American literature’s most annoying classic was inspired by real-life events. Herman Melville based his epically digressive Moby-Dick on an 1820 incident in which a monster whale turned on a Nantucket whaling ship, the Essex, and rammed it—twice!—causing it to sink into the Pacific Ocean.
What Melville excluded from his narrative—and it’s a strange omission, inasmuch as he was willing to go into excruciating detail on pretty much everything else, from cetacean morphology to the depiction of the whale in Western art—is the fact that a number of Essex crewmen survived the sinking itself only to drift on the ocean in open boats for up to three months. The drifters who lasted long enough to be rescued did so by making meals of their mates.
Joe Forbrich restores that lost history in The Whaleship Essex, his new play, receiving its “mainland premiere” now in a Shattered Globe Theatre production directed by Lou Contey.
Forbrich’s ambitious piece of work opens on November 20, 1850—30 years to the day after the whale’s bold move sent the Essex into the deep. A married couple arrives in Nantucket, looking for a place to stay while the husband, a writer, researches the disaster (or, considered from the whale’s point of view, act of resistance). As it happens, they run into a fellow with rooms to let and an intimate knowledge of events pertaining to the Essex. Most of the action unfolds in flashback as the well-informed landlord unreels his tale.
We meet Captain George Pollard and first mate Owen Chase; young “greenhands” Owen Coffin, Charles Ramsdell, and Thomas Nickerson; as well as an array of others, from boatswain and purser to carpenter and boat steerer (a job that, interestingly enough, did not entail steering the boat). These were the names and titles of men who actually sailed aboard the Essex on its final voyage. Forbrich tags each of them with a dominant characteristic. Pollard: kindly and cerebral. Chase: jealous, brutal, and apt to challenge authority. Ramsdell is feisty; Coffin, an innocent whose name is all too likely to be his destiny. The subsidiary souls include a brownnoser, an oaf whom Chase loves to bully, and three black seamen: a cynic, a Christian, and a guy who just wants to do his job as best he can. Oddest of them all is Nickerson, a 14-year-old cabin boy whose fits of poetry may be prophetic.
The tags make an easy guide when it comes to distinguishing among 13 sailors. More important, though, they help Forbrich compensate for an essential lack of drama, especially in the run-up to the ramming. With its tight quarters, strict hierarchy, profound hardships, and inherent dangers, a ship looks like the perfect setting for a yarn, and in certain circumstances it is—consider the various versions of another based-on-fact oceanic event, Mutiny on the Bounty. But what propels the Bounty story is the developing animosity between Fletcher Christian and William Bligh. No animosity, no mutiny. Even the ponderous Moby-Dick depends on momentum provided by Ahab’s obsessive pursuit of the white whale—he’s headed for a reckoning and he knows it, and so do we. By contrast, Forbrich’s script centers on an anonymous sea mammal’s unexpectedly violent response to a stimulus. That’s curious rather than compulsive. A freak occurrence. Dress it up any way you want—and at various times Forbrich tries to get us to see it anthropomorphically (furious whale), karmically (just desserts for our forebears’ blubber lust), or allegorically (a harbinger of our own energy crimes)—you can’t really build to a freak occurrence.
So Forbrich and company spend the long prelude to catastrophe drawing our attention to shipboard quirks and feuds and lore. Some of it is worthwhile. As Chase, Joseph Wiens gets to be nasty in a variety of ways that promise some kind of payoff—which arrives, satisfyingly, after intermission. And once she gets over a strange slouch, Angie Shriner supplies a Nickerson who’s both lively and enigmatic. The portrayal of race politics is intriguing. I was also pleased to discover words like “coof,” which was (is?) the Nantucketeer’s term for off-islanders, to learn the logistics of flaying a dead whale in the middle of the ocean, and to find out what a Nantucket sleigh ride is.
None of this overcomes the problem of narrative stasis, however. Some of it even exacerbates it: Forbrich pulls a Melville in overstuffing The Whaleship Essex with information he clearly finds fascinating but doesn’t need. Besides a stronger through line, the play could use a trimming.
Things only pick up when Contey deploys the cast in pursuit of whales, using elements of Ann Davis’s set that amount to little more than benches, yet, under Shelley Strasser Holland’s lights, become cramped vessels tossed on the waves. It’s then that the absurd courage of 19th-century whalers—the cruel, brilliant foolhardiness of the entire enterprise—comes clear.