Outside the Whale: Laurie Anderson plays Moby

Songs and Stories From Moby Dick, BAM Opera House, Through October 16

HERE’S A SMALL detail. In her musical rereading of Moby Dick, Laurie Anderson has a cast member quote from an obscure sermon delivered early in the novel: “So what is a man if he outlives the lifetime of his God?” The program notes that she’s written also cite the line, commenting: “Yes, really. What do you do when you no longer believe in the things that have driven you? How do you go on?”

But Herman Melville’s text reads slightly differently. The preacher says: “I leave eternity to Thee; for what is man that he should live out the lifetime of his God?” Not at all Nietzschean. God died a little later.

When asked, Anderson said through her manager that she’d “pondered it at length” and deliberately changed the sentence. Such small details are her entry point, the way she’s chosen to harpoon a fictional leviathan. Throwing out most of the characters, Ishmael and Queequeg included, and nearly all of the plot, she dwells instead on ideologically revealing scenes at the fiction’s margins or beyond it altogether, less a player in the drama than its designated “Reader.” Anyone who studied deconstruction in college should feel right at home.

This isn’t the Moby Dick of F.O. Matthiessen’s American Renaissance (Shakespeare-derived oratorical rebuke to Emerson), or Leslie Fiedler (Ishmael saved by love of dark-skinned harpooner Queequeg), or David Reynolds’s Beneath the American Renaissance (Ishmael as pop-savvy Bowery b’hoy). Anderson picks details like the cook’s sermon to the sharks, or cabin boy Pip’s abandonment at sea, or Melville’s pseudoscientific cetology. She goes outside the book entirely, riffing on a John Barrymore film version where Ahab has a jealous fiancée, or on whale-to-whale communication.

It’s a thoroughly original take, though the details are deliberately unreliable. If you go, reread at least part of the novel in advance (suggestion: chapters 1, 9, 36, 53, 64, 78, 89, 93, 102, 107, 124, 130, and 135). Then expect to be confused anyhow. Anderson resists any overarching interpretation, writing: “Melville’s search for meaning is alternately frustrating and illuminating, multilayered and elusive, like the great white whale he searches for.” The hint of defeat behind the boilerplate, the idea that she too was sucked into trying to plumb this famously unfathomable epic, only adds to the fun.

And by Anderson’s high standards, Songs and Stories From Moby Dick is a defeat, though not a sick joke like last year’s Robert Wilson/Lou Reed BAM collaboration Time Rocker. She’s working with a cast for the first time, notably Tom Nelis as an Ahab with a Tom Waits growl and some ace crutch-dances. But the actors sometimes come off like a Laurie Anderson parody – those signature speech rhythms. Worse, they’re sometimes like a Robert Wilson parody, aimlessly moving abstractions of humanity at the rear of the set, a clichéd image long before Jonathan Demme lifted it for Beloved.

Nor, and this is more surprising, does the multimedia break ground. The ballyhooed “talking stick,” little used, basically lets Anderson play sonic cutups with her hands, where she used to need her violin bow. The screened portions emphasize bits of text. Even the most arresting visual, Ahab’s face behind a giant magnifying glass, reprises the “Lens Head” of an earlier concert piece. The music veers toward New Age, with lots of whale samples and Skúli Sverrisson playing prepared bass onstage; the male singers are concert-style rather than vernacular; and the songs aren’t memorable on first listen. Anderson’s instant immediacy is exchanged for more operatic effects.

Melville had a best-seller at 26, wrote Moby Dick in his early thirties, then spent 40 years shrinking down to nothing. Anderson, on the other hand, debuted as a performance artist within the avant-garde scene that spawned Einstein on the Beach. Her epic United States I/IV – begun at roughly the same age that Melville began his, and first staged fully in 1983 at BAM – made her a pop figure: it included the British hit single ‘O Superman’ that got her signed to Warner Bros. But in the 1990s she’s lost her common touch, her work becoming the “difficult listening” she once satirized. She’s switched from Warners to Nonesuch, the minimalist composers’ label.

Is that estrangement from the popular behind her embrace of Melville’s becalmed quest? She’s sampled him for years: his “fast fish/loose fish” dichotomy in the 1974 art film Dear Reader and the Strange Angels booklet; the couplet “And I alone was left to tell the tale/Call me Ishmael,” which concludes her new BAM show, on Mister Heartbreak‘s ‘Blue Lagoon’ and the title track to The Ugly One With the Jewels. And she identifies with his alternating whale lore, philosophy, and gibbering weirdness.

But Melville’s weirdness had roots: Pip and the cook were imported minstrel stereotypes who talked in dialect. Not in the show. Subsuming race and homosexuality in the Big Questions, as Anderson does, is a dangerously rarefied pursuit. As her mentors in Soho minimalism and literary deconstruction have learned, there’s always a queer theory or hip hop waiting to seize the moment. Songs and Stories From Moby Dick can’t help coming off a bit as a blast from 15 years ago, pop art rerouted into the, for her, more tolerant world of high art. What is an artist if she outlives the lifetime of her buzz?

© Eric WeisbardThe Village Voice, 13 October 1999

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