- Art After Ahab
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.1 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.2 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...