On Stage

Occupy Moby

A beloved winter literary tradition celebrates America's most famous whale

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“Call me Ishmael.” What is considered the most famous opening line in American literature will soon begin the 16th annual Moby Dick Marathon. Presented by the New Bedford Whaling Museum, the event has become a winter tradition for the community and is a three-day program of entertaining activities and events from January 6 to 8.

This year’s event is the culmination of the three-month long Moby! promotion with the Zeiterion Performing Arts Center and is positioned to entice new audiences. Since 1995, the museum has marked the anniversary of Herman Melville’s 1841 departure from the Port of New Bedford and Fairhaven aboard the whale ship Acushnet with the marathon, which includes a ticketed buffet dinner and cash bar beginning at 5:30 Friday evening, followed by a free public lecture at 7:15pm.
On Saturday at 10am, “Stump the Scholars,” will allow the public to quiz Melville Society scholars on all matters Moby Dick. The program is modeled after NPR’s popular show, Wait, Wait... Don’t Tell Me.

Of course, the highlight is the nonstop reading of Melville’s literary masterpiece that begins at noon on Saturday and continues through the night and concludes with the reading of the Epilogue at approximately 1pm Sunday. Not your typical staged event, but theatrical nonetheless, as a multitude of readers bring Melville’s classic to in the heart of the whaling city.

Moby Dick, considered by some to be the great American novel, was published in 1851 by Melville and follows sailor Ishmael on his adventures aboard the whale ship Pequod, commanded by Captain Ahab. Important in the annals of American literature, it has probably been on many a school book list at one time or another. What better way to read it but to immerse yourself among others in this 25-hour participatory event?

Museum Communications Director Arthur Motta likens it to what he calls “Occupy Moby,” as hundreds of Melville enthusiasts from all walks of life come to participate. Motta says, “It has become a community-wide event that everyone participates in, with some people choosing to come in period costume while others camp out in sleeping bags over the two days.”

Motta points out that there are also theatrical elements to the reading. Chapter 40, “Midnight, Forecastle,” is actually written in play format. Culture Park, a theatre and performing arts collaborative, will produce this segment of the reading, which takes place between 5-6pm Saturday.

Patty Thomas, artistic director of Culture Park says, “Chapter 40 is four to five pages, and it’s Melville in a Shakespearean tone. It’s great fun, and a great challenge because there are 27 different characters showing the range of nationalities aboard the Pequod.”

While most of the reading takes place in the museum’s Cook Theater, Motta explains that within the first few chapters, readers and audience members will leave the museum and make their way to Seamen’s Bethel, the actual chapel that Melville himself attended, for the sermon. An ordained minister actually reads the sermon, while an actor takes on the role of Ishmael to read the response. Participants in the chapel will sing the lyrics of the referenced hymn using the music from the John Huston film that featured Gregory Peck as Ahab.

This multi-media marathon also features images related to all 135 chapters of the book projected in the theater, assembled and presented by the museum apprentices as well as live streaming on the Internet to participants around the world.

In addition to the reading and theatrical interpretations, there will be food and activities centered on the theme of whaling. Food includes chowder (the meal Ishmael shares with Queequeg in Chapter 15), hardtack and grog (non-alcoholic). As I recall, the hardtack is a bit salty and not too appetizing, but at least it lacks the mold and bugs that the sailors had to endure on that epic voyage.

With these and other expanded activities, there is something for everyone. However, reading aloud and celebrating Melville remain at the heart of this cultural tradition.