Some years ago, never mind how long, I adapted Herman Melville's sprawling whaling epic for the stage. If you're interested in the finished work click HERE.
Did you know that Moby Dick is a "spoiled manuscript"? Because of how it was published in a magazine as a serial, it's copyright was never properly registered. Which meant that there was never really a definitive version of the text. Publishers who wanted to put out an edition of Moby Dick would manipulate the text to fit their needs - oftentimes cutting down the text for page counts, or dumbing down the language to make it more "accessible." So the first part of my task was to "find Melville's Moby Dick."
So I read 37 different editions of Moby Dick. Every time I would find one that was a different publisher, different edition, I'd buy it. Any time I found a Moby Dick in a bargain table, I'd buy it. I read as many versions as I could, looking for that authentic voice.
Herman Melville was a huge fan of Shakespeare. It happens some times in certain editions, there is an attempt at meter in the language. And since I was creating a script directly for the stage I embraced that aspiration of his and wrote my adaptation in blank verse. Like most heightened language, it has a tendency to sound flat when you're reading it to yourself. But put it into the mouth of an actor and it comes alive.
As a result of using multiple published sources to find Melville's proper voice, the final product, while an adaptation, is 85% from words that were written by Herman Melville, but 100% manipulated by me into something that told the story of the White Whale on stage.
An 18th Century whaleship is generally a cacophonous place and whenever work was being done, it was important to keep that feeling alive. I adapted my scriptwriting to intuitively give the actors an idea of how the cadence of their commands and cajoling and commentary to their crew should come off authentically, theatrically, and most importantly, legibly. If the audience can't understand what is being said, then it's frustrating not just chaotic.
As natural to whaling ships are sea shanties. And sea shanties have a very similar sort of source problem as Melville's text - they were passed by word of mouth, a sailor would bring his favorite shanties from a past ship and learn new shanties working on his next. As a result, you'd have a melody that was assigned to a refrain, but everything else would generally be all adapted. I accepted that spirit and adapted 26 sea shanties that were of period appropriate (Melville would have heard them) in order to lift the stage action and create something that was too musical to be a stage play, but not quite a musical. A "play with music" if you will.
And then that song would be woven into the action of the play, giving muscularity to the work sections and a rhythm to the stage action.
The writing process which took 3 years, required 8 staged readings, and two workshop productions to culminate in it's Drama Desk Nominated Off-Off Broadway production in 2003.