Critical Context

Benito Cereno is one of three plays published together as The Old Glory: Three Plays (pr. 1964, pb. 1965). The first two, Endecott and the Red Cross and My Kinsman, Major Molineux, are based on short stories by Nathaniel Hawthorne, while Benito Cereno adapts Herman Melville’s novella, itself derived from one chapter in The Narrative of Voyages and Travels (1817) by the Yankee ship captain Amasa Delano. In Melville’s version it is 1799 and Delano is anchored not off Trinidad but off a small island near the Chilean coast. The slave ship is named the San Dominick, Delano’s ship is the Bachelor’s Delight, and Babu’s name is Babo. Lowell’s Atufal, oakum pickers, and hatchet cleaners are all developed faithfully from Melville’s originals.

In his opening passages Lowell echoes some of Melville’s finest poetic prose: Melville’s sea “was sleeked at the surface like waved lead that has cooled and set in the smelter’s mould” whereas Lowell writes, “the sleek surface is like waved lead, cooled and pressed in the smelter’s mould.” Lowell also re-creates convincingly the menacing atmosphere in which that the dull-witted Delano stumbles around.

Lowell’s changes mainly satisfy the needs of dramaturgy. There is no Perkins in Melville’s original, but he is needed to elucidate Delano’s thoughts in the stage version. Lowell’s tableaus add action to keep the stage alive and are a welcome substitution for Melville’s long-winded exposition of Delano’s credulousness. Melville concluded his story of the shipboard events with Delano preparing to be rowed back to his own vessel, whereupon Don Benito leaps overboard and, when the slaves pursue him, “across the long benighted mind of Captain Delano, a flash of revelation swept.” Melville’s slaves are subdued and Babo is taken prisoner, eventually to be hanged in Lima. Compared to Melville’s longer ending, Lowell’s conclusion comes off as abrupt and unsatisfying, and Delano and Perkins’s opening discussion of Jefferson and Adams seems an ambiguous and pointless embellishment. Melville’s treatment of race has raised controversy, for his language suggests a broad acceptance of the attitudes of his day, but Lowell’s treatment of Babu and his followers arouses sympathy.