie Anderson, whose “Songs and Stories from Moby Dick” premiered in 1999.

Two authors have attempted full-fledged stage adaptations. Adler’s Moby- Dick (1989) emphasizes the magnetic pull on Ishmael of essentially life- destructive Ahab and the opposing influence of life-preserving Queequeg.* The dramatization uses a screen as a backdrop to project slides of Rockwell Kent’s* illustrations from the 1930 Random House edition. Orson Welles’ Moby-Dick, Rehearsed (first perf. in London in 1955; pub. in a rev. version in 1965) uses the device of a rehearsal by an acting troupe of the 1890s to concentrate on the poetry in the novel. Welles focuses on key scenes and emphasizes the great passages of the work. Because of the brevity of the play, characters other than Ahab are not so much developed as introduced. Sometimes lines are assigned to characters other than those Melville designated, and key characters (Fedallah) and scenes (the doubloon scene) are eliminated or greatly truncated. The actor-characters explain the omissions with the complaint “We have been asked to learn enough of it,” presumably in school. Yet, the actors are rehearsing in the 1890s, when Melville had been largely forgotten. Like the Coxe/Chapman and Forster/Crozier dramatizations of Billy Budd, Welles’ stage adaptation of Moby-Dick has held the stage since its premiere, notably in an environmental staging in Denver in 1980 by the respected director William Woodman and in revivals in 1996 by the Theatre Workshop of Nantucket* and in 1999 by the Berkshire Theatre Festival in Stockbridge, Massachusetts.

“Benito Cereno”* (1856) has also been notably dramatized. Robert Lowell’s* adaptation was initially produced in the 1960s and published in 1965, along with his dramatizations of Nathaniel Hawthorne’s* short stories “Endecott and the Red Cross” and “My Kinsman, Major Molineux,” under the collective title The Old Glory (1965). Lowell shifts his focus from Amaso Delano* as a symbol of America’s inability to comprehend evil, perhaps in reaction to the critical view espoused by Yvor Winters that the Africans in revolt themselves symbolized evil. Written and performed during the developing civil rights struggle, Lowell’s drama converts the novella into a play on race relations in the 1960s, linking the event on the Spanish ship San Dominick to historical conditions in the pre-Civil War United States and to ongoing social conditions in America. Lowell’s version ends with the capture of Babo.

Joyce Sparer Adler has also adapted “Benito Cereno” (1990). Her dramatization differs from Lowell’s in adhering more closely to the events of Melville’s story. It does not conclude with Delano, Babo, and Benito Cereno in the small boat but advances to Melville’s ending, in which Cereno and Babo confront each other even in death. The implication drawn by Adler is that neither Cereno nor Babo symbolizes evil. Rather, the evil is shown to be the master-slave relation itself. Adler interprets Melville’s story as an implied warning of a possible civil war in the United States.

An operatic version by George Rochberg of The Confidence-Man (1857) was produced by the Santa Fe Opera in 1982. Numerous other minor one- act plays, recordings, radio plays, short films, comic books, and plays for children dramatizing Melville’s sea novels abound. [See also DRAMA OF THE SEA]

FURTHER READING: Adler, Joyce Sparer. Dramatization of Three Melville Novels. Lewiston, NY: Edwin Mellen, 1992; Coxe, Louis O., and Robert Chapman. Billy Budd. New York: Hill and Wang, 1962; Estrin, Mark. “Dramatizations of American Fiction: Hawthorne and Melville on Stage and Screen.” Diss., New York University, 1969; Rochberg, George. The Confidence Man (a Comic Fable). Bryn Mawr, PA: Theodore Presser, 1982; Smith, Kenneth D. “Dramatic Adaptations ofHerman Melville’s Billy Budd.” Diss., Notre Dame University, 1970; Wallace, Robert K. “Review of Ahab’s Wife or The Whale” Melville Society Extracts 116 (February 1999): 27-29.

Attilio Favorini and Joyce Sparer Adler