Mantrap: Playing BILLY BUDD

An experiment in "doing things with novels" using Ivanhoe in Hunter College's ENGL 399 course

Ideas for Roles


Shamelessly cribbed from Sparknotes (I know, I know):

Billy Budd

Discovered on a doorstep as an infant, Billy Budd is a fine physical specimen at age twenty-one, renowned for his good looks and gentle, innocent ways. Upon taking up as a young seaman in the service of His Majesty the King of England, Billy grows into the near-perfect image of what Melville calls the “Handsome Sailor,” an ideal specimen who inspires love and admiration in all his fellows. While working on board the merchant ship Rights-of-Man, Billy is impressed into naval duty as a foretopman (a sailor who sits atop the foremast or above) on board the warship H.M.S. Bellipotent. Although much younger than most of the Bellipotent’s crewmen, the cheerful, innocent young man quickly gains back the popularity he had previously enjoyed, earning the nickname “Baby Budd” in the process. He has several shortcomings, however, including an inability to perceive ill will in other people. He also has an unpredictable tendency to stutter, and at certain crucial moments he is rendered completely speechless.

Captain the Honorable Edward Fairfax Vere

Captain of the H.M.S. Bellipotent. A bachelor of aristocratic lineage, the forty-year-old Vere has made his mark as a distinguished sailor. His nickname, “Starry Vere,” seems fitting for this abstracted, intellectual figure who often shuts himself up at sea with his books. Vere remains somewhat aloof and diffident among his peers, though he is not haughty.

John Claggart

The master-at-arms of the Bellipotent, an office equivalent to chief of police on board the ship. Behind his back, the crew refers to Claggart with the derogatory nickname “Jemmy Legs.” At age thirty-five, Claggart is lean and tall, with a protruding chin and an authoritative gaze. His brow bespeaks cleverness, and his black hair contrasts starkly with his pallid complexion. Because of his pale face, he stays out of the sun as much as possible. The narrator gives few details about Claggart’s past, although speculation runs rampant among the crewmembers. It is known that after entering the navy unusually late in life, Claggart rose through the ranks to attain his present position on the strength of his sobriety, deference to authority, and patriotism. However, his compliant exterior disguises a cruel and sinister streak, which the narrator explains is actually a natural tendency toward evil and depravity.

The Dansker

Billy’s acquaintance and confidante aboard the Bellipotent. A wizened old sailor with beady eyes, the Dansker listens and occasionally issues inscrutable, oracular responses when Billy seeks out his confidence. At other times, however, the Dansker is decidedly reticent and unhelpful.

Ship’s Surgeon – Pronounces Claggart dead upon arriving in the captain’s cabin. The surgeon considers Vere’s decision to call a drumhead court somewhat abrupt and hasty. Though unable to account for Billy’s unusually peaceful death in the gallows, he refuses to believe that the event is attended by supernatural circumstances.

Ship’s Purser – Ruddy and rotund, the purser speculates that Billy’s unusually peaceful death in the gallows shows a phenomenal degree of will on Billy’s behalf, perhaps revealing a superhuman power.

Ship’s Chaplain – Reluctantly and unsuccessfully attempts to console Billy with words from the Bible on the eve of Billy’s execution. When the chaplain realizes that Billy is already peacefully resigned to his death, and that his spiritual direction cannot do anything more for Billy, he leaves, kissing Billy gently on the cheek as he goes.

Squeak – Claggart’s most cunning corporal. Squeak supports and fuels Claggart’s contempt for Billy, and tries by various maneuvers to make Billy’s life miserable.

Albert – Captain Vere’s hammock boy. Trusted by the captain, Albert is sent to summon Billy to the cabin on the day Claggart accuses him.

Lieutenant Ratcliffe – The brusque boarding officer of the Bellipotent. Lieutenant Ratcliffe selects only Billy from the company of the Rights-of-Man for impressment, or involuntary recruitment into naval service.

Captain Graveling – Captain of the Rights-of-Man. At fifty, the slightly overweight Captain Graveling is a benign, conscientious shipmaster who is sorry to lose Billy Budd to the Bellipotent.

The Red Whiskers – Billy’s adversary aboard the Rights-of-Man. When Billy strikes him, his hatred of Billy turns to love, which both parallels and contrasts with Billy’s disastrous striking of Claggart.

Red Pepper – The forecastleman who reproves Billy for not taking greater disciplinary action against the stranger who tries to corrupt him.

other personae we might create:

the narrator: tricky but doable

Herman Melville (duh):

Raymond Weaver: editor of first (1924) edition  published by Constable in 1924 and reissued by Livewright in 1928.

Harrison Hayford and/or Merton M. Sealts, Jr.: scholars who published what is now considered the definitive text by the University of Chicago Press in 1962. This edition contains useful information about the publishers’ process so can be mined for material.

Peter Mathiessen: prominent critic from the 1940s whose American Renaissance was instrumental in canonizing Melville’s work.

early critics: you might play D.H. Lawrence or John Middleton Murry (whose Times Literary Supplement review was key in getting the text on the map) or Lewis Mumford (author of Herman Melville [1929]), or an anonymous/fictionalized reviewer who draws from some of these authors’ work.

transformers of the text: you might play Benjamin Britten, the UK composer who composed an opera on the text; or Peter Ustinov, writer and director of the 1962 film adaptation.

“queer” readings: you could play Eve Sedgewick, who gives Billy Budd a reading in her enormously influential Epistemology of the Closet, or a fictionalized version thereof.

a student in the early 21stC: hard to get in character, I know, but might be fun to “play” yourself, stumbling through the text for the first time.