As I was once again held at rapt attention by Rinde Eckert’s And God Created Great Whales, a show I first saw in November 2001 in New York, the irony of the situation washed over me: I only half-remembered a show deeply concerned with memory loss.
I remembered the music, of course, that is the heart of the piece. Eckert plays a piano tuner, Nathan, with a degenerative neurological condition which will soon leave him without any memory at all. He is struggling valiantly to finish composing his great work, an opera of Moby-Dick, assisted by a number of tape recorders and his ethereal, untrustworthy Muse, played now as before by the graceful and sly Nora Cole. The piece consists of Nathan running through the opera with his Muse, the two of them working through the novel scene by scene, performing arias and duets, jumping across registers and from character to character with startling versatility. The set features a battered old piano, plastered with scribbled notes and lashed down with rope like some piece of tackling. Hanging about the set are color-coded 80s-era desktop tape recorders into which Nathan is encouraged to sort his thoughts and music.
What had stuck most in my head was Nathan’s falsetto rendition of “Shenandoah,” crooned at a mournful pace and with Eckert accompanying himself, drumming a tambourine. But there’s so much more: on seeing it again, I was particularly struck by a ravishing duet that sets to music words derived from “The Lee Shore”: “Who would wormlike crawl to shore / When she may sail shoreless, indefinite as God?”
I remembered, too, the feverish intensity that the piece reaches. I’m thinking here especially of the operatic thunder of Father Mapple’s sermon and, the show’s climax and inevitable conclusion, the portrayal of Ahab’s demise that coincides with a sea change within Nathan himself. But the intensity extends to the quiet moments as well; the passion with which Eckert (and Cole) launch into each aria and each duet, playing characters playing characters, belie the hesitancy that characterizes the increasingly amnesiac Nathan. He progressively loses himself and loses his grip on the world, but his Muse ensures he does not lose his music.
I had forgotten the subtle comedy that pervades the piece. Nathan, listening to his own voice giving himself instructions from the tape recorder he has slung around his neck, stands bemused as he accepts his own pre-recorded advice. In an ill-fitting gray suit, Eckert resembles a silent film comedian, gawky, loose-limbed, but in an instant his body will snap into character from Melville, and he will fall to his knees, or clamber atop the piano, or whirl around, enraptured by his own creativity.
The music, I should add, is wonderful, and composed by Eckert himself. At times it gestures towards the grand romantic operas of the 19th century (a comment on Melville, perhaps, or the operatic tradition), but more often it reminded me of John Adams: insistent, beautifully colored, and ready to slyly twist into a hymn or slip into a more popular idiom.
A reviewer described the work best, I think, locating it somewhere between Brecht and Beckett. Nathan is a cousin of Krapp. But Eckert is doing something else as well: he has constructed a scenario that allows him to explore at the same time artistic obsession, the inherent faultiness of memory and the current state of opera. Moby-Dick subtly pervades the work, a constant intertext and referent, not just as the subject of Nathan’s work but as the canonical Great American Novel that didn’t find acceptance until decades after the author’s death. And God Created Great Whales is a rare piece of theater: It works as an avant-garde commentary on art that also works as art.