“Thar she blows …” bellowed actor Stephen Collins as he inhabited the very soul of Herman Melville during his one-man performance of “Sailing Towards My Father” at the Mattapoisett Library on January 6.
A packed house witnessed the talent of Collins as he not only uttered the lines written by Carl A. Rossi, a Pittsfield writer whose works Collins has performed over the years, but for those sixty-five minutes, became Melville.
Rossi’s piece takes you on a journey of exploration diving into the core essence of a writer who has become synonymous with American literature despite Melville’s shunning of what was then a blossoming new style of writing – an American style.
As Collins spoke, we learned how stark Melville’s early years were – the poverty, the longing to be loved by his mother, and the restless spirit he displayed at an early age. Collins, through dialog that Rossi fine tunes to the point of having the audience believe Melville spoke them himself, takes those words and makes them feel real. Writer and performer united in their quest to bring Melville to life.
Throughout the performance, Rossi’s words give us a very clear picture of Melville’s character, his struggle to find a place he could own in the world, and successfully provide for the needs of his family. Alas, we learn he failed more then he succeeded.
After a stint working as a record keeper in Manhattan, Melville boards the whale ship Acushnetfor an adventure that would forever define him. Yet, after returning and writing a very profitable book based on that trip titled Typee, all subsequent efforts, including the eventually well-received Moby Dick, were in a word, failures.
Collins showed the audience that troubled man. He gasped for air, expressed outrage at being kicked aside by Nathaniel Hawthorne to whom he paid homage by dedicating Moby Dickto him, sucked in air as if drowning in despair, and then, tenderly understanding the neurotics in his own family, Collins bled before his audience in imagined ways.
Using only his body, his voice, and a low plain wooden bench, Collins travelled from New Bedford to Hawaii, visited strange ports-of-call where the natives dined on human flesh, and chased whales, taking a Nantucket sleigh ride before tearing into the sea mammals to harvest the precious oil.
Rossi, with Collins at the verbal helm, described the true horror of those mighty ships of commerce and the type of human beings or what human beings became through the effort of gathering spermaceti.
Collins went even further in giving his audience a real sense of listening to Melville speak by playing a soundtrack that floated across the tides of his voice, the sound of the ocean itself in its endless ebb and flow.
As the performance drew to a close, it was clear that Collins had given it his all; he appeared as exhausted as the character himself was at the end of his life.
Rossi calls the play a “dramatic poem.” Collins gave the audience just that.
During the question and answer period following the performance Collins said that he performs primarily at residential retirement communities and senior centers. He explained that, since he is not a card-carrying member of an actors’ union, he can’t be booked into many theater venues. But he has no regrets and enjoys the path he has taken which also allows him the ability to teach his favorite topic, the works of 19th century authors.
Collins’ appearance was sponsored by the Mattapoisett Library Trustees.
By Marilou Newell