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.)