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Staging the Numinous


“Moby Dick is the supreme ‘ur-symbol’ of our literature, whose Meaning—as Ishmael well knows—no meanings can encompass, nor any Ahab comprehend; he must be sought in little, not in large, and he is inexhaustible.” –Martin Leonard Pops (76)

“The question to my mind that Melville keeps asking in Moby-Dick—and which informs this new stage adaptation—is, to use [Rudolf] Otto’s term, ‘What is humankind’s proper relationship with the numinous?’”  --John Gentile, Director’s Notes (The Moby-Dick Project, December 2004)

As a New York theatre critic recently noted, in reference to Orson Welles’ Moby Dick Rehearsed, “it takes a fool or perhaps a genius to adapt one of the greatest American novels for the stage” (Zinoman A19). John Gentile, chair of the Department of Theatre and Performance Studies at Kennesaw State University, has dared to tackle this Leviathan work in a new stage adaptation developed over the last five years. First drawn to the book in his youth, Gentile began to see its theatrical potential in 1982, when he witnessed the Remains Theatre ensemble’s “ground-breaking” adaptation of Moby-Dick at the Goodman’s studio theatre in Chicago (McGavin).  As a graduate student at Northwestern University, Gentile studied with Robert Breen, who had developed chamber theatre, a technique for staging prose fiction that “resists the temptation to delete narrative descriptions and rewrite summaries as dialogue” (Breen 4). During his years at Northwestern, Gentile also studied with Paul Edwards and Frank Galati, two of Breen's students, whose work with chamber theatre in the professional theatre world brought the form to audiences beyond the Northwestern campus.

Given the centrality of narration to Melville’s masterpiece, the approach of chamber theatre allows the actor playing Ishmael to relate both “to the action of the story and to the audience” (Breen 39).  Influenced by the revolutionary (yet oft-misunderstood) “epic theatre” of Bertolt Brecht and his director Erwin Piscator, Breen advocates the use of the “alienation effect” not just in rehearsal (as Brecht envisioned), but also in the performance itself.  Counter-intuitively, this technique has the potential of drawing audiences into the world of the play rather than alienating them, because the actors directly address spectators, eschewing the realist tradition of the fourth wall.  “When the character addresses the audience,” Breen explains, “the system of relationships opens up to include the audience and that is only possible if the audience now sees not only the character but the actor who is portraying them” (45).  From the adapter’s perspective, moving between narration and dialogue facilitates this duality, allowing the performance to simultaneously tell and show. 

Collaboration is another common factor in devising chamber theatre productions.  For Gentile, the process of creating Moby-Dick for the stage began as one of several units in a course (Adapting and Staging Literary Texts) in the spring semester of 2003.  A little over a year later, he taught a senior seminar class with Robert Hill, Professor Emertius (KSU Department of English) and a Melville scholar, devoted to analyzing and performing scenes from Moby-Dick, which ultimately resulted in a staged reading of the first draft of the script you will see today. Throughout this process, Gentile solicited feedback from the students as well as the spectators and continued to fine-tune his adaptation.  When the Department’s current season was announced in January 2007, he turned to the draft again, this time with an eye towards a fully mounted production. 

The concept driving Gentile’s vision can be summarized as an attempt to stage the numinous, that quality defined by Rudolf Otto as the paradoxical combination of fear and fascination experienced in the non-rational perception of the mysterious and sacred.  Inspired by archetypal depth criticism, Gentile sees the quest for the great white whale as a “story of the soul’s pilgrimage towards redemption” (3).  Through the characters of Ishmael and Ahab in particular, spectators witness two different approaches (one successful, one not) to this journey of individuation.  Captain Ahab, “the prototype of the heretic,” represents those of us who refuse to acknowledge the power of the numinous (Edinger 54).  He wants to conquer the unknown, to pierce the heart of the holy, as articulated most clearly in Chapter 36, “The Quarter-Deck:

All visible objects are but as pasteboard masks.  But in every living act . . , still some reasoning thing hides behind that mask, that wall.  If man will strike, strike through the mask! How can the prisoner reach outside except by thrusting through the wall?  To me, the white whale is that wall, shoved near me. (164)

Of course, Ahab’s hubris prevents him from penetrating the mask/wall.  Instead, as Jung would have warned him, he reaps what he sows.  If we consider Moby Dick to be that wall/mask, as Ahab did, “we know that the mask of the unconscious is not rigid—it reflects the face we turn towards it.  Hostility lends it a threatening aspect, friendliness softens its features” (Jung 25).  Instead of the mysterium tremendum et fascinans that Otto characterized the numinous as evoking, Ahab remains closed off to that possibility, admitting that the “path to [his] fixed purpose is laid with iron rails, whereon [his] soul is grooved to run” (Melville 169).  Aligning himself with the machine rather than the garden, Ahab invites the fury of the numinous in his pompous disregard for the mysterious, terrifying, and tantalizing sperm whale. 

In contrast, Ishmael (whose name means “listener” in Hebrew), enacts the entire “ritual pattern of separation, transition, and incorporation” that constitutes the spiritual rebirth of pilgrimages (Gentile 4).  He begins with profound depression—the “damp, drizzly November in [his] soul”—and this “urgent psychic need” catapults him into a search for meaning, for Truth, ultimately for the numinous (Edinger 25).  And what better to represent that manifestation of all we hold holy than an albino whale?  Rarely seen above water, sperm whales prefer to avoid human contact—and those that do surface tend to be black with white spots, rather than solid white.  Melville devotes an entire chapter to the significance of Moby Dick’s whiteness (and Gentile, for his part, creates the narrative character “Whiteness” from these pages), turning on its head the Western association of white with purity.  Yes, white is pure to Melville, but in a terrifying way: it represents “the impersonal, infinite, external undefined vastness that lies behind the personal, particular, concrete and ordinary phenomena of everyday life” (Edinger 82).  However horrible, it is this sacred encounter for which Ishmael yearns.  At last, “the whale appears to Ahab and the crew as the very vision and embodiment of the god and goddess of wilderness nature and of the dreams of the subconscious mind, which the Puritans feared to release” (Slotkin 547).  Because he allows this realization to surface, transcending the mundane remains of his ordinary existence, Ishmael’s soul is reborn and his pilgrimage complete. 

                                                                              --Jane Barnette, Resident Dramaturg


Works Cited

Breen, Robert S.  Chamber Theatre.  Evanston, IL:

Caxton, 1986. 

Edinger, Edward F.  Melville’s Moby-Dick: An

American Nekyia.  Jungian Psychology by Jungian Analysts Series 69.  Toronto: Inner City, 1995. 

Gentile, John S.  “The Pilgrim Soul: Herman

Melville’s Moby-Dick as Pilgrimage.” Unpublished paper.  2008.

Jung, Carl Gustav.  The Collected Works of C.G.

Jung.  Trans. R.F.C. Hull.  Vol. 12.  Bollingen Series 20.  Princeton: Princeton UP, 1977. 

McGavin, Patrick Z.  “Ted Levine is Not a Bad Guy.” 

Chicago Reader Story Archive. 1 March 1991.  9 March 2008.  <http://www.chicagoreader.com>.  Path: Archives; Search. 

Melville, Herman.  Moby Dick, or, The Whale.  New

York: Norton, 1967, 1976. 

Pops, Martin Leonard.  The Melville Archetype

Kent, OH: Kent State UP, 1970. 

Slotkin, Richard.  Regeneration Through Violence:

The Mythology of the American Frontier, 1600-1860.  Middletown, CT: Wesleyan UP, 1975. 

Zinoman, Jason.  “That Great White Whale Through a

Wellesian Lens.” Rev. of Moby Dick—Rehearsed, dir. Marc Siberschatz.  New York Times. 10 March 2007: A19.






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