BILLY BUDD is my adaptation for the stage of Hermann Melville’s famous short story. Of course, Billy Budd has been adapted many times before – as a stage play, as a film and as an opera; however, I wanted to produce my own version, setting it in its historical context. The original story offers surprisingly few details – relatively few of the crewmen are named, for example. It also takes a certain amount of historical awareness for granted – for example, it is not enough to be aware that the play takes place during the wars with revolutionary France: it is important to know something about the mutinies that broke out in the fleet in 1797 and the impact these had on Britain’s defences – this is one of the major reasons why Captain Vere takes the view that, in the end, Billy must hang for the good of the country. So, being a historian, I set out to tell the story anew, as a piece of history.
So the play begins not at sea but in the House of Commons, with a furious argument between Mr Fox, who enthusiastically supports the revolution in France, and Mr Burke, who is appalled by it. As they argue the point, the Prime Minister arrives with a message from the King, announcing that the French republic has declared war. The scene then shifts to the fleet and we get the first hint of mutinous rebellion. Purists will object that I am telescoping the chronology here (war was declared in 1793 and the mutinies followed four years later); indeed I am, but it works for the purpose of explaining the history.
BILLY BUDD was performed in the Robinson Theatre at Hills Road Sixth Form College (where I was working at the time) in 2002 by Gomito productions, who went on to a very successful run of imaginative productions at the Junction in Cambridge, before moving to London.
[The ship has just chased a French frigate without success.]
WILKES: Well, that’s another froggie – fast on his pins; no guts.
BILLY: I thought we were going to get him.
NAGLE: He was a frigate. you don’t catch a frigate with a ship this size. Captain should have known that.
WILKES: Who asked your opinion, Nagle?
NAGLE: I can give my opnion if I like. I’m right, anyhow.
WILKES: What? A man o’war can’t catch a frigate?
DANSKER: Of course she can. With a good wind and a good hand on the tiller.
NAGLE: Yeah, well –
COLE: What do you mean, “well”? Are you knocking the Captain?
NAGLE: I’m just saying he shouldn’t have tried to catch a bloody frigate.
WILKES: What do you know about it anyway, Nagle?
NAGLE: I know a damn sight more than you do, Wilkes!
WILKES: Oh, do you? Well. Do you know this?
(WILKES draws a knife. So does NAGLE.)
COLE: Drop it!
(COLE jumps on NAGLE and forces the knife off him. WILKES then makes to attack NAGLE, but BILLY suddenly lets fly and knocks WILKES flying with a well-aimed punch.)
BILLY: I’m sorry, but Nagle was unarmed.
WILKES: You broke my bloody jaw.
COLE: Serve you right if he did. Come on, get up. You’ll live. I didn’t know you could fight, Billy.
BILLY: If I need to.
WILKES: Did you need to break my bloody jaw?
COLE: Course he did. Saved a life – not that it was worth saving – and maybe got you to shut up and give us all some peace. Well done, Billy, I say.
BILLY: There’s some coffee left. Shall I heat it up?
COLE: You do that, Billy-boy. And you two – shake hands. Come on.
(Very reluctantly, WILKES and NAGLE shake hands.)
BILLY: I think that, even if the frigate was faster, there was still a chance – she could have been becalmed or her captain could have been a bad seaman. So Captain Vere was right to try, even if the Frenchie did get away.
DANSKER: This is true.
NAGLE: Don’t change anything anyhow. He still got to port, and we’re still stuck out at sea and no prize money for any of us.
COLE: Leave it, Nagle, for God’s sake. Look, somebody do something. Dansker, where’s your fiddle? Let’s have some music to cheer us up.
DANSKER: I am not in a playing mood.
COLE: Well, someone give us something!
BILLY: I’ll give you a song if you like. It’s nothing special, but – well, if you’d like one.
WILKES: Yeah, go on, Billy.
(BILLY sings ‘Tom Bowling’. He has a fine voice and sings it well. The others listen. BILLY sings the first two voices solo, but on the third the others join in – COLE first, then WILKES and finally NAGLE, but not the DANSKER. At the end they savour the moment briefly, then:)
BILLY: Here’s the coffee.
(As he serves it round he accidentally knocks a cup and the coffee spills onto the deck.)
CLAGGART: (Entering) Messing the deck now, is it, Billy Budd?
BILLY: Mr Claggart – it was an accident.
(In silence, CLAGGART walks over to the spilt coffee and looks at it. He takes out his rattan cane and puts it under BILLY’s chin. Then he seems to change his mind, takes BILLY’s chin in his hand and pats his cheek.)
CLAGGART: Well, my handsome sailor, handsomely done, I’m sure. And handsome is as handsome does. Isn’t that so, Billy Budd?
BILLY: I’ve heard it said, Mr Claggart.
CLAGGART: I’m sure you have. Clean it up, Billy. Don’t spoil the ship.
BILLY: Well, there. And is Mr Claggart down on me, Dansker?
DANSKER: I’m going on deck. Follow me who will.
COLE: He means you, Billy. Leave this; we’ll do it. Go on.
CLAGGART: Who are you, Billy Budd?
BILLY: I am what you see, Mr Claggart. No more.
CLAGGART: The Handsome Sailor.
BILLY: So they call me. They used to say that on the Rights as well.
CLAGGART: They were right. You are handsome, aren’t you, Billy Budd?
BILLY: Yes. They all tell me I have a fair face. And I am glad of it, because although the ship is a beautiful thing, yet there is little of beauty within her. You see, Mr Claggart, God made this world a thing of beauty, and Man he made the most lovely creature of all. So I am glad if men can see God in my beauty.
CLAGGART: See God, Billy Budd. Is that what they see?
BILLY: Mr Ratcliffe said he knew of a sculptor in London who might capture me in marble. He said I might be an Apollo. He was a god of the Greeks, wasn’t he, Mr Claggart?
CLAGGART: A god of the Greeks?
BILLY: Mr Ratcliffe said Apollo was a god of beauty.
CLAGGART: Come here, Billy Budd. Let me see you.
BILLY: Would I make a good Apollo, do you think, Mr Claggart?
(BILLY looks at CLAGGART as CLAGGART contemplates him. The moment is strong, as CLAGGART takes in BILLY’s form, while BILLY stands still. Slowly, tentatively, CLAGGART reaches out a hand and lightly brushes it along BILLY’s cheek. The barest perceptible reaction from BILLY – a tiny movement of his head into CLAGGART’s hand. Hold the moment as long as you dare. Then a bell sounds. CLAGGART snatches his hand away.)
LIEUTENANT SEDBURGH: Eight bells, sir.
CAPTAIN VERE: Thank you, Mr Sedburgh. All quiet?
SEBDBURGH: I’m afraid so, sir.
CAPTAIN VERE: Very well. Carry on.
CLAGGART: (Angry.) Get below! Get below!
BILLY: Yes, Mr Claggart.
BILLY: Mr Claggart?
CLAGGART: (Tries to say something important but it will not come.) Go.