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The Composition of Herman Melville
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ISBN 9781841500676
Paperback 104 pages

Published April 2002
Imprint: Ablex
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Books by Rick Mitchell
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How do writers compose, and how are they in turn composed?

This play, which contains biographical information relating to Herman Melville, is fundamentally an exploration of the ways in which these two things take place.

The play admits the truth of Walter Benjamin's view of history as "time filled by the presence of the now". Parallels between past and present (e.g., racism, domestic abuse, and the plight of the visionary American artist) are clearly implied, but the play also utilizes new technologies, in particular video, in order to represent the kind of dialectical history and representation promoted by Benjamin.

During Melville's lifetime, and in his own creative imagination, the archaic was undergoing its transformation into modernity. Thus Melville is an especially apt subject for an exploration of modernity and representation that utilizes both the modern &endash; i.e., video, montage &endash; and elements of the archaic &endash; i.e., the performing body, allusions to whaling, 'discovery' in the South Seas.

The Composition of Herman Melville utilizes performance strategies in an effort to embody the complex textuality of a writer who haunts the landscape of America, from the mid-nineteenth century to the present. This book is believed to represent the only work of historical fiction &endash; albeit in dramatic form &endash; that focuses primarily on Herman Melville, considered by many to be America's greatest writer.

 

Review of 'The Composition of Herman Melville', from European Journal of American Culture Vol. 22 No. 3:


He (for it is usually a he) has become a familiar figure. Neglected and unsuccessful in his own time, he resists heroically the temptations of mere entertainment so as to gift posterity with the eternal truths of art. Coerced by financial necessity and family obligations, but maintained by an unconquerable self-belief, he struggles on through poverty, illness and personal tragedy to produce the masterworks that nourish the spirit of the enlightened audience he now has.


Rick Mitchell will have no truck - and will allow his audience no truck - with this, the Romantic myth of the suffering artist. In 31 busy scenes, plus Prologue and Epilogue, he draws with impressive resource on all the visual, aural and verbal means at his disposal in tracing the ethical disaster of Herman Melville’s life in and of literary composition.(The title-pun is of course intended.) The basic strategy is one of juxtaposition. Montage, split scene, video projection, song, lazzo, metadrama: all these combine to form a critical interrogation of Melville-as-American-Genius. The prominence in the play of popular cultural forms and media (street entertainers, TV and video) ironically points up Melville’s own rejection of ‘low’ cultural adaptations of his sole fictional ‘hit’, Typee, as well as his horror at the prospect of his being considered an ‘entertainer’ rather than an artist and philosopher. The chief concern of the play is the human price paid by his wife and children for this commitment to high seriousness.


The nineteenth-century biographical action is framed (and presented metadramatically) by a lecture given by a comic-pedant scholar in 1924 on the occasion of the posthumous discovery and publication of Billy Budd. The play enforces a biographical reading of that story (as Melville’s act of atonement for the death of his son) by making Mackie Melville’s suicide its climactic point. This, we are to understand, is the final horrific consequence of Melville’s dedication to his art. What begins as a thoughtless engagement with the act of writing becomes a ruthless exploitation (as copyist) of his wife, Lizzie, a cruel neglect of his children and a wilful ignoring of the family’s financial circumstances. Amid escalating domestic tensions, Melville’s idealism and self-belief become indistinguishable from self-delusion and self-pity. His trips away for research and recreation are seen merely as forms of escape and self-indulgence. His narcissism spirals into grotesque comedy and his language and behaviour become coarse to the point of brutality...


Paul Lawley – University of Plymouth

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