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Flows of Reading

Engaging with Texts

Erin Reilly, Ritesh Mehta, Henry Jenkins, Authors

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4.4 Juxtaposition in 'Moby-Dick: Then and Now'

Juxtaposition plays important roles in Moby-Dick: Then and Now. The play depends on a series of parallels drawn between two different versions of the Moby-Dick story: one a traditional version that is faithful to Melville's original novel and performed by an adult cast on the upper deck of a ship; the other a contemporary rendition performed by youth on the lower deck. The action of the play shifts constantly between these two stages, which forces viewers to focus their attention on the center of interest in a given scene, while a parallel action is being performed on the second stage. The two intertwined stories allow the viewer to draw comparisons between two time periods, sometimes seeing parallels, sometimes seeing contrasts, but always reading one storyline in relation to the other. 

This structure requires multitasking, making high demands on the spectators' memories (to keep the strands of the two stories clear in their minds), attention (to focus on the right stage at the right moment), and inference (to identify actions suggested by the simultaneous presentation of action on the upper and lower decks.)

The opening scene of the play establishes this relationship: Ahab loses his leg in battle with the whale and Pip is killed in a drive-by shooting. Alba's vow–"I couldn't save you, but I will avenge you. I'll make him pay"–is followed immediately with Ahab's vow, "I'll chase him round Good Hope, and round the Horn, and round the Norway Maelstrom..." before the two characters complete the speech in unison, "Till he spouts black blood." This moment seals the connection between the core characters; it juxtaposes and correlates the consequences of unrelenting vengeance for personal tragedy.

Similar parallels are drawn between the two characters when Ahab walks alone on the deck and Alba pulls away on the train listening to music through her headphones. Later, Ahab's contemplation is shattered by Stubb who complains about the sound Ahab's peg leg makes when he walks on the deck, while Alba is interrupted by Stu who asks that she turn down her music. In another scene, Ahab calls his men together on the quarter-deck and offers the first man to spot Moby-Dick a sixteen-dollar piece, while Alba wakes everyone up on the train, holds up a wad of "green stuff with dead presidents on it," and tells the passengers the money goes to the first person to spot WhiteThing. Alba's offer and description of her pain over Pip's death parallels Ahab's offer and his description of how he has been "dis-masted" by "that accursed /white whale."

Pitts-Wiley wants to avoid duplication of action. By building parallels into the story, he shows the action on one stage and encourages the spectator to flesh out the action on the second stage. Occasionally, he creates actions that occur simultaneously on both stages or actions that require interactions between the two spaces. These juxtapositions of space and action carry enormous emotional impact. We experience the power of parallel development when Ahab battles the whale and Pip is killed, when Pip's and Alba's interaction occurs on the upper deck rather than the lower, and when Queequeg's funeral spills over into the lower deck. Only two characters cross over between the two casts—the actors playing Pip and Fedallah.

Parallels and juxtapositions prepare us for the final moments of the play when the storylines diverge. Ahab and his crew are destroyed by the whale. The One turns away from a confrontation with WhiteThing, choosing to reform themselves and their communities. While Melville's narrative is driven by predestination, Pitts-Wiley's narrative delivers a message to the incarcerated youth he knows, and to any young people who can choose what happens to them. The closing moments of the play are a call to action, encouraging us to debate the alternatives that can define out actions.
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