Premiere production; Portland Story Theater at The Alberta Abbey; performed Jan. 2-24
When the Essex set sail from Nantucket on August 12, 1819, it was considered a lucky ship. At about 88 feet it was smallish for a whaleship, but it had had many profitable voyages, and there was no reason to believe this one would be otherwise.
Nor was there reason to anticipate that, on November 20, 1820, two thousand nautical miles west of the edge of South America in the vast reaches of the Pacific Ocean, a sperm whale almost as long as the Essex itself would turn on the ship, speed toward it, and ram it, then ram it again, until the Essex splintered, tottered, keeled over, and eventually sank. So much for luck.
The ship carried a crew of 20. After 93 days adrift on the ocean in three small whaleboats that survived the attack, five emaciated men reached safety (three other men elected to stay on a small desert island, and were eventually rescued). They had endured starvation, extreme thirst, fevers, and a descent into cannibalism, eating the bodies of their dead and, in one case, drawing lots to see who would be shot so his body could feed the others.
The tale of the Essex became legend in whaling circles, eventually reaching the ears of young Herman Melville, who heard it aboard a whaler from the son of one of the Essex disaster’s survivors. The fantastic story became the seed that sprouted Moby-Dick.
It’s also the fifth and latest in storyteller Lawrence Howard’s Armchair Adventurer series, which has retold the exploits of the Antarctic explorers Shackleton, Amundson, Scott, and Mawson, as well as the tale of John “Babbacombe” Lee, who was hanged three times and survived each attempted execution.
Howard, the cofounder of Portland Story Theater, is at home in the world of extremes, and he tells the story of the Essex true and well. His style, interestingly, isn’t overly dramatic, although he can amp up the tension when it’s called for. He recounts his tales in an easy, familiar, colloquial style, mixing in a few wry observations, pinpointing moments of valor and foolhardiness and desperation, and drilling down on the essence of character among these historical adventurers when they are faced with the most dire of circumstances. And he links them, casually but carefully, to details of his own life: how he gained his enthusiasm for adventure stories from his father; how learning about the endurance of the sailors on the Essex helped him deal with his own weakness from cancer radiation treatment. It all seems matter-of-fact, the way Howard tells things, and then you realize you’ve been sitting there listening to him for two solid hours, and he’s held you every step of the way.
As Howard tells it, the story of the Essex is more than the story of a disaster. It’s also a story about leadership, and the lack of it, and the tension between a young captain and a younger first mate who continually challenged his authority. And it’s about varying kinds of courage, and the mettle that men find, or don’t find, in their souls. Howard also tells a lot about the economics and practicalities of the whaling trade (whale oil lit city streets and helped fuel the Industrial Revolution), including the arduous and filthy business of actually killing the whales and rendering them. Like Moby-Dick, which takes long side trips from its adventure story to talk about the practicalities of the sailing life and venture into philosophical speculations, Howard’s version of the story carefully places the adventure within its economic, historic, and cultural context, a particularly important decision considering the 21st century’s radically different moral and environmental views on hunting whales. Yes, it slows the story down a bit. The payoff is a deeper understanding of what was at stake, and, eventually, of how the survivors were greeted and treated once they reached home again.
The Essex, directed by Howard’s wife and partner in Portland Story Theater, Lynne Duddy, had its premiere as part of the Fertile Ground festival with performances Friday and Saturday at the Alberta Abbey. Howard’s next scheduled performance of it is at 7:30 p.m. April 17 in the Solo Speak series at the Cascades Theatre in Bend – a landlocked town, but surely one primed for a good old-fashioned oceangoing adventure.