During my short Xmas/New Year break I didn’t get around to reading that pile of books glaring at me from my bedside table; I didn’t even get started on the tower of DVDs forlornly stacked by the television! I did, however, watch one of my favourite movies (for the nth time), based on one of my favourite novels, all of which led me to setting a challenge for the collection; which came through with flying colours, naturally!
You all know the story: boy meets whale, whale takes leg, boy chases whale up and down the globe, boy finds whale, boy gets reunited with leg (sort of…..), etc., etc. Unhelpful synopsis aside, it is a great, great book, and if you can find a copy with the supreme illustrations by Rockwell Kent, even better! It has also been the inspiration for any number of artists, composers, writers and filmmakers over the years, all of whom have been entranced, mystified, baffled and challenged by its sprawling, seemingly chaotic mix of adventure-narrative and philosophical digressions.
Starting with one of the most recent Moby Dick inspired works in our collection, American artist Matt Kish set himself the challenge of creating an image for every page of the great book, and here they are in all of their tumultuous glory. Almost mad really!
On an even grander scale, Frank Stella spent over a decade creating 266 pieces of art based on each chapter of the novel. Sculptures, prints, reliefs, murals and other works all went into this massive series which is now dispersed right around the globe. Virtually impossible to bring together, this richly illustrated volume works as both a catalogue of the project as well as an insightful exploration of Stella’s vision and its relation to Melville and his magnum opus.
Considering its epic, discursive nature Melville’s novel hasn’t fared too badly on the screen, although I’ve yet to see the early John Barrymore version (1930) which sounds like it takes more than a few liberties with the narrative; Captain Ahab as a “lovable scamp”!? English composer Philip Sainton wrote a splendid score for the John Huston movie (much of which was actually filmed in Youghal, Ireland), while Australian composer Christopher Gordon created an equally beautiful and dramatic score for this more recent television version.
A few brave souls have attempted over the years to bring the great novel to the stage, and I have already touched on Jake Heggie’s recent opera in a previous post. It appears to have exercised the great Orson Welles throughout his life and his play, Moby Dick Rehearsed, sidesteps many of the obvious issues by taking as its setting a theatre. The author’s great love of the novel shines through as the actors slowly begin inhabiting the parts they find themselves playing; Welles of course appeared in John Huston’s film, playing Father Mapple preaching from his nautical pulpit, and in a few short minutes just about managed to steal the entire show! Australia’s own sadly departed Nigel Triffitt created an extraordinarily memorable production of the story for the 1990 Melbourne International Festival, and I can still recall the sights and sounds of what was a truly remarkable reimagining. I love this quote from Triffitt in the original programme: “Melville’s own words are the only ones you will hear – my sadness is only that Moby Dick cannot be 12 hours long so you could hear more of them. I simply stand in awe.”
So do I.