I was sitting in a dark auditorium watching a full grown man play with puppets, and frankly it was one of the most fascinating things that I have ever seen. As a part of the Chicago Humanities Festival, in “Moby Dick: The Hunt Continues,” Blair Thomas introduced himself as a puppeteer and a man obsessed with Moby Dick. Put the two and two together, and you end up with a man that has many numerous puppet interpretations of Moby Dick. The event began with a short interpretation of Moby Dick using light and shadow to manipulate the puppets portraying characters, then afterwards was followed by a question and answer section of Thomas’s opinions on the novel and what the book really signified. ‘Moby Dick’ is an American classic published in the 1850s about a crew that is chasing this great white whale named Moby Dick. This is no mere fishing story though. The novel gives the reader an small insight to life in the 1850s as well as a look into the drive and desire we find in our characters, and ultimately, in ourselves and America.
As Blair talked about interpretations of the book, he mentioned that in some “there is no whale, and then people ask, “well where’s the whale?”‘ To me, this great whale came to represent a desire that people have for revenge, or just how willful Americans can be when they really want something. This nation was founded by men who knew what they wanted and fought to get it, quite literally as well, such as in the case of the Revolutionary War. The crew as a whole also represent a mini nation on the whaling ship. The thirty crew members could represent the at the time thirty states, with each character bringing a new trait and something different to the table along with a few standing out more than others. Thomas also fiddled with the idea that the whale was such an immense part of the story that it could not simply be manifested in a whale, but was something more than that; an idea that couldn’t be contained in a mere mammal. When thinking about things like the Constitution or The Declaration of Independence, sure the papers are important, but it’s the thought and the idea that matters the most and places itself into the minds of the people.
While ‘Moby Dick’ can be looked at form a philosophical viewpoint, some things can simply be taken as they come. In the beginning of the puppet performance, the shadowed silhouettes show gravestones and despair as our protagonist, Ishmael, slowly wastes away on alcohol due to his unwillingness to live after his house has been robbed by a “very desperate man.” Ishmael’s family passes away, leaving him alone and with nowhere else to turn to. Even though history tends to focus on America slowly advancing, the lives of people in the 1800s were still very fragile, and it is often overlooked that it was hard to get by on a day-to-day scale. Ishmael now has nothing less, and socially shunned, the only place where he feels that he can go is the sea. Democracy was at its beginnings, but that didn’t mean that there weren’t social classes still constricting people.
The event slowly came to a close with Thomas’s last question: What were any regrets that he had about things he wished to include from the book into his puppet performances? Blair’s response was only that he wished he could include every detail from the story. “In one sentence, there is a whole world, and within a paragraph and a pages there are so many universes.” Being a performer is bound to make one limited to a certain time frame of how long the audience will be able to sit in one place. I think Blair Thomas timed his performance out nicely this time. One hour of Moby Dick and puppets was all I needed to ponder about the idea of a mythical larger-than-life white whale, the true significance of perseverance in the American character, and exactly long enough so that I didn’t need a stretch break.
Image of ticket stub and Blair Thomas handouts: