By Hugh Iglarsh
Before the black gold of petroleum became the driving force of business and empire, it was whale blubber that lit the lamps and lubricated both the machinery and the ambitions of antebellum America. And a generation before Captain Ahab and the Pequod sailed into our collective imagination, there was the very real Captain Pollard and the Essex, a Nantucket-based whaler battered and sunk by an enraged and seemingly vengeful ninety-foot monster of the deep.
The story of hunter turned helpless prey, and of the sailors’ three-month voyage across the open sea in whaleboats after the Essex went down, with only eight of the twenty crew members surviving the ordeal, is coming to the Chicago stage, courtesy of Shattered Globe Theatre.
Here on the shores of Lake Michigan, where the greatest aquatic menace is rotting alewives, Joe Forbrich’s “The Whaleship Essex” will transport the audience back to 1820s New England. It was a time when peace-loving, luxury-spurning Nantucket Quakers roamed from equator to pole in search of sperm whales to slaughter and render into precious oil, spermaceti and ambergris. Driven by a seemingly “un-Friendly” combination of avarice, machismo and bloodlust, they created efficient floating abattoirs, turning the planet’s most magnificent creatures into ingredients for candles and axle grease. It was just business, albeit a risky, widow-making one, and the Nantucketers – described by Herman Melville as “Quakers with a vengeance” – took pride in their ability to feed an insatiable market the commodity it craved.
Until one whale struck back, splintering the Essex’s hull and stranding its crew more than 2,000 miles from land. They made an ill-advised decision to sail east against the wind for South America, rather than west toward Polynesia. Worried about cannibals, they became what they most feared.
“It’s really about our addiction to oil,” says actor-writer-set designer Forbrich. “From time immemorial, we’ve used whale oil because it’s the finest oil there is. It has a beautiful, full-spectrum light, maintains its viscosity and basically greased the wheels of the Industrial Revolution. NASA keeps a secret stash of it, because of its unique properties.”
Forbrich’s mission to dramatize the Essex tragedy—described by the writer as the story of “good men who died in the service of a thirst”—began in 2008, when he sailed his homemade sloop from Long Island to Martha’s Vineyard in Massachusetts. En route, he read Nathaniel Philbrick’s chronicle of the doomed voyage, “In the Heart of the Sea.” During Forbrich’s trip, the sea turned hostile, almost sinking the little boat more than once and imparting a certain frisson to Philbrick’s tale of terror and resilience.
Forbrich wisely trucked the boat back to New York, but the hook had been set, and the story duly unspooled.
“My play is ninety-nine percent factually accurate, but it still required a lot of invention to explain the sort of personality that could pull through something like this. Eventually, the characters interlocked and came alive.”
Actually, the story began long before that, when the Oak Park-born, New York-bred Forbrich co-founded Shattered Globe in 1990, working with, among others, Lou Contey, who is directing the Midwest premiere at Theater Wit. (The show was staged this summer in Martha’s Vineyard, and last year had a workshop production in New York.) After fifteen years at Shattered Globe, Steppenwolf and other ensembles, Forbrich—whose day job was carpentry—felt that he had topped out in the local theater scene. He moved to New York ten years ago and, in his forties, for the first time began to make a living as a performer.
“I was in seventeen episodes of ‘Law and Order,’ including the last one,” he says. “I had only about one line per episode, but it paid the bills.”
It was also in New York that Forbrich met Tom Hanks, while understudying for him in the Broadway production of Nora Ephron’s “Lucky Guy.” Forbrich, no shrinking violet, asked Hanks if he’d like to read the part of Captain Pollard in his newly written play. “Pencil me in,” responded Hanks, who also kicked in a tidy sum toward producing the work off-Broadway next year—when a film version of the Essex story, directed by Ron Howard, is also scheduled to open.
“It’s all coming together,” says Forbrich. “For whatever reason, whales are very much in the public consciousness.”
A good thing, too. As whale oil was to early industry, so attention and money are to stage success. And Forbrich—who agreeably combines a Chicago no-budget, let’s-do-it-ourselves approach to performance with a touch of East Coast showbiz hustler—has hunted backers with an Ahab-like intensity. In an age of Facebook and Kickstarter, he sent 200 handwritten letters to potential angels, ranging from friends and family to producers and machers of every stripe, raising enough to turn the dream of a New York opening into a plausible plan.
Why the shift from actor to playwright?
“I began to get sick of speaking other people’s thoughts,” says Forbrich. “This isn’t my first play, but I would say it’s my first good play. It’s steeped in Melville and Shakespeare, with eighty percent of the lines in meter. The iambic pentameter helps the actors memorize their lines—it’s one reason Shakespeare used it.”
While Forbrich isn’t performing in the Shattered Globe production, he is acting as technical consultant and assisting with set design and construction.
“It’s wonderful to work again with Lou—he’s my theatrical soulmate. He understands this isn’t a play about whales, it’s about the human condition.”
Director Contey echoes the thought: “The play is really about our dual nature, the savagery just under the skin, and whether men can maintain their identity in the face of extremity.”
How does one stage a mid-Pacific whale hunt in a ninety-nine-seat theater?
“I like the challenge of staging a sprawling epic in a small space,” says Contey. “We’ll be taking the simplest possible overall approach, but using a fair amount of projection. And J.J. Porterfield has come up with an imaginative sound design to evoke the empty ocean. It’s a highly theatrical piece of storytelling, not so much depicting as suggesting the gore of the whale hunt and the cannibalism of the survivors.”
Melville’s white whale has a philosophical quality, representing the necessary negation of Ahab’s Faustian dream of omnipotence and total conquest of nature and mortality. It’s the dream that sustained the whaling industry, with its delusional belief that the whaling grounds were inexhaustible and would yield their bloody harvest forever. And Melville’s critique of this arrogant, out-of-balance vision has never been more relevant than today.
Contey agrees that the fate of the Essex almost 200 years ago can serve as a mirror to the present.
“It’s a portrait of nature at its most fierce and palpable, of its dumbfounding power. The story is very prescient regarding what the hunger for oil has done to us, and what it means when nature pushes back.”
“The Whaleship Essex” opens August 29 and runs through October 11 at Theater Wit, (773)975-8150, sgtheatre.org.