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Voices from the deep: our complete guide to whales onstage

Whales have exerted a unique pull on our imagination. A whale may never have appeared on stage, but they have been the central characters in many productions. Kellie Gutman reports on the sighting of whales onstage and in the news.

A fossil of what was once a 40-foot long whale, which ate other whales, has been discovered in Peru. Named, Leviathan Melvillei, it had the largest known bite of any vertebrate creature. The fossil is in the Natural HIstory Museum of Lima, Peru.

The late actor, Heath Ledger, directed a music video, which was just released, of the song 'King Rat' for the American indie band Modest Mouse. In this youtube video posted by Spain's rtve you can see the full-length short. The video has created quite a buzz, focusing as it does on an anti-whaling message by reversing the roles hunter and hunted. Whales and dolphins harpoon swimming people, skin them and process them on board to turn them into treats for seals.

belly_whale
Artist rendition of whale eating whale
by C.Letenneur (MNHN)
Ledger contacted the band in January 2007 and wanted to do a piece on the song. He teamed up with a designer, Daniel Auber, in Los Angeles, and worked on it for three weeks while filming The Dark Knight. Though the video was unfinished at the time of Ledger's death, a group of musicians and directors he belonged to, The Masses, finished the work in his honor.

Rachel Cernansky of Planet Green writes, 'Watch it. It's intense. The video imagines a world in which whales hunt humans. But it's animated and it's beautifully done, and he pulls off sending a really effective message that we all need to hear, and take more action on, now. Despite decades of protective measures, things are not looking good for whales.'

For the first month of the release, proceeds from iTunes downloads will benefit Sea Shepherd, a marine wildlife conservation organization with which Ledger was involved. They write, 'Sea Shepherd Conservation Society is honored to be connected with this important work and hopes that it brings attention to the illegal slaughter of whales in the Southern Ocean Whale Sanctuary.'

You can read the full story of how this collaboration came to be in Sophie Tedmanson's story in the Times online.
belly_whale
Belly of Whale copyright Johnathan Marshall
Whales have provided inspiration for writers for more than 2,500 years, starting with the story of Jonah and the whale, present in both the Hebrew and Christian Bibles and in the Qur’an. The sixth-century historian Procopius referred to a whale who depleted the fish in the Sea of Marmara; in Beowulf the word used for ‘the sea’ is ‘whale-road’. But it was the American author Herman Melville, who spent time on whalers in the early 1840s, before publishing Moby-Dick in 1851, who has had the biggest impact on whale-related writing. His novel – one of Barack Obama’s favorite books – is also the subject for many plays.

Whale Watch

 

"Whale culture" - how do they communicate? what senses are important to them? do whales live in a multi-cultural society? is discussed in a long-ranging interview between the biologist Hal Whitehead and the author Philip Hoare.

 

How far can one humpbacked whale swim? Photographs of whale flukes off Madagascar and Brazil have identified one female whale who has been in both breeding spots. 6100 miles is the distance covered in this migration record.

 

The New York Times Magazine has a ten-page article on whales in Baja California befriending the humans who come out to fish or just to whale watch. Instead of being afraid, they come right up to the boats, show off their young, wait to be scratched on the head, and then swim under the boats and lift them up and down, seemingly just to be playful.

 

In a BBC4 radio show about whale evolution a comment is made that whales are a classic example of what might have happened to humans if they landed on a new planet.

 

Some good news about the right whales: though endangered their population has tripled.

 

Navy 1 - Whales 0 in the struggle to cease sonar testing off the coast of California, thanks to the U S Supreme Court.

 

Greenpeace turns to the Japanese courts in their battle against whaling and for the first time does not send a ship out to harass the whalers.

 

New Federal rules force ships in whale habitats to slow down from 17 mph to 11.5, and the 400 remaining North Atlantic right whales gain a right of way at sea.

Until the last 50 or 60 years, almost all of the scientific information we had on the largest living mammals came from the whalers who hunted them: what whales looked like, where their habitats were, what they ate. And we are still learning from the ancient whalers: an 1880-era lance was found in a bowhead whale killed off Alaska in 2007, making the whale about 130 years old.

Whales are marine mammals, but they are not dolphins or porpoises. In fact their nearest living relatives are hippos. They started out on land, but 50 million years ago they headed into the sea. Warm-blooded, they also breathe with lungs and nurse their young with milk from mammary glands.

No wonder these animals of mythic proportions grab our imagination and become the subject, direct or otherwise, of poets, novelists and playwrights. The stage, where no whale will ever set ‘foot’, seems the most unlikely venue for the subject, but a survey of the field reveals many whale productions. The plays range from children’s productions to one-person shows, performance pieces, small operas, and musicals.

 

Moby Dick Rehearsed
Orson Welles, 1955, Duke of York Theatre

'I still wish I had been there in 1955 when Orson Welles took over the Duke of York's Theatre and put on his own play (by way of Herman Melville) – Moby Dick Rehearsed – in which some New England villagers try to place Melville's epic novel on a tiny stage. There was no whale, no ocean, no ship – just valiant theatrical gestures towards those immense, unmanageable realities, and the Shakespearean dream of "a muse of fire" doing the rest...Those who saw it (it ran less than a month) say it was magic, with all the actors swaying in unison to suggest being on a ship at sea.' - David Thomson, Theatre Blog
This play about a group of New Englanders trying to rehearse a play based on Melville’s novel, ran originally for three weeks. It was also apparently filmed, but the film version is lost. In the play, the actors, who are expecting to rehearse King Lear are informed they will be doing Moby Dick instead. Dressed in street clothes, they start to improvise scenery – using brooms for oars, and a stick for a telescope, and eventually get into character. The cast included Orson Welles, Gordon Jackson, and Joan Plowright among others.

Moby Dick, the Musical
Robert Longden, Martin Koch, Hereward Kaye, 1991, 2008

Faced with the closing of their school, the girls of the St. Godley's Academy for Young Ladies stage a musical version of Moby Dick to try to raise enough money to save it.

Hereward Kaye’s website gives an accounting of the play's erratic history.

whale_art
Moby Dick Rises, 1930, Rockwell Kent
copyright R. R. Donnelly and Sons Company
The Whale
Carl Adinolfi and the Concrete Temple Theatre
One-man show
June, 2003 premiere
78th Street Theatre Lab, NYC

Toured India and Sri Lanka 2008
At the Barrow Street Theatre January 2009

Starting in 1995, this play underwent many forms and names: Moby Dick, Ahab and One Man Moby Dick, before it settled on The Whale for its 2003 premiere.

"When Moby Dick itself rises up from nowhere with fearsome power, it is easy to forget this is all in the mind, and you can almost taste the salt as you drown in the deep waters of Adinolfi's imagination." 
- Jeremy Hodges, The Daily Mail

“Using only his body, voice, and an extraordinary collection of hand-crafted and rigged props to create life on a whale ship [Carlo] Adinolfi, a dancer and actor by training, puts into service a variety of storytelling traditions. The effect of one man embodying this enormous literary epic in 60 minutes (using Melville's text) is simultaneously playful and profound.” Philip Fisher, British Theatre Guide

And God Created Great Whales

Rinde Eckert
July 11, 2000 premiere at Dance Theater Workshop's Bessie Schonberg Theater
 


Whale oil used to light the lamps at theatres in the early 1800s. When a theatre in Philadelphia decided to switch to gas, it caused a ruckus - but it also made the stage a lot brighter.
Nathan, a writer with a fatal disease and degenerative memory loss is struggling to finish an opera based on the novel Moby Dick. He wanders the stage with a tape recorder slung around his neck, to remind him of things he has already forgotten.

“…the 80-minute music-theater piece, in which he sings, speaks and plays the piano and ukulele, stands in a clear relation to the epic but ramifies it in completely different ways.'' - New York Times

Review by Kate Bassett here



richard_ellis_whale
Bowhead Whale Diving copyright Richard Ellis

The Whale
The Moby Dick Project
Mixed Magic Theatre
November 15, 2008

“A simultaneous telling of two stories that take place on the decks of the infamous Pequod. One story follows Ahab and his crew on the epic quest to kill the whale while the other is a modern tale of an inner-city youth gang led by a girl whose parents were killed in a drive-by shooting.” - mixedmagictheatre.org

Watch the entire one-hour performance at the Kennedy Center in Washington, D.C.

Other whale links on the Ashden Directory:

David Rothenberg's Thousand Mile Song

Helen East's storytelling The Narwhal

Other whale links on the web:

Review of Elin Kelsey's Watching Giants on economist.com

Heather Ackroyd and Dan Harvey's whale skeleton Stranded as part of the Cape Farewell Project, also here

Moby Dick
Adapted and directed by Morris Panych.
Premiered July 2008 at Stratford Shakespeare Festival, Ontario, Canada

Panych’s Moby Dick departs from the novel in one striking way: only the first three words in the book are uttered by an actor onstage. Other than some voice-over readings of the ship’s logs, the play is told completely through the music of Debussy and through movement. Simple props are used, including the actors’ wind-whipped clothes to portray the sails.

In the Belly of the Whale
Jonathan Bender, Solo performance
Premier January 10, 2008

“A secular spoken word poet mysteriously finds himself in the belly of a whale, where he encounters eight other characters, all with very different relationships to being Jewish. Ages 14 to 81, they include an atheist social activist, a rabbi, a teenage girl, a gay professor of Jewish studies, and a Holocaust survivor and his grandson.” Jewishtheatere.com

The Whale’s Tooth
July 2008, Clore Theatre, Nottingham

Interactive sensory theatre for people with profound and multiple learning difficulties, complex disabilities or an autism spectrum disorder

The Whale’s Tooth is about Canny – a young girl from the Arctic Circle and her grandfather. She is on a quest to find her father, who was presumed dead until his name was found carved on a whale’s tooth. Canny and her grandfather go on a dangerous journey to find him.

belly_whale
Blue Whale copyright G. M. Daiber
Epitaph for the Whales
Kujira no Bohyo
English translation of a Japanese play by Yoji Sakate
Premiered, 1993
Gate Theatre London, 1998

‘Epitaph for the Whales, which deals with the lives of seven whale-hunting brothers, was written and staged at the Suzunari Theatre in 1993, Tokyo, initiating Sakate’s series of Contemporary No Plays. He incorporated the conventions of no (Japan’s classical theatre), and blended aspects of fantasy and traditional culture in his own theatre. This new theatrical tool helped to enrich the art of Sakate’s theatre and to add to the plays maturity and subtlety… in Epitaph he focused his discussion on whaling, its community and family relationship. The play tells the story of this delicate issue from the traditional viewpoint of Japanese whalers, and the no conventions enforce this sense of tradition with its power of fantasy and romanticism.’ – Japan Foundation, Kuala Lumpur

There have been a number of children’s productions on the whale theme as well.

When the Whales Came (film 1989)

Why the Whales Came (play 2001)
At the National Theatre over Christmas 2008

Greg Banks' adaptation of Michael Morpurgo's novel


This is set in the Scilly Isles during World War I. Two friends try to unravel the mysteries of an abandoned island and to discover why the whales came.

belly_whale
Blue Whale skeleton, Long Marine Laboratory
University of California, Santa Cruz

Whale – The Story of Putu, Siku and K'nik

David Holman - National Theatre, Lyttleton, 1989;
Director: Richard Eyre


A play for 7-12 year olds, based on the events of October 1988 at Point Barrow, North Alaska, when three Californian grey whales were trapped under the ice.

Whale Song - an Oratorio for Children
Andrew Peggie & Stephen Clark


This oratorio is also based on the whales trapped in Barrow Alaska.

A trio of grey whales are trapped within a small patch of coastal sea which is rapidly freezing over. Local people try to cut a passage through the ice but their resources cannot cope. American forces are drafted in to help - and with them come news reporters and TV cameras The race against time becomes serious and, in a rare example of East-West collaboration, a Soviet ice-breaker joins the struggle. The smallest whale disappears before the completion of a passage - which then freezes over again before the others have reached the end. The assumption is that they find open sea but no-one can ever be sure. Whale Song recounts this remarkable true story as a musical parable of the benefits of co-operation and trust. 



Internet, TV and film are other rich areas of research. Here's just a sampling of each.

The Secret Lives of Whales
Short Attention Span Science Theater


Streaming movie with four short pieces on whales and science
.

whaleboat
The Whaleboat, copyright Jay Wegter
Fort Guijarros Museum collection

Whale Wars
Animal Planet
Seven-part weekly series
Premiere November 14, 2008


"Whale Wars, which has its premiere Friday on Animal Planet, follows some nautical types as they go about their business, but these aren’t mere ice-road truckers or sandhogs (to mention the subjects of two shows on the History Channel). They are, in the opinion of some of their detractors, eco-terrorists: a band of self-appointed warriors determined to stop the killing of whales.” - New York Times

Whale Rider
2002 Directed by Niki Caro

This much-nominated and honored film, based on the novel by Witi Ihimaera, focused on a young Maori girl confronting the past and changing the future.


published in 2009 


Phillip Hoare has won this year's Samuel Johnson prize, the UK's most important non-fiction prize, for his book Leviathan, or The Whale. The chairman of the judges predicted it would become 'a classic'.

Rachel Cooke reviewed Leviathan, or The Whale by Philip Hoare in The Guardian:

'...it is also an examination of humankind's tortuous relationship with the whale, for the creature that we have pursued and exploited almost to extinction inhabits our collective imagination like no other on this planet.'

'The passages in which he describes the 19th-century whale ships are marvellously exciting, yet full of pity: the tiny boats bobbing on the water; the terrible waiting ('An experienced whaler would know how long an animal would stay down by its size ... the longer they waited, the greater the monster they faced'); the moment of attack itself. Men would faint clean away, faced with a whale.'

'It was not until 1975, long after we had seen Earth from space, that a whale was first photographed under water; no wonder the creature exercised such a fierce hold over the minds of men.'

 

Leviathan author Philip Hoare has put together a top ten list of books on whales for The Guardian:

Moby-Dick by Herman Melville

The Natural History of the Sperm Whale by Thomas Beale

An Account of the Arctic Regions by William Scoresby

Whale Nation by Heathcote Williams

The Year of the Whale by Victor B Scheffer

Sperm Whales: Social Evolution in the Ocean by Hal Whitehead

Whales' Bones of the British Isles by Nicholas Redman

In The Heart of the Sea by Nathaniel Philbrick

Whales: A Celebration by Greg Gatenby

A Guide to Marine Mammals of the World by Randall R Reeves et al

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