Classic Tragic Theater in the Making: Melville’s Billy Budd – Essay Sample

Classic Tragic Theater in the Making: Melville’s Billy Budd – Essay Sample


Herman Melville’s posthumously published novel, Billy Budd, Sailor, has been translated somewhat successfully to the stage, despite the inescapable fact that it is a shipboard tale, and consequently difficult to realistically portray in the theater. The 1951 theatrical version on Broadway received uniformly excellent reviews, although the play’s run was cut short due to lack of audience interest (Life). There has been an opera as well, and repeated revivals of the original play adapted by Louis Coxe and Robert Chapman. The fact remains that, the inherent difficulties of presenting a naval adventure notwithstanding, there have long been efforts to bring Budd to the theater. The cause is blatant: Melville’s tale of the innocent boy who confronts destiny and evil on board the ship Bellipotent is laden, from start to finish, with all the elements found in the finest Greek drama. As expressed by a contemporary critic of Melville, the author was drawn to grandiose themes: “We do not know a more curious and instructive spectacle than some of his books afford, of the conflict between resolute nature and stubborn cultivation” (O’Brien). Given Melville’s use of the powerful element of the sea as his backdrop, and his timeless narrative of the conflict between right and wrong as embodied by finely drawn characters, Billy Budd has all the potential to be translated to the stage as a modern classic.

A Five-Act Synopsis

The opening Act of Billy Budd is necessarily reliant upon exposition; the audience needs to become acquainted with the naval environment, meet the principal players, and begin to develop a sense of the atmosphere and the natures of the protagonists. This should begin when Billy is being ushered onto his new vessel, the Bellipotent, having been immediately impressed into service. For dramatic purposes, this entire Act should keep Billy, who must be physically beautiful as a young man, somewhat in the background. More central to the Act is a speech from his former Master on the ship, Rights-of-Man, which informs the audience of the wonderful effect Billy’s goodness and presence has on even the most violent group of sailors. From this point, the rest of the Act should place Billy aboard his new post, and reveal his charm as effortless and genuine. Before the Bellipotent leaves dock, there should be as well a fleeting introduction of Vere, the ship’s captain, and master-at-arms Claggart. The Act ends with the Bellipotent at sea and Billy horrified and frightened by the flogging of another sailor he witnesses.

It must be noted that there appears to be a homoerotic component to the story, and this should be left at a very understated and ambiguous level. Billy’s attractiveness is continually referred to and strongly emphasized by Melville in his novel: “Plump upon Billy at first sight on the gangway the boarding officer Lieutenant Ratcliff pounced…” (Melville 6). Moreover, Claggart’s intense dislike of Billy is likely due to repressed homosexual leanings, at least partially. For the purposes of the drama, however, this aspect is more effective as subtly presented.

In Act II, the audience begins to see patterns of behavior at work as the ship continues its journey. Despite being well-liked by all the men and doing his job as “foretopman” expertly, there are brief scenes indicating Claggart’s strange hostility to Billy. These episodes, based on very little, serve to add a sense of destiny and foreboding. A conversation between Billy and an old sailor named Dansker then adds weight to the drama, as Billy, seeking the man’s advice, does not believe Dansker’s opinion that Claggart is out to get him. The key scene in this Act is the concluding one, when Billy accidentally spills soup on Claggart’s shoes. As in the novel, Claggart appears to take the accident in a lighthearted way; only later does he reveal his increased hatred of Billy Budd, and order his assistant, Squeak, to watch the boy closely. This scene, juxtaposed with one of Billy’s relief in Claggart’s seemingly friendly attitude, closes the Act. The third commences dramatically: all should be dark, for the impression to be conveyed now is that Billy is truly unaware of the dangers around him. As in the novel, Billy is awakened by an unknown shipmate, who convinces him to accompany him to an isolated part of the ship. Nothing overt is done; all the audience knows is that the man is attempting to pay Billy for some unspecified service, to which Billy reacts with anger. The play’s action then accelerates, as Claggart meets with Captain Vere and affirms that he believes Billy to be an instrument of mutiny. Billy is summoned before the men and, unable to express himself, he reacts to Claggart’s untrue and awful accusations by striking him. The Act should close with both Billy and the audience unaware of Claggart’s condition. All that is presented is that Billy is waiting outside the quarters, in suspense, and deeply conflicted by the violence of his own actions and the mystery of why he has been so maligned.

Act IV begins by revealing that Claggart died from Billy’s single assault. This is actually made clear by the trial, which should serve as the single, extended scene of the Act. The audience hears Vere’s eyewitness testimony, as well as Billy’s confused, but adamant, claim that he meant no harm. Billy also denies any interest in mutiny, and this section may highlight further Billy’s innocence; that is, by now the audience is aware that Claggart’s charge was clearly a guise for a more troubled reason for disliking the boy. What then follows is the ship’s jury deliberation, and it is understood that the general sense among the crew regarding Billy’s innate goodness is causing problems in rendering a verdict. Here, and in a highly dramatic scene, Captain Vere addresses the jury as to their ultimate responsibility. The audience certainly senses that Vere is conflicted, but he nonetheless reinforces the need for the ship to abide by the law. In a sense, he is acknowledging that he knows Billy to be as decent a young man as they do, and undeserving of a guilty verdict. His purpose, however, is to instruct them that the law may not be tempered by even that consideration. The Act concludes with the verdict of guilty being read.

Act V takes the audience from the court assembly to a single man: Billy, in chains and awaiting his hanging. This is where all the action of the Act should occur, and the action must be of a uniformly tense and contemplative kind. Billy speaks very rarely, and he never leaves his position on the stage as other scenes take place around him. One of these reflects the burial at sea of Claggart, and in this scene should be the overheard cry of the novel, “Struck dead by an angel of God! Yet the angel must hang!” (Melville 120). Another scene has Vere discussing the outcome of the case with his sailors, in which he attempts to further justify what he believes was an essential decision. Lastly, the audience sees the chaplain attempt to bring peace to Billy, and the drama in the scene is generated by the serenity evident in Billy already. He kisses the chaplain when he leaves, and the noose from which he will swing is highlighted on the stage. There is no need to actually portray the execution, and the audience’s last view of Billy is of him alive. The final illuminated face, however, should be that of Captain Vere.


Properly written, the power of Billy Budd, Sailor on the stage would emphasize the real conflict within the story, which is far more profound than any case of a frustrated sexuality seeking revenge on the object of its desire. Claggart’s visceral antipathy toward Billy may be somewhat erotically inspired, but the real drama lies in the fact that the essentially despicable nature of Claggart seeks to destroy the good of Billy. Moreover, and with care to avoid sentimentality, the ending must convey that Claggart’s posthumous victory over Billy is nothing but temporal. Inherently good, Billy cannot suffer because his innocence redeems him beforehand, and the real victim of the play is Captain Vere, who must live haunted by the knowledge that, in conforming to civilization and law, he has violated a greater truth.





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