Playwright Elizabeth Doss has spent the past few years creating theater pieces about her family history. Hillcountry Underbelly was inspired by her own childhood in Central Texas, and in last year's Mast she crafted a tale based on the true life adventures of her maternal grandparents.
Now, for the third work in that loose trilogy, she's reaching further back in time, all the way to her great-great-great-grandfather, Herman Melville. "It's, in a large part, tracing not just the life of Herman Melville but specifically my lineage up to him," she says, "so all that family are the characters in this play."
For Doss, it was important to focus not just on Melville but also on the women in his life. "It became clear to me that Herman was survived by the women in his family," she says. "He gets to live on in history as this great writer, but they had to put up with an egomaniacal lunatic -- and I say that with compassion, because as a writer I am also an egomaniacal lunatic -- but they had to really suffer alongside his writing process, and I feel like the story of their lives is as interesting to me as his."
The play focuses on a few years in the mid 1800s, when Melville was writing his most epic works. At the time, the just-released Moby-Dick was not the classic it would later become; its poor sales and middling reviews prompted Melville to try to write something that would become a sure-fire hit. That novel, Pierre or the Ambiguities, would miss the mark; Doss now describes it as "the single worst reviewed book in the history of American literature." adding, "It's borderline psychotic to read it."
With Poor Herman, Doss is attempting to create a work that honors the spirit of Melville's writing, meaning that it's imperfect and, in her words, "messy in, I think, the best way. I mean, that's what I like to watch."