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Melville Birthday Lecture “What Melville Means to Me” A PANEL DISCUSSION WITH RINDE ECKERT AND RICARDO PITTS-WILEY ROBERT K. WALLACE, MODERATOR T he fifth annual Herman Melville Birthday Lecture at the New Bedford Whaling Museum, on July 26, 2007, featured two exceptionally talented theatrical artists who wove an elastic monkey-rope of words in response to the question of “What Melville Means To Me.” Rinde Eckert began the program by singing, without accompaniment, Father Mapple’s aria from And God Created Great Whales, Eckert’s chamber opera, which premiered in New York City, in June 2000. Ricardo Pitts-Wiley responded with a performance of Father Mapple’s sermon from Moby-Dick: Then and Now, his adaptation, which premiered with his Mixed Magic Theatre in Pawtucket, RI, in May 2007. Eckert’s song asks, “Shipmates, are we not ourselves hungering to be swallowed and transformed, ingested by a larger and more imposing hunger?” Pitts-Wiley’s sermon answers with, “And God had prepared a great fish to swallow up Jonah.” Thus, the evening got off to an electric start before Anne Brengle of the New Bedford Whaling Museum and Wyn Kelley of the Melville Society Cultural Project stepped forward to welcome the audience and formally introduce the program. After moderator Robert K. Wallace gave a brief summary of the dramatic creations from which the Father Mapple excerpts were drawn— Eckert’s opera is about a piano tuner named Nathan who is composing a MobyDick opera as he is losing his memory; Pitts-Wiley’s play alternates Ahab’s revenge against the White Whale with an inner-city gang’s battle against the cocaine trade—the panel discussion began. Each artist declared what Melville means to him, responded to the moderator’s questions, and answered questions from the audience. The following transcription was prepared by the moderator from a tape recording of the event. What Melville Means to Me Ricardo Pitts-Wiley: Two years ago, I played Babo in a staged reading of Benito Cereno. Even though I was familiar with Moby-Dick, I can’t say that I was C  2007 The Authors Journal compilation C  2007 The Melville Society and Blackwell Publishing Inc L E V I A T H A N A J O U R N A L O F M E L V I L L E S T U D I E S 157 R O B E R T K . W A L L A C E Rinde Eckert, Robert K. Wallace, and Ricardo Pitts-Wiley at the New Bedford Whaling Museum. Photo Wyn Kelley. overly committed to the work of Herman Melville. At that performance I met members of the Melville Cultural Project. They were passionate about Melville and passionate about Moby-Dick. At that time I had an idea that I could make Moby-Dick more relevant in some way to a contemporary audience. But I had to find a contemporary parallel for the White Whale. I had this idea. If you make the international cocaine cartel the White Whale, how would it be pursued? You had to follow the same journey as Ahab. I worked with a group of young people, young men, at a reform school in Providence. I don’t want to in any way romanticize that time. These young men were in jail. On one level, they were a captive audience. On another level, they were an audience that in some ways I could really focus. I gave them the idea, what if the White Whale was cocaine: how would you deal with it? Then I asked them to each write a definition of one of the characters from the novel. And they chose their characters. In the most liberating part of this process, they came back with character descriptions that took me out of convention. One of them described Queequeg as a pimp. He was flamboyant. He was colorful. He dealt in human flesh. He was intensely loyal. Another one described Ishmael as a Navy Seal who was too high strung, so they kicked him out. Well, that allowed me to start thinking about what I was going to do in a different way. In a sense...


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