- And God Created Great Whales by Rinde Eckert
From the 1920s to the ’40s American literary scholars gradually reclaimed Moby-Dick from the edges of oblivion. Mostly forgotten by all but the most erudite, the novel, first published in 1851 to lukewarm critical and popular response, was initially rediscovered by Carl Van Doren and D. H. Lawrence in the early 1920s, and subsequently lauded by many notable literary critics as the consummate American novel. By mid-century, Moby-Dick had been fashioned into Melville’s magnum opus, and its characters—principally Ahab and Ishmael—had become iconic, representing the best (that is, adventurous individualism) and worst (obsessive hubris) facets of the American spirit.
Given its profound cultural cache, it is not surprising that Melville’s novel has inspired myriad artists following in its wake. The diversity of adaptations is impressive, ranging from the avant-garde (for example, Laurie Anderson’s Songs and Stories from Moby-Dick) to the popular (the “Möbius Dick” episode of Futurama). Although the motivations driving these and other Moby-Dick-inspired reflections, reimaginings, and borrowings are as varied as the works themselves, their very existence validates the point that Melville’s most famous work remains a powerful referent for American artists seeking to understand themselves and their universe.
Within this tradition of Moby-Dick inspiration is Rinde Eckert’s new music-theatre piece And God Created Great Whales. Created, written, and composed by Eckert (who also performs), with direction by David Schweizer, And God Created Great Whales was originally developed at P.S.122 in the late 1990s. Later staged at the Foundry Theatre and the Culture Project in 2000 and 2001, the production has periodically been remounted nationally and internationally. The 2012 revival, again directed by Schweizer, was essentially a faithful restaging of the original version. In it, Eckert ruminated on a number of weighty themes, including the vexed process of artistic creation, the burden of obsession, the convolution of consciousness and memory, and the specter of death.
As with Eckert’s other pieces that draw upon extant texts, And God Created Great Whales’ relation to its source material is more thematic than literal. Nathan, played by Eckert, is a piano-tuner and composer who hopes to finish an opera based on Melville’s masterpiece before his memory fails. Nathan’s disintegrating consciousness is an analogue for the physical challenges Melville’s Ahab faces in his obsessive pursuit of Moby-Dick. To compensate for his failing memory, Nathan relies on a collection of color-coded tape recorders marked for specific purposes—blue is the “master tape,” green is for “incidental notes,” red is the “working tape,” and so on—and he also wears a tape recorder hung around his neck. Although the voice on the tapes is that of Nathan, recorded at a time when he was still lucid and aware of his condition, it is not clear how this system of recording was created, what caused his condition in the first place, how long it has been going on, or how much time passes during the action of the performance. Eckert’s refusal to provide answers to these questions invests the time, place, and action of And God Created Great Whales with a sense of swirl and blur.
The revival production emphasized this sensation. Most notably, Eckert and Schweizer sought less a real-world/physical locale and instead set the action in the realm of Nathan’s consciousness. While the setting was, in a literal sense, Nathan’s apartment/studio, it was also something more. Designed by John Torres and Caleb Wertenbaker (based on original designs by Kevin Abrams), a baby-grand piano, wrapped with sailing line that evoked the rigging of Melville’s whaleboat, the Pequod, dominated the stage. Two ends of the sailing line extended vertically into a triangle suggesting a sail. Surrounding the piano-boat were bits of scrap paper, flash cards, items torn from magazines and books, and cassette tapes. The purpose of these items was ambiguous. Were...