Herman Melville's "Moby Dick" has long ranked as one of the great novels of English literature. Written in 1851, the classic tale follows the tyrannical Captain Ahab in his relentless pursuit of the great white whale Moby Dick. Despite having already lost a ship and a leg to the illusive sea monster, Ahab is hell-bent on revenge at any cost. The story is narrated by Ishmael, a sailor who unwittingly signs on to Ahab's ship, the Pequod, departing from Nantucket. The state of Massachusetts has so long been associated with the tale that in 2008, our House of Representatives named Moby Dick as the state's official epic novel.
It's also of interest that Melville had a local connection to Boston via his grandfather, Thomas, a member of the Sons of Liberty and a participant in the Boston Tea Party. As well, Melville himself once sailed out of New Bedford on a whaling ship and later settled with his family in Pittsfield.
Renowned for its prolific and stylized prose, the iconic Moby Dick is now coming to the Boston stage. From November 7 to 12, ArtsEmerson will present a stunning stage adaptation of the work by the award-winning Gare St. Lazare Players Ireland.
The masterful one-man show will be performed at the Paramount Center by Conor Lovett, who adapted the novel with his wife Judy Hegarty Lovett, who in turn directed the production. The Lovetts, who've been together for 20 years, are the Artistic Directors of the Dublin-based Gare St. Lazare Players.
Robert J. Orchard, ArtsEmerson's executive director, felt that having the critically acclaimed Lovett interpret a seminal American novel offered a wonderful opportunity for his second season of international programming.
"The joy for audiences," Orchard said, "will be Melville's language exquisitely articulated by one of Ireland's most distinctive actors. The power of the story-telling in an intimate space should be memorable."
The Lovetts were initially drawn to the novel for the sheer beauty of its language. "It is incredibly rich while at the same time very direct and immediate," Conor said. "Then there are the main themes of greed, power, man and nature, the questioning of an interventionist God, (and) Ahab's defiance of a higher power."
Quoting the novel, he continued, "'I'd strike the sun if it insulted me. For if the sun can do that then can I do the other, there being a sort of fair play therein, jealousy presiding over all creation. But not even my master, man, is that fair play. Who's over me? Death hath no confines.' (pausing) There is drama dripping from every syllable."
The job of adapting the massive novel for the stage meant judicious editing, with Judy initially selecting the scenes that were essential to the transfer and Conor preserving as much of Melville's original language as possible.
"We wanted to make Ishmael the center of it," he said, "and to have him speak the story directly to the audience just as, in the novel, he addresses the reader directly. Of course the hardest part was having to cut out scenes or even lines. But we're very pleased that we've managed to give a great flavor of Ishmael, of the story, and of the amazing language."
While the piece is a drama, it will feature Caoimhin O'Raghallaigh's original music, performed live on fiddle, viola and uilleann pipes to provide a poetic counterpoint to Ahab's fanatical quest.
"Caoimhin is a wonderful fiddle player," Conor said, "but more than that he is a very sensitive artist. He wants to serve the work and to allow it to breathe and to have space. He's often more interested in the space between the words and between the notes. He's a great man to have on stage beside you."
In an interesting side note, Gare St. Lazare Players Ireland premiered their stage version of "Moby Dick" at Youghal, County Cork, which is where the film version of the novel was shot in 1956.
"Everyone remembers that time," Conor said of the film shoot. "Judy's mother recalls going down to Youghal on the train from Cork and queuing to get Gregory Peck's autograph." He continued, "We found out, during our time premiering there, that the Town Hall auditorium had served as the Wardrobe Department. That was great. Anyone going to Youghal should stop in to Moby Dick's bar which is featured in the film and is now full of amazing paraphernalia and photographs from the filming."
Working so intimately with Melville's writings has understandably affected the lives of the Lovetts. "It's true that you forge a very personal connection to the story and to the characters," Conor said. "I have certainly become hugely interested in the sea since I started on this show and have read several novels about round-the-world sailing. Joshua Slocombe, Captain Cook … I'd relish the chance to go on a whaler or even a Tall Ship. Last year I visited Mystic and stood on the decks of the Charles W. Morgan, the last remaining Whaler. That was a very special moment for me."
"Moby Dick" is presented at ArtsEmerson with the support of "Imagine Ireland: A Year Of Irish Arts In America," an initiative of Culture Ireland, which was established in 2005 by Ireland's Minister for Arts, Sport and Tourism as the state agency for the promotion of Irish arts worldwide. "Imagine Ireland" has been instrumental in assisting with four projects so far during ArtsEmerson's first two seasons.
Pleased with the initial collaborations with "Imagine Ireland," Orchard is hopeful for a solid, long-term partnership that will allow him "to present Irish culture regularly for years to come."
From the artist's perspective, Conor is equally appreciative. He said, "We think [Culture Ireland] is a brilliant idea as it encourages Irish artists to travel with their work, and allows audiences to experience that work first hand . . . For our company, working with Culture Ireland has allowed us to bring work to India, China, Australia, New Zealand, Turkey, Greece, Romania, Bulgaria, Spain, Germany, Argentina and to over 20 theaters in the United States. Irish culture is perhaps our greatest export and people everywhere react to it."
Honored to be a part of the ArtsEmerson season, Conor said he's "looking forward to bringing our Gare St. Lazare take on a novel that is close to every American, but should resonate even more when performed by an Irishman in Boston."
Gare St. Lazare Players Ireland's "Moby Dick" from ArtsEmerson, November 7 - 12, at The Paramount Center, 559 Washington Street in Boston. Tickets: 617-824-8400 or artsemerson.org.
R. J. Donovan is publisher of OnStageBoston.com.