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  • P(l)aying off Old Ironsides and the Old Wagon:Melville's Depiction of Shipboard Theatricals in White-Jacket
  • Mary Isbell

While we might quibble over the best way to characterize the use of antebellum sea narratives in White-Jacket, or The World in a Man-of-War (1850), we can agree that Melville's narrative is not limited to his own experiences aboard the USS United States. We know, for example, that "Theatricals in a Man-of-war" (Ch. 23) does not document an actual performance aboard the United States but is instead derived from the chapter "Aquatic Theatricals" from the 1841 sea narrative Life in a Man-of-War, or Scenes in "Old Ironsides" During her Cruise in the Pacific, written anonymously by "A Fore-top-man" (Huntress 73). One of many firsthand accounts of theatricals aboard nineteenth-century ships, Life in a Man-of-War recounts a series of performances given by sailors aboard the USS Constitution while harbored in Callao, Peru, and describes the performances as having been encouraged, even requested, by superior officers. This firsthand narrative differs considerably from the account Melville offers in White-Jacket, in which Captain Claret begrudgingly allows the performance of an original play to celebrate the Fourth of July as the Neversink approaches the dangerous waters off Cape Horn, only after scanning the play for anything "calculated to breed disaffection against lawful authority" (NN WJ 93). Although the dramatic text passes Claret's censorship, the performance conjures a "terrific commotion" from the audience that made "all discipline" seem "gone forever" (94). The commotion is checked in the end by a black squall that calls the sailors from the makeshift theater to their stations. In effect, Melville offers a thrilling fiction that associates performance with danger by appropriating an account of performances mounted aboard the USS Constitution.

Of course, Melville's most famous use of theater at sea occurs in Moby-Dick (1851), in which Ishmael's idiosyncratic narration is supplanted by stage directions surrounding soliloquies, dialogue, even the entirety of the chapter titled "Midnight-Forecastle." In White Jacket, the narrator describes a literal theatrical performance, but in Moby-Dick, Melville temporarily dissolves his [End Page 6] narrator and transforms the Pequod into a stage. This altering of the novel's form reflects Melville's preoccupation with the impossibility of free will and the ramifications for vengeance. The transformation is ultimately a formal manifestation of a theatrical metaphor. Here, however, I draw upon the theatricals described in Life in a Man-of-War that likely inspired such formal experimentation in Moby-Dick to argue that Melville's changes serve as a corrective revision of the anonymous account, employing caricature and thrilling incident to reveal the "truth" about injustice in the US Navy.1 Melville's appropriation of Life in a Man-of-War creates a thematically rich fiction, and his changes highlight what is not included in the anonymous narrative: censorship and discipline-disrupting enthusiasm for live performance. These features in Melville's text may not have actually been an issue aboard the Constitution, but Melville's changes sound out the disruptive potential inherent in dramatic representation on board ship. Given the important role of appropriation and representation in later works like Israel Potter (1854-55), "Benito Cereno" (1855), and Billy Budd (1924), I contextualize Life in a Man-of-War with accounts of productions aboard other American naval vessels to show how White-Jacket is, not unlike Moby-Dick, a complex experiment in retelling.

In The Portable Theater (1999), Alan Ackerman offers the most sustained treatment of theatricals in White-Jacket. As context for his chapter on narrative and drama in Moby-Dick, he reads the disruption of discipline caused by the fictional performance in light of the Astor Place Riot, which took place on 10 May 1849. Drawing on this well-known example of the public stage as a site of disorder, Ackerman argues that White-Jacket's "intellectual detachment," or hesitance to claim allegiance with the disruptive behavior of the sailor-audience, can best be understood as a symptom of Melville's skepticism about theater. In citing "Hawthorne and His Mosses," he explains that Melville believed the best...