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Theater 30.2 (2000) 160-163
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Mysteries of the Postmodern Deep:
Laurie Anderson's Songs and Stories from Moby Dick
Laurie Anderson reaches for epic statements, but does so with gestures that are minimal and weirdly resonant: the pulped newspaper bricks of her early sculptural work; the endlessly looped "ha's" of "O Superman," which captured both the fragility of the human voice and the buried expressiveness of a robot; the blown-up photograph of a wall socket in United States, which--with its two vertical slots above a hole--became the spectral image of a human face, silent in shock and amazement. In anthemic productions like United States, Home of the Brave, and Empty Places, her monologues have relied on the power of speech that comes in small packages--the engaging anecdote, capped by the wondering aperçu. There she stands, engulfed in the dark stage in her trademark black suit and red shoes, teasing us to believe that storytelling has not died, that wisdom has not died, that they simply hide like fugitives within the ambience of jingle, slang, and cliché, waiting to be detected by the canny observer. This is a difficult tease to pull off on a grand scale. Critic Mark Dery has labeled the Anderson experience "information anxiety incarnate . . . implying everything, signifying nothing." While she flirts with great meanings, she refuses to commit to any in particular, partly because she shies away from hammering the audience with a didactic spectacle, but partly, too, because she doesn't want to close down the promise that hangs expectantly around the unfulfilled, the auratic.
Lately Anderson has found, in Herman Melville's Moby-Dick, new inspiration for her ongoing bid to rewrite the American anthem. Presented at the Brooklyn Academy of Music's Next Wave Festival, Songs and Stories from Moby Dick is a head-on collision between our most postmodern nineteenth-century novelist and a performance artist who, since the early eighties, has been praised and skewered as a tribune of the pomo. Anderson's take on the great whale hunt is typically askew: she throws away major episodes and elaborates on wispy digressions, caring as much for the novel's afterlife as for its plot. As a consequence, Songs and Stories is perhaps most interesting as a gloss on Anderson's own art, which has seemed less pointed in the 1990s, as if its targets were slipping out of focus. Lavish and meticulous, the production is Times Square-millennial: a big bash, riotous with color and computer graphics, intrepid in its sampling of musical genres from funk and calypso to Broadway balladry. Yet it is also dubious about its own artistic glitz, questioning how our hunger for the all-embracing Gesamtkunstwerk may be the contemporary equivalent of Ahab's mad search after the whale. So Anderson plays the accomplice of theatrical ambition and its critic, too. Her Moby Dick is sometimes enlivened, but mostly saddened, by the contradiction.
Anderson follows Melville's example in that her production is not really about a whale at all. Yes, there is an undertow of fatality to the book and to Anderson's postmodern vaudeville; we know that the Great White Whale, its mouth whiskered with the failed harpoons of countless seafarers, will eventually stave in the Pequod and send Ahab spiraling to a watery grave. But Moby-Dick has always frustrated readers looking for an adventure novel; the whale is less a breathing character than an existential menace waiting to be confronted. Melville suggested, in the persons of Ishmael and Ahab, two possible solutions to this existential threat. Ishmael responds with extroversion, digression, and irony: he is an autodidact [End Page 160] who has never met a material fact that he didn't like, an observer who absorbs all but rarely acts upon anything in particular. Ahab, by contrast, has the feverish focus of a monomaniac.
The tension between Ishmael and Ahab is fundamental to the novel, but it creates great problems for Anderson. The first is a problem of sympathy: How can...