The Play

(Survey of Dramatic Literature)

Robert Lowell’s dramatized version of Herman Melville’s novella opens around 1800 on the deck of the sailing vessel the President Adams, anchored near Trinidad. Captain Amasa Delano, from Duxbury, Massachusetts, sits in a cane chair smoking a corncob pipe and talking with John Perkins, his bosun (a multipurpose boatswain or petty officer). In their idle talk, Perkins remarks that he would feel safer if John Adams, rather than Thomas Jefferson, was president, and Delano, boasting of his own worldliness, informs Perkins that he will educate him in the ways of the world. Perkins’s allusion to the gossip that Jefferson has two illegitimate black children introduces the theme of race, with Delano quickly responding that miscegenation is the “quickest way to raise the blacks to our level,” while the French, like other Latin peoples, are “hardly white people.” These blunt opinions prove ironic as events unfold.

Delano identifies a ship moving awkwardly toward the harbor as the San Domingo, a Spanish slave vessel in battered condition. The stage lights dim, and when they come back on, Perkins and Delano are on the deck of the San Domingo, where twenty African passengers and two Spanish sailors mill about. The San Domingo’s captain, Don Benito Cereno, soon appears, accompanied by his black servant, Babu, who, throughout the play, sticks close to Don Benito, frequently whispering to him. Learning of the San...

(The entire section is 484 words.)

Benito Cereno Dramatic Devices

(Survey of Dramatic Literature)

Lowell’s dramatic devices are mainly devoted to creating an atmosphere of menace and mystery. When Delano boards the San Domingo, three sentinels, grizzled black oakum pickers in the rigging, cry out in a foreign tongue and twenty slaves and two Spanish sailors rush forward “waving their arms and making inarticulate cries like birds.” Several slaves, male and female, step forward to relate aspects of disaster and fever at sea. The sinister oakum pickers order a large canvas pulled aside to reveal six “huge, shining young negroes” stripped to the waist and cleaning rusty hatchets, which they clash together with rhythmic shouts.

The introduction on deck of the giant Atufal produces a scene of mock humiliation designed to deceive Delano as Don Benito raises a cane over the chained Atufal and the slaves all sing “Evviva, Benito!” three times. At one point a Spanish sailor climbs into the rigging and winks at Delano as he points to Don Benito and Babu, but the oakum pickers alert three black passengers, who help the sailor down with false solicitousness.

The five tableaus that Babu devises to entertain the visitors are highly symbolic. A circular structure with five compartments is rotated to present, in order, a sailor dipping white dolls into a tar pot; a black boy playing chess with a Spanish doll wearing a crown; a Spanish sailor holding a huge rope knot, which he tosses to Delano; a beautiful black woman posing as the...

(The entire section is 421 words.)

Benito Cereno Bibliography

(Survey of Dramatic Literature)

Sources for Further Study

Axelrod, Steven Gould, ed. The Critical Response to Robert Lowell. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 1999.

Fein, Richard J. Robert Lowell. 2d ed. Boston: Twayne, 1979.

Hobsbaum, Philip. A Reader’s Guide to Robert Lowell. London: Thames and Hudson, 1988.

Lowell, Robert. The Old Glory: Three Plays. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1965.

Parkinson, Thomas, ed. Robert Lowell: A Collection of Critical Essays. Englewood Cliffs, N.J.: Prentice-Hall, 1968.

Scudder, Harold H. “Melville’s Benito Cereno and Captain Delano’s Voyages.” PMLA 62 (June, 1928): 502-532.