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Tychy is greatly enjoying Stef Penney’s radio adaptation of Herman Melville’s 1851 novel Moby Dick, which is being broadcast in two parts as BBC Radio 4’s Sunday Classic Serial. There are obvious dangers to dramatising Melville’s novel, which has the shape and appearance of a gripping action adventure, but which is actually a rambling stream-of-consciousness Futurist opera and a virtual whaling encyclopaedia to boot. Melville’s narrative is endlessly interrupted by digressions about whaling which seem to be designed to torment any reader who is foolish enough to follow the plot and wish to see it resolved.

For all of this, however, Penney transforms Melville’s narrative into some lively and lyrical dialogue – a mixture of the Shakespeare who had cast his spell upon Melville and the smart-talking of American frontier tales. The play successfully extracts some good Gothicism from Melville’s story, with the Pequod leaving port under a delicious pall of gloom. Yet this Gothicism derives from the cathedral dankness of New Bedford and the Biblical skies over the Pequod, and not from the whale itself, which is just a distant burr, like uncertain glimpses of a legendary white lady in an English country lane. This is a Moby Dick capable of captivating children, or at least intelligent children, whereas the novel might leave them disillusioned with the whole of adult literature (it may seem strange, but in another age D. H. Lawrence had tried to insist that Moby Dick was more than a “children’s tale.”)

Some of the sailors’ accents are a little dodgy, but this is a time-honoured tradition for any Melville adaptation. Trevor White and PJ Brennan’s “Ishmael” is an earnest American youth, who sounds a little like the boy reporter Tintin in the Canadian cartoons, and this adaptation imagines him as an earlier version of Billy Budd, who was left as the woman of an all male crew by virtue of being the least barbaric and Enlightened sailor on board. Ishmael is an innocent presence – the old and young Ishamels are virtually indistinguishable – and his youthful modernity contrasts strikingly with the antique savagery of Garrick Hagon’s Ahab: a jolly old pagan king who is trying to drag America’s industrial modernity back to the days of the Old Testament.

Fascism was already a twinkle in Melville’s eye – he could understand how a “lunatic” demagogue might enchant working people and lead them off on a mad adventure, and the mate Starbuck is consequently cast as the impotently reasoning liberal of the piece. But for this reason, Hagon’s Ahab is at times a bit too jolly and roughish for my tastes – his vengeance seems oddly banal and difficult to explain in such a mature man – and it is much easier to identify with Richard Laing’s protesting Starbuck. Perhaps ominously, part 1 of the serial ends four fifths of the way through the book – after chapter 109 – which indicates that this dramatisation is not equal to the enormity of the novel’s fascination with gutting whales, although Ishmael’s account of the “shambles… all in the aid of Enlightenment [ie oil for lamps]” is so far the most compelling part of the play. The Pequod is left with an entire hour in which to chase Moby Dick next Sunday.

[See Tychy passim for much more writing on Melville. Ed.]

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