And God Created Great Whales. Conceived and Composed by
Rinde Eckert. Performed by Rinde Eckert and Nora Cole.
Directed by David Schweizer. The Culture Project
at 45 Bleecker, New York, NY. 9 September 2000.
- There's a clever irony in the very premise of And God
Created Great Whales, Rinde Eckert's funny, haunting, and
irreverent chamber opera, which finished a two-week off-Broadway run last
fall: Nathan, the protagonist, is struggling to remember
Moby-Dick. It's a problem he likely shares with the show's
audience. After all, Melville's masterpiece is, in M. Thomas Inge's
phrase, "the great unread American novel" (696). It's also the one work
of American fiction everyone knows, even if one has never read it; or for
many Americans it's the one novel they would prefer to forget having been
forced to read in college. But Nathan's inability to recall
Moby-Dick is more than just a case of literary amnesia, for
he's desperately rushing to complete his professional opus--an operatic
adaptation of Moby-Dick--before his rapidly deteriorating
memory, plagued by some unspecified atrophic condition, fails completely.
- That a failure of memory should form the basis of
this marvelous opera-within-an-anti-opera is fitting. Remembering
Moby-Dick, often in oblique ways, forms something of a
tradition in twentieth-century America. In the past few years alone, for
instance, those of us with an eye on the roiling seas of American popular
culture eager for sightings have seen the whale breach in the most
unexpected of places, not only on stage but also in print and on screen.
Consider: Laurie Anderson's most recent performance, Songs and
Stories from Moby-Dick, unveiled the year before And God
Created Great Whales; an op-ed column in the New York
Times in which historian Arthur Schlesinger, Jr. compares
Independent Counsel Kenneth Starr's investigation of President Clinton to
"Captain Ahab's monomaniacal 'quenchless feud' with the White Whale"; the
publications of Sena Jeter Naslund's Ahab's Wife (1999), Tim
Severin's In Search of Moby-Dick (2000), and Nathaniel
Philbrick's National Book Award-winning In the Heart of the
Sea (2000); and a new television version of the novel (1998)
featuring Star Trek's Patrick Stewart as Ahab. To these, add the countless allusions to the novel
on television shows from The X-Files to The
Simpsons; mentions of it in movies as disparate as
Ricochet, Deep Impact, and Before Night
Falls; and even a full-page newspaper ad from the Microsoft
Corporation that reproduces the novel's opening paragraph to announce
their "Microsoft Reader." A century and a half after publication, Herman
Melville's novel, if not his fictitious whale, appears to be everywhere.
- Perhaps Ishmael should have been less incredulous
when he remarked on "the superstitiously inclined" who accepted "the
unearthly conceit that Moby-Dick was ubiquitous" (Melville 158). Or
perhaps this ubiquity is nothing new. Since the revival of Melville
during the 1920s and '30s, when he was plucked from literary obscurity
and fashioned into the quintessential, heroic American artist,
unappreciated and misunderstood, his greatest novel has persisted not
only as a pop-culture icon, a mainstay of comic books and seafood
restaurants, but as a touchstone for artists with "grand and lofty"
ambitions, from John Barrymore, who played the role of the mad Captain
twice on film, one silent (1926) and one with sound (1929), to John
Huston, whose own film adaptation (1956) starred Gregory Peck and Orson
Welles (who wrote just one play, Moby-Dick--Rehearsed), and for
several of the most well-known figures in post-WWII American art:
Pollock, Stella, Motherwell, Serra, and Basquiat. Certainly no other nineteenth-century American novel
has left such an impression in our cultural memory.
- Inseparable from this rich and disorderly
intertextual network, Moby-Dick might well be considered one
of the great ongoing cultural productions of postmodern America; a
diffuse text that writers, musicians, artists, and politicians, as well
as the creators and consumers of popular culture continue to respond to,
abuse, revise, and appropriate. And God Created Great Whales
is both aware of and a contribution to this vast
constellation of meanings within which Melville's text circulates. With
a rare blend of critical intelligence and emotional intensity, it
foregoes a faithful recreation of Moby-Dick in favor of a
postmodern reimagining. And in a tight 75 minutes, Eckert not only
manages to capture the spirit of Melville's novel--its unruliness and wit
as well as its tragedy--but also to provide both a reading of the novel and
a meta-commentary on his own musical form, sporting with the
conventions of opera as irreverently as Melville flouted novelistic form.
- The performance opens to find Nathan, played by
Eckert, seated at his piano, which is propped up by wooden crates, lashed
with rope and covered with sheaves of paper and Post-it notes. Suspended
from the ceiling by black wires, naked light bulbs of various colors
surround the stage, evoking a ship's rigging and providing a visual pun
on Nathan's condition, his mind's intermittent episodes of darkness and
light, and his brief flashes of inspiration. To stave off his memory
loss, we learn quickly, Nathan has constructed two elaborate systems that
allow him to continue his work. The first is a network of tape-recorders
(of the old-fashioned rectangular variety), color-coded, strewn across
his piano, dangling from wires at the back of the set, one even hanging
from his neck and secured to his waist with duct-tape. These provide
Nathan with a surrogate mind and offer detailed instructions: "Your name
is Nathan. You are suffering memory loss. Today you will continue to work
on your opera: Moby-Dick." As the performance unfolds, the
voice on the tape becomes the voice of Nathan's progressive disease, the
messages a matter-of-fact report on the worsening of his condition: "if
you are still listening, your disease has reached an advanced stage."
The second system Nathan has devised is stranger still: it's a figment of
his imagination, a muse in the form of a former diva named Olivia, to
whom Nathan is to be obedient, the voice on the tape explains, in all
matters concerning his opera.
- Working together, these two recreate Nathan's
version of Moby-Dick. Played by Nora Cole, whose powerful
mezzo-soprano is a match for Eckert's own remarkable voice, Olivia
instructs and cajoles, admonishes and inspires Nathan, pushing him toward
completion. The audience is thus treated to a glimpse inside the
creative process, which is to say, inside Nathan's faltering
consciousness. When Nathan digresses in Ishmaelean fashion--say, to
ruminate on his mind maintaining an independent existence after his body
has passed away (thus explicating at once the symbolic meaning of his
tape recordings and the presence of Olivia, who, after all, is really
Nathan)--Olivia steers him back to his task. Occasionally in solo, but
more often in tandem, they perform bits of scenes from the novel,
substituting Eckert's gorgeous and surprisingly accessible music for
Melville's language. And it's a fair swap: the range of Eckert's musical
vocabulary--he hybridizes classical composition with styles as diverse as
pop, gospel, and old sea chants--is a match for Melville's own discursive
- But while Olivia's primary charge is to assist
Nathan, as a performer Cole is hardly relegated to the margins of
Nathan's/Melville's narrative. Singing the roles of Bulkington, Queequeg,
Tashtego and various other male characters aboard the Pequod,
represents the subversive entrance of a prominent female into Melville's
masculine world, allowing Eckert to riff on Moby-Dick's
notorious gender-exclusivity. One of the play's funniest running jokes,
for instance, is Olivia's attempt to convince Nathan to write her into
the opera: she could swoop down from the sky at the end, she suggests, to
rescue the orphaned Ishmael. Of course, Melville is an easy target on
this point, and so Eckert doesn't belabor it. Yet the force of Cole's
riveting presence--as an African-American female embodying so
convincingly Melville's sailors--forms a powerful critique of both
Moby-Dick and the culture that has produced it by staging,
literally, gender performativity and racial fluidity--the easily
forgotten subtext of Ishmael and Queequeg's homoerotically charged
- Eckert is likewise fascinating to watch. A
large, bald white man dressed in a gray suit that looks as if he's been
sleeping in it, he affects Nathan's frailty with the smallest of
gestures: dragging his toes in baby steps, slumping his shoulders
feebly. But when he receives a burst of passion, he erupts seamlessly
into the more commanding and imposing roles he assigns himself, putting
his booming voice to use thundering at the universe as Ahab or exhorting
the audience-turned-parishioners as Father Mapple. In fact, Eckert's
version of the sermon on Jonah is one of the show's highlights, rivaling
even Orson Welles's brilliant performance in the otherwise forgettable
John Huston film. At another moment, Eckert shifts just as nimbly into
the character of Pip, standing still at the front of the stage to sing a
lovely aria in a most unexpected falsetto.
- Obviously, it's impossible to treat all
of Moby-Dick's multiple characters, stories,
discourses, and themes in just over an hour. But Eckert is less
interested in re-presenting Moby-Dick than in he is in
striving for the kind of "outreaching comprehensiveness of sweep"
possessed by Melville's novel. And this is the great advantage of
Eckert's art form: his music provides the means to compress language.
As if to demonstrate this very principle, one exchange has Nathan poised
at his piano as Olivia feeds him the names of characters from the novel,
each of which Nathan renders in a few short bars, thus transforming
Melville's cast of "isolatoes" into the stock figures of grand opera.
Here Eckert is at his most self-consciously playful, parodying both
generalized ideas about Moby-Dick and operatic conventions.
Not only does he register the novel's radical shifts in mood and tone,
but by mocking the seriousness of both opera and Moby-Dick
(as opposed, say, to the "misreadings" perpetrated in comic books and
seafood restaurants), he deflates "high" art's claims to transcendence.
Yet, as if to refuse the audience the easy pleasures of such ironic
knowingness, these moments are undercut by other parts of the performance
that sing so rich in human emotion that truth and beauty and
transcendence almost seem possible again.
- It's this balance between postmodern irony
(always in danger of becoming what Jameson famously called "blank
parody") and truthful emotion that
makes And God Created Great Whales so much more satisfying
than most adaptations of Moby-Dick. Unlike the four
film versions of the novel, Eckert doesn't succumb to what might be
called the Ahab-problem; that is, he doesn't concentrate solely on the
novel's dramatic narrative: Ahab's obsessive desire for revenge. Ahab
is, of course, an irresistible dramatic subject, an archetypal figure of
tragic hubris. But as anyone who has taught Moby-Dick
knows, this dimension of the novel doesn't always translate effectively
to our post-ironic age. That is, as compelling as the "fiery hunt" is,
reducing a proto-postmodernist work of encyclopedic fiction to a
pre-modern tragedy is no longer adequate. Too often Ahab seems to embody
the kind of sententiousness that so bothered D. H. Lawrence about Melville
himself--"Oh dear, when the solemn ass brays! brays! brays!," Lawrence
wrote (154). Rather, it's Ishmael's more protean sensibility that speaks
to our age, his willingness to "try all things," but to accept, finally,
indeterminacy, the kind of undecidability of meaning that typically
characterizes postmodern fiction: "I but put that brow before you," he
writes, as if to challenge the reader, "Read it if you can" (293).
Isolating Ahab's quest from the novel's other, multiple competing
narrative energies, then, only diminishes Melville's accomplishment by
attributing to the text a unitary set of meanings that its unreadability
and its multivocality work to resist. And worse, it consigns
Moby-Dick to the unfortunate status of just another dusty
classic with little claim on our attention.
- Consider, for instance, two additional
contributions to the ongoing production of Melville's text: Laurie
Anderson's Songs and Stories from Moby-Dick and Tim
Hawkinson's Überorgan. Anderson's performance style,
with its presentation and proliferation of images and languages from
across the contemporary American landscape, might seem to lend itself
naturally to capturing Moby-Dick's heteroglossia. Yet,
Songs and Stories, while a pleasurable enough experience (at
least for Melville aficionados), ultimately seems to subordinate
Anderson's art to Melville's. She
creates plenty of atmosphere, both visually and aurally: long lines of
scrolling text, for instance, are superimposed over vast images of
seascapes and projected onto an enormous scrim at the back of the stage,
and her music, bass-heavy or provided by her ingenious and unnerving
"talking stick"--a computerized lance that emits digitally enhanced
musical notes as she runs her hands along its breadth--ranges from the
ethereal to the funky. But Anderson treats Moby-Dick as
nearly inviolable, with little of the incisive, critical consciousness--or
the sly ironic wit--that typically characterizes her work.
- By contrast, it's easy to be captivated by
Hawkinson's Überorgan--a massive installation/sculpture
on display at the Massachusetts Museum of Contemporary Art--without
knowing anything about Moby-Dick, though to experience it is
akin to what it must be like to stand in the belly of a whale. A
300-foot network of twelve enormous air-filled polyethylene bladders,
many of them suspended from the ceiling, the Überorgan
plays on the double meaning of the "organ" in its title. That is, it at
once suggests the intestinal system of an impossibly large animal (a
mythical whale, for instance) and a musical instrument. Controlled by a
rudimentary central nervous system--a mechanism that operates on the
principles of the player-piano--a series of valves opens and closes,
causing sounds like foghorns or the lowing of cows or flatulence to be
emitted from long foil-covered pipes affixed with reeds.
Überorgan combines wonder and spectacle, ambition and
scope, with pleasure and self-mocking--it's art that is at once serious
and just plain fun. Hawkinson has said that he had
Moby-Dick in mind when conceiving his
Überorgan, but the
association Hawkinson's piece forms with Melville's text has little to do
with Captain Ahab and his monomania. Rather, like And God Created
Great Whales, Überorgan evokes not just the
Moby-Dick of Ahab--the "au grand sérieux,"
to borrow from Lawrence again--but the Moby-Dick of Ishmael,
his vaulting imagination as well as his delight in making a fart joke.
- Of course, Moby-Dick can no more do
without Ahab than it can do without the white whale. But the fact that
these two symbols now have an existence in American culture almost
independent of the novel from which they sprang--which is to say that
they have become a part of our common language, in effect, literary
clichés--has its unfortunate side. Melville's novel is easily
drained of its power to challenge, to shock, and to provoke ("I have written
a wicked book," Melville said after finishing Moby-Dick,
"and feel spotless as the lamb") and is instead put to use selling
coffee for Starbuck's and electronic equipment for Microsoft. The
trouble is that, for all its value, our present scholarly preoccupation with
"historicizing" is ill-suited to combat consumer culture's tendency to
simplify and to sanitize. And it's
surely too much to ask of our artists that they should fight that battle.
Eckert, however, offer hope: by creating work that's both powerful and
pleasurable--by granting their audiences a new point of entry into
Moby-Dick and making it fun again--they suggest exciting new
ways of reinventing a text that is, after all, always already ours.
Department of English
University of Massachusetts, Amherst
COPYRIGHT (c) 2001 BY JEFFREY INSKO.
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1. A novel,
Ahab's Wife tells the story of Una, the bride of Ahab
(mentioned once in Moby-Dick) and her adventures during the
Pequod's voyages. These include working as a cabin boy on board
the whaleship Sussex (a thinly veiled version of the famous
see below), harboring a fugitive slave, befriending Margaret Fuller, and
attending meetings with the Transcendentalists. In In Search of
Moby Dick, the travel-writer Tim Severin re-traces Melville's
overseas journeys looking for evidence of an actual White Whale. In
the Heart of the Sea is a historical account of the famous
whaleship Essex, stove by a whale in 1821. Melville read
first mate Owen
Chase's account of the disaster before writing Moby-Dick.
2. For more on Moby-Dick in
twentieth-century American art, see Schultz and, more recently, Wallace.
3. I attended Anderson's show at the
Brooklyn Academy of Music on 15 October 1999.
4. Überorgan was
commissioned by the Massachusetts Museum of Contemporary Art. Hawkinson
describes how, "early on, I learned that Herman Melville wrote
Moby-Dick while he was living in Pittsfield, which is just
down the road from Mass MoCA [in North Adams, MA]. My piece relates to
the book and more generally to the nautical, with all the netting and
lashing and rigging and the foghornlike sounds and the massive rib cage
and organs" (152). This summer, Hawkinson and Eckert were together at
Mass MoCA, where And God Created Great Whales played for two
nights (after the deadline for this review) in August.
Überorgan is on display through October 2001.
5. Among Ishmael's reasons for going to
sea as a sailor, he lists "the wholesome exercise and pure air of the
forecastle deck." Then he adds: "For as in this world, head winds are far
more prevalent than winds from astern (that is, if you never violate the
Pythagorean maxim)" (15). Pythagoras recommended a restricted diet, which
included avoiding beans, which cause flatulence.
6. That is, while the "new historicism"
(broadly conceived) has been effective in demonstrating the literary
text's social indebtedness and has broadened our sense of what
constitutes both literary and historical textuality, with regard to the
texts of the past (like Moby-Dick) it also has the
unfortunate effect of insisting that a text "belongs" to its moment of
production (rather than to its various moments of reception). It thus
tends to fix texts in the past, to shackle them to a particular
cross-section of historical time, denying the possibility that texts of
the past can perform cultural work in the present.
Hawkinson, Tim. "Tim Hawkinson Talks about Überorgan."
Artforum (Sep. 2000): 152-3.
Inge, M. Thomas. "Melville in Popular Culture." A Companion to
Melville Studies. Ed. John Bryant. Westport, CT: Greenwood Press,
Jameson, Fredric. Postmodernism, or the Cultural Logic of Late
Capitalism. Durham: Duke UP, 1991.
Lawrence, D. H. Studies in Classic American Literature. New
York: Penguin, 1977.
Melville, Herman. Moby-Dick. New York: W.W. Norton, 1967.
Schlesinger, Arthur Jr. "So Much for the Imperial Presidency." New
York Times 3 Aug. 1998, late ed.: A19.
Schultz, Elizabeth A. Unpainted to the Last: Moby-Dick and
Twentieth-Century American Art. Lawrence: U of Kansas P, 1995.
Wallace, Robert K. Frank Stella's Moby-Dick: Words and
Shapes. Ann Arbor: U of Michigan P, 2000.