Tuesday, January 17, 2012

The Stage, The Storm; Enter Pip

I have a few thoughts today on several of the most critical and dramatic chapteers of Moby-Dick: the dramatic chapters beginning with "The Quarter-Deck" and ending with Pip's speech as the tempest breaks in "Midnight - Forecastle". There is an obvious and radical technique interjected here, where Melville begins each chapter with stage directions and very explicitly frames them as a dramatic production. This is a work-within-a-work, a framed story, in the tradition of the Thousand-and-one-Nights, the Panchatantra, The Canterbury Tales and Shakespeare's Hamlet and Midsummer Night's Dream.

Now, there is little I can say here that you cannot read. It may be helpful to know that there are four such dramatic sequences in Moby-Dick; the first one, a more subtle one that launches into the play format mid-way through the chapter, is "Enter Ahab; to him Stubb". The next is a short, one chapter interlude, "Ahab and the Carpenter", surrounded by other dialogue heavy but not fully dramatic chapters. The final one is the long sequence that begins during "The Candle" and ends with "The Cabin" immediately prior to the final chase scenes. These dramatic chapters are of a piece, and highlights a play among a subset of the human characters in the book.

Also, look carefully at the key curtain scenes. Perhaps the only character whose entrance is built up nearly to the same degree as Ahab and Moby-Dick is Pip; he is first introduced, silently, in Knights and Squires, and he receives the curtain speech at the close of this critical act.

One of the elements of the play-within-a-novel technique that is so effective is that Melville can foreshadow far more effectively and with more subtlety than the average playwright; the novelist elements beforehand introduce and color each of the characters when they show on the stage, giving them the depth of character that might not appear until the third act at the very point where the curtain rises.

The contrast between these chapters and what comes before also heightens the drama: we move from our yarn before the fireplace with Ishmael to find the fireplace pulled back and a sudden congregation of the players that were heretofore just words in Ishmael's mouth in front of and above us on a stage, suddenly larger, better lit, and more colorful than we might have imagined them, and, in each case, no longer mute. Our prior intermediary, Ishmael, drops away entirely and we commune with them directly; he may be sitting in the back of the audience with us, but he takes on the former muteness of many of the characters. We no longer suspend disbelief: we are to believe.

Now, let's take a quick look at the curtain speech for this act, delivered as a storm breaks (the image above is Turner's "Tempest") after a rowdy, drunken, multi-cultural dance act, perhaps the single most pagan moment of the whole pagan book:

Jollies? Lord help such jollies! Crish, crash! there goes the jib-stay! Blang-whang! God! Duck lower, Pip, here comes the royal yard! It's worse than being in the whirled woods, the last day of the year; Who'd go climbing after chestnuts now? But there they go, all cursing, and here I don't. Fine prospects to 'em; they're on the road to heaven. Hold on hard! Jimmini, what a squall! But those chaps there are worse yet - they are your white squalls, they. White squalls? white whale, shirr! shirr! Here have I heard all their chat just now, and the white whale - shirr! shirr! - but spoken of once! and only this evening - it makes me jingle all over like my tambourine - that anaconda of an old man swore 'em in to hunt him! Oh, thou big white God aloft there somewhere in yon darkness, have mercy on this small black boy down here; preserve him from all men that have no bowels to feel fear!

Is Pip's speech the speech of the fool or the tragic hero? Or the speech of a fool delivered by a tragic hero? Watch Pip.

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