Melville’s Billy Budd – From Unfinished Manuscript, to Novella, to Broadway Play, to Opera, & Film

The British tenor Mark Padmore as Captain Vere in “Billy Budd.”  Photo: Joshua Bright for The New York Times

The British tenor Mark Padmore as Captain Vere in “Billy Budd.” Photo: Joshua Bright for The New York Times

The Glyndebourne Festival Opera’s Michael Grandage production of Benjamin Britten’s opera, Billy Budd, opened last night at the Brooklyn Academy of Music(BAM.)

Herman Melville’s Billy Budd was his last work, which almost died with him in 1891. The unfinished manuscript was found by a Melville biographer and was first published in 1924.  Since then it has re-emerged as a Broadway play, several movies, Britten’s opera, and at least one pop song.

Herman Melville‘s life and work are full of irony and contradiction. His masterpiece, Moby Dick, is a timeless classic, which also ruined Melville’s career as a professional writer.  The reviews for Moby Dick ranged from mixed to scathing. Neither the reviewers nor the book buying public knew quite what to make of Melville’s mighty whale. The book was out of print for most of Melville’s life and would only become popular when it was “rediscovered” during the “Melville Revival” of the 1920s.

Billy Budd, emerged at the height of the “Melville Revival.”  Since then the novella has been both praised and puzzled over. The original manuscript was described as “chaotic,” “with a bewildering array of corrections, cancellations, cut and pasted leaves, annotations inscribed by several hands, and with at least two different attempts made at a fair copy.”  The work has been re-transcribed several times, the best version of which was only released in 1962.

Nevertheless, the tragic tale of the young and popular foretopman, hanged by the Royal Navy Navy, has inspired writers and musicians, even as scholars and readers often disagree about the meaning and themes in the novella.

In 1949, Billy Budd was made into a play by Louis O. Coxe and Robert H. Chapman, which played on Broadway in 1951, where it won the Donaldson Awards and Outer Critics Circle Awards for best play. Benjamin Britten adapted it as an opera, also first performed in December 1951. The opera, now playing at BAM, is still very popular.  A 1966 performance is available free on-line – Britten – Billy Budd – 1966 BBCtv recording complete.

General Motors Theatre presented a live telecast of Billy Budd in 1955, starring a young William Shatner as Billy Budd, with Douglas Campbell as Claggart, and Basil Rathbone as Captain Vere. Britten’s “Four Sea Interludes” was included as background music.

In 1962, Peter Ustinov produced, directed, and co-wrote a movie based on Billy Bud.

In 1994, the pop singer Morrissey recorded “Billy Budd” on his Vauxhall and I album.

For an unfinished novella that nearly died with Melville, Billy Budd continues to have quite a run.

Billy Budd at BAM

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One Response to Melville’s Billy Budd – From Unfinished Manuscript, to Novella, to Broadway Play, to Opera, & Film

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