Wednesday, November 22, 2006

Welles' Great White Whale

After reading RVR's hilarious account of reading Moby Dick, I remembered that I still had lying around, unfinished on my bedside table, staring at me with longing in its eye, Orson Welles' Moby Dick Rehearsed, a play he wrote in 1965 as a (mostly) verse adaptation of Melville's novel, which got its debut at the good ole Ethel Barrymore Theatre.

Welles' idea is brilliant-- why not do a stripped-down, basically entirely theatrical adaptation of Moby Dick? Why not use a mammoth novel as an opportunity to return the theater to some bare bones storytelling techniques, instead of the usual grand spectacle?

Of course, he couldn't just produce a version of Moby Dick like that. It is a testament to the o'erweening power already exerted by realism and conventions of virisimilitude in American Theater (and Welles' own brain) that he clearly felt that he had to create a framing device for his deconstruction. Said frame-- which feels totally superfluous by today's aesthetic standards-- is that we are watching a theatre troupe in the late 19th century. Said troupe is coming in on their day off from doing King Lear to perform an adaptation of some book most of them haven't heard of. The adaptation is written by a young up-and-comer within the company. The old stalwart actor-manager wants to do this because he, of course, has been promised the role of Ahab. After some milling about and a few theatr in-jokes vaguely reminicent of the opening moments of Vanya on 42nd Street they begin with a little paraphrase of Shakespeare and suddenly whammo! we're on the wharf with Ishmael and Peleg.

The parallel's with King Lear and Moby Dick are fairly obvious, and it's nice that Welles' doesn't belabor the point. This is Moby Dick performed on a set for King Lear. That's about all the Learing that's necessary here.

Welles obviously has to pick and choose in his adaptation-- Queequeg is demoted to just another "savage" and has no lines save for whooping along with Tashtego and Daggoo, while Pip is made into a kind of main character, an echo of King Lear's fool, only here the fool is already insane. Welles focuses on a few key moments in the book-- the sermon about Jonah, the nailing of the gold piece, an argument or two between Starbuck and Ahab, the arrival of the Rachel, the swift demise of the Pequod-- and leaves out entirely all of the damned Cetology that frustrates readers so.

Of course, the white whale that Welles is chasing here isn't Melville or his novels at all-- it's Shakespeare. Welles is attempting a kind of contemporary Shakespearean writing. It's ballsy, to say the least (arrogant might be another term for it) but he pulls it off pretty well. Take a gander at this:

Were this round world an endless plain,
by sailing eatward we could reach
new distances forever; forever find
new sights more sweet and strange than any Cyclades or
Islands of King Solomon.
But in pursuit of mysteries;
or in tormented hunting of that demon phantom
that swims before all human hearts
whilst chasing such across the globe,
they lead us on in barren mazes,
or midway leave us whelmed

Who utters this? Ishmael, played by the same actor is as the young up-and-comer narrating with a bit of philosophy the journey of the Pequod. Welles' sacrifices a certain amount of clarity on the altar of his verse (see the above example) but it's pretty good stuff nonetheless.

It's been awhile since I've read Moby Dick so it's hard for me to place which utterances are Welles and which are Melville, but I have an inkling that it's a great deal more of the former than the latter. Which is just as well. Welles takes great pains to distance his adaptation from the source material-- it is an adaptation written by a character in the play in another century of a book. And this gives him free reign to display a canny knack for theatrical device-- particularly in the church section, as the whole cast becomes a chorus saying the names of dearly departed and singing hymns.

By the end of the play, of course, we're so caught up in the thing itself, that Welles has almost entirely forgotten the "Rehearsed" part. After the Pequod's demise, there is only one line that exists back in the realm of the actors. It is almost like some mystical conjuration, after which no one really knows what to do.

Obviously, as a director, when I read a script, my first instinct is to figure out whether I would want to do it myself. And with this text I can say "yes", so long as I could adapt further-- by ditching the framing device and simply setting it in a rehearsal, perhaps creating a new frame out of the back and forth of the real actors. Otherwise, it feels too much like a museum piece-- a B-side from a great artists' bizarre and idiosyncratic catalogue.


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