A celebration of “Moby Dick” recalls the sci-fi icon’s Venice-inspired take on Melville’s classic

By Bliss Bowen

Ray Bradbury worked on the screenplay for the 1956 John Huston
film “Moby Dick”

“It’s not often in the life of a writer lightning truly strikes. And I mean, there he is on the steeple, begging for creative annihilation, and the heavens save up spit and let him have it. In one great hot flash, the lightning strikes. And you have an unbelievable tale delivered in one beauteous blow and are never so blessed again.”

That’s how Ray Bradbury described creative inspiration in his 1992 book “Green Shadows, White Whale.” It’s a lightly fictionalized account of six months he spent adapting Herman Melville’s 1851 novel “Moby Dick” into a screenplay for mercurial director John Huston’s 1956 film, when tensions between them were bristling because literary lightning bolts were not striking. Bradbury had by then published “The Martian Chronicles” (1950) and “Fahrenheit 451” (1953) but was not yet the science fiction master he became before his death in 2012.

“I remember Ray Bradbury telling an audience about an absent-minded walk he took one night along the Ocean Front Walk back in the early 1950s,” says Eric Vollmer, adding that Bradbury then lived “within a stone’s throw of Beyond Baroque” on Venice Boulevard.

“There in the gloom, he could just make out the rusting remains of a roller coaster, which was left over from a pier fire, sprawled in the sand. Then, he heard a foghorn calling from the sea and he imagined the old roller coaster to be a dinosaur and the foghorn to be the forlorn howling of its mate. Bradbury went home and wrote the story up and submitted it to some fantasy magazine, which John Huston happened to read — and decided on the spur of the moment that Bradbury was just the man to write about another leviathan.”

As of Aug. 1 it’s been 200 years since Melville’s birth. Read-a-thons, op-eds and public radio shows are commemorating the author nationwide, and composer Dave Malloy announced his musical “Moby Dick” premieres at Cambridge’s American Repertory Theater in December.

This Sunday, Vollmer hosts a celebration of “Moby Dick” at Beyond Baroque that incorporates readings by Jeff Rogers from “Green Shadows, White Whale”; “Moby Dick” scenes delivered by Lee Boek, Gary Brussell and Christina Linhardt; and traditional sea shanties performed by Steve Goldman and Linhardt. Additionally, Venice Oceanarium Director Tim Rudnick will speak briefly (about, among other things, the Oceanarium’s 24-year tradition of marathon “Moby Dick” readings, happening Nov. 23 and 24 near the jetty at Windward Avenue’s west end).

Rather than illuminate the artistic process of translating stories between mediums, the goal is to understand both “Moby Dick” and Bradbury’s script within a particular context.

“I love literature, but what I especially like is the background of the writers and how they came to write something,” explains Vollmer. “Bradbury ended up just concentrating on the hunt of the whale. He didn’t talk about the philosophical and metaphysical musings that Melville uses all throughout the novel. They distracted the reader at the time, but now when people study him they’re really amazed at Melville’s insight into human nature. His ambitions for the novel were much greater than simply telling a great adventure story.”

Written mostly on Melville’s Massachusetts farm, “Moby Dick” was informed by five years he’d worked on merchant and whaling ships, experiences that more directly inspired his first books, 1846’s popular “Typee” and 1847’s “Omoo.” Reviews were mixed — but the condemnations (“Herman Melville Crazy”) of 1852’s “Pierre” virtually kneecapped his career; Melville died poor and obscure in 1891. Not until the sociopolitical prescience of “Moby Dick” was championed by later writers — notably D.H. Lawrence in his 1923 essay collection “Studies in American Literature” — was it finally acknowledged as a masterful examination of humanity. (“All men,” Melville wrote, “live enveloped in whale-lines.”) Now the book is read through an environmental lens.

“Lawrence’s take was fascinating, but he was writing in 1921, from the standpoint that America was taking its place on the world stage and eclipsing Great Britain as a world power,” observes Vollmer, who says Greg Bell will read from Lawrence’s essay Sunday night. “He was almost [asking], ‘What is the makeup of the American character that we can expect to emerge as the triumphant power in the 20th century?’”

Vollmer has organized other centennial celebrations of literary greats, including John Steinbeck and Ernest Hemingway. But he’s particularly fascinated with how Melville “interpreted evil in the world” by placing readers in the head of peg-legged Captain Ahab as his obsession transforms him into the tyrannical evil he claims to be chasing.

“Melville doesn’t glamorize [whaling], but he has these rhapsodic passages where he talks about the poetry of it all, like when they go up on the topmast to look for whales, they have this fantastic scenic view of the ocean. There’s a sense that even though it’s his job, he sees the killing of whales as a horrific, tragic thing. So no whales will be harmed in our production.”

“Melville the Mariner” happens at Beyond Baroque (681 N. Venice Blvd., Venice) from 7:30 to 9:15 p.m. Sunday, Aug. 11. Tickets are $10, or $6 for students and seniors. Call (310) 822-3006 or visit beyondbaroque.org