Cheap Seats: Actor Stephen Collins brings 'Moby-Dick' author to life in Newbury

Courtesy photoActor Stephen Collins will perform "Sailing Towards My Father," a one-man play about Herman Melville, at the Newbury Town Library next week.

Author Herman Melville takes the floor at the Newbury Town Library next Thursday night, Jan. 16, in the person of actor Stephen Collins.

“Sailing Towards My Father,” a one-man play written by Carl Rossi, traces Melville’s journey from boyhood to old age, stopping to examine twists and turns, not the least of which was the death of his father when Melville was 12.

Collins portrays Melville, born in New York in 1819, at sea and on land and looks at his relationships along with his changing fortunes as a writer.

In his youth, Melville sailed the world aboard whaling and other vessels, including U.S. Navy craft during a short hitch in the fledgling military branch.

His first writings, including the exotic and best-selling travel narrative “Typee,” were based, in part, on time he spent in the South Pacific.

His masterpiece, the novel “Moby-Dick,” published in 1851, failed to generate much interest in Melville’s lifetime, selling around 3,200 copies.

It wasn’t until around 1920, decades after Melville died, in 1891, that critics and authors recognized the novel’s weighty literary value. It subsequently rose to its place as an American literary classic.

The novel is based on the sinking of the whaling ship Essex, which took place in 1820, a year after Melville was born.

Melville read the account of the ship’s sinking — by a sperm whale — in a book loaned to him by a shipmate while the two were at sea.

There’s a local connection to the Essex: It was built in Amesbury.

Another local connection, for Melville, was his friendship with fellow author Nathaniel Hawthorne, of Salem. 

Collins last performed at the Newbury library three years ago, playing another historical American literary person, the poet Walt Whitman.

The audience enjoyed Collins’ acting and were eager to see him perform again, library director Jean Ackerman said.

The play runs from 7 to 8 p.m. in the Lois M. Anderson Community Room.

Collins grew up in Cambridge, attending Cambridge Rindge and Latin School, and first read Melville as a senior in English in the spring of 1970.

He received a bachelor’s degree in literature from the University of Massachusetts Boston, where he read the Melville novel “Billy Budd, Foretopman.”

“I did not read the full novel ‘Moby-Dick’ until my early 40s,” Collins said. “I set sail many times previously but never really left port.”

He said that his good friend Rossi agreed to write a Melville monologue for him in early 2017, and the 66-minute work captures Melville’s essence.

“I like to think I do a very creditable job performing as Melville, but Carl’s excellent script is reason enough to see the show,” Collins said.

The library director said that prospective visitors to the show might be interested to know more about the man who wrote “Moby-Dick,” as well as his friendship with Hawthorne.

“I personally have often thought of reading “Moby-Dick” but have always been daunted by the scope of it,” Ackerman said. “I’m hoping that knowing more about the author will give me a motivational nudge.”

Melville’s books remain in demand at the library.

In fact, they are part of any library’s core collection, especially in New England with its history of whaling and seafaring, the director said.

The Newbury library’s copy of “Moby-Dick” is shelved in its young adult section — seeing as it may still show up on school reading lists.


What: “Sailing Towards My Father”

When: Thursday, Jan. 16, 7 to 8 p.m.

Where: Newbury Town Library, 0 Lunt St., Byfield

How much: Free, but registration required

More information: 978-465-0539 or 



Cheap Seats is a recurring feature in The Daily News where we highlight places in our region to go for free or a few dollars. We’ll introduce you to attractions and activities to check out within Greater Newburyport’s cultural landscape and beyond. Got an idea for a Cheap Seats? Email Terry Date at

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