The Ocean (or, My Thoughts on Dave Malloy’s Moby Dick, A Musical Reckoning vs. Bo Burnham’s Inside)

So, the thing that got me through quarantine is the illegal recording of Dave Malloy’s Moby Dick, A Musical Reckoning.

I saw it at Harvard in December 2019. I got sick in late January 2020. I had an angry tiff with my manager in February 2020 and started applying to jobs.

March 2020, I moved to Atlanta. That move, while it was a very wise one. deprived me of basically my entire social circle.

I then remained indoors and fairly isolated for the next year a la Bo Burnham’s Inside.

There’s quarantine, and then there’s quarantine when you’re single in your thirties.

Complete social isolation in a white room is considered torture for prisoners in some instances, and, to be honest, my mind hasn’t really come back from the void yet.

But I kept coming back and back to that grainy, cough-ridden, quiet, illegal recording of Moby Dick. I’d sing The Pacific to myself as I did chores. I’d allow myself to sob as Star Bubsy (Starbuck) tried to convince Tom Neils (Ahab) to turn the ship back home. I’d pensively ask myself while trying to find the right artistic work to produce, one which hopefully might make me feel whole, “Is Ahab Ahab?” I formed a deep emotional connection with this work because it outlined all my rage at the world. The story of Moby Dick is – in essence – an enormous war between man and God.

Tom Nelis and Starr Busby in "Moby-Dick." (Courtesy Maria Baranova)

The fact that Dave Malloy’s three-hour play hasn’t been shared widely or enjoyed a longer run is almost physically painful to me. I’ve felt a lot of genuine despair about it that I can’t really place.

Why did I – a schmuck with practically no social network – get to see Dawn L Troupe (Captain of the Rachel) sob-sing “My boy!” to a quasi-religious choir begging Ahab to stop his hate-quest and have basic human empathy? Why did I get to observe the existential-crisis-inducing flapping of a massive silk blue curtain meant to represent the truly endless ocean Pip was getting swallowed up in? Why did I get to enjoy the hilarious anachronism of stuffing a ship full of LaCroix and ramen noodles? Why did I get to see all the charming banter on the mast of a ship that hinted toward the complete despair of a trash island the size of Texas?

Moby Dick Production Photo

Getting to see a show like Moby Dick before COVID hit was like finding an extremely rare gem, keeping it in your pocket, trying to show people that this is a thing of value, but having no one around to appraise it. (“I don’t deserve this thing! Take it! Look at it! Someone else take it!”)

But maybe I, as a solitary fuck in 2020, was the one who would hear it the most.

I think sometimes art needs to find you at the right time in your life, and when it does, it’s electric.

I keep comparing Moby Dick to Bo Burnham’s Inside because there are a lot of similarities:

  • Existential dread, distilled
  • Global warming concerns
  • A half-shouting, half-satirical, all-confronting conversation about race that comes at the center of the show, undermining much of its misinformed white intentions
  • A deep criticism of modern ways of life
  • The prospect of absolute and total isolation
  • Despair at the refusal for societal, technological progress to slow down for the sake of human empathy
  • Distinctly liberal sensibilities, as they’re both preoccupied with difficult things that the political right would rather deny
Bo Burnham's Existential Content Crisis | Skooby Watches Movies

I think about this a lot because there’s one key difference: Bo Burnham’s Inside is, centrally, an online streaming experience, about online experiences, explicitly separated by screens and cameras, exploring what it is to be online, and now thanks to TikTok (ugh) a meme in its own right.

It’s overwhelmingly popular in the online space, with dozens of reaction videos despite the fact that this special specifically satirizes reaction videos (Dear Alanis Morrisette, I have something to report!). There’s been articles, think pieces, discussion, social shares … and continues to be more even months after its release.

Meanwhile, it’s gotten very little offline love, losing the Emmy to Hamilton.

In the special, Bo Burnham makes this extremely depressing and confrontational statement:

the outside world, the non-digital world, is merely a theatrical space in which one stages and records content for the much more real, much more vital digital space.”

There’s many ways to read that statement. Is it sarcasm? Is it not? Is a frightening, real statement that he hopes is sarcasm? Is it literally true and he’s ahead of his time? In many ways it reminds me of Oscar Wilde’s opening to The Picture of Dorian Gray in its glib, semi-literal tone that one questions. It rattles in your mind, forcing you to confront these statements, to figure out if you agree.

wishful thinker with the worst intentions — “The outside world, the  non-digital world, is...

But Dave Malloy’s Moby Dick is the 100% pure foil of InsideMoby Dick is the least “online” piece of work I’ve seen in years.

There’s very few YouTube videos of it. There’s not a Spotify list. There’s not a fandom, really. There’s almost no chatter about it on social media. There’s almost no literal web pages on it besides a handful of reviews from 2019, some song lyrics, and a wiki page.

Did it even happen?

Is Moby Dick less “real” because it’s less shareable, less represented in the digital space?

I confess that this not appearing in the digital reality almost felt like being gaslit. Why is no one else talking about this?

More importantly, why am I bothered by that? In 2002, when I fell in love with Phantom of the Opera, was it important to 14-year-old me that other people liked it? So why is it important for 35-year-old me to know if other people like Moby Dick now?

Does it mean less to me if it’s not appearing in the “much more real, much more vital digital space”?

But my silly secret Google drive file (if you ever read this, Dave, I will 100% buy several recordings of it when it formally comes out) has felt extremely real to me, even in its private, quiet form. I would argue it’s kept me alive and sane – it’s what a powerful piece of art is literally designed to do.

And besides that online experience of listening back, that night was real to me. I will never forget the tears that spewed from Dawn L. Troupe’s face as she sang to Ahab a few feet away from me. I will never forget the way the volunteers laughed at having to squish buckets of “sperm,” or the way the music vibrated off the wood and made me tremble in my seat. Or the nervousness of sitting in the cold. Or the eye contact of the actors. Or the alarmingly real puppets made out of water bottles being stabbed and spewing blood. Or the rain on the sidewalk as we excitedly left the theater to find a vegetarian bar, trying to process it all.

The cast rehearses in the studio, using a large blue sheet as the ocean.

It’s real. It’s valid. It doesn’t need to be online to be powerful.

This show was Theater, capital “T,” in its purest pure form – one that demands you physically be in the same room as the actors to enjoy it.

Then why do I feel such pain at Moby Dick’s lack of representation in the online space? Is it because I feel like the work is good, and should have been a meme more than that Wellerman song?

Is it because art is not memes?

Is it because I want to evangelize the work and I feel cut off from doing so in the online realm?

Is it because I secretly have a deep fear that the offline mediums are dying?

Is it because Bo Burnham’s statement is literally true?

How Bo Burnham's Netflix special Inside set the bar for quarantine art | Bo  Burnham | The Guardian

Or am I projecting, making this more personal based on my fears of producing art in outdated mediums? Am I secretly afraid of the elitist idea that humanity was once in a river of purposeful, moral artistic expression and it’s been spit out into a vast ocean of instant, meaningless thoughts?

Are we stuck alone in the ocean of information and algorithms without understanding – did the boats leave without us?

Tell me, does the ocean ever end?

Tell me, does the sky love the sea?

Tell me … can water be a coffin? Can the sky be a tomb?”

Are we getting lost in the ocean of online space?

And no one grew into anything new. We just became the worse of what we were…”

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