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As an artistic inspiration, ‘Moby-Dick’ looms large

From left: Robert Plant, Jimmy Page, John Bonham, and John Paul Jones of Led Zeppelin recorded "Moby Dick" in 1969.
From left: Robert Plant, Jimmy Page, John Bonham, and John Paul Jones of Led Zeppelin recorded "Moby Dick" in 1969.Evening Standard/Getty Images

In the American Repertory Theater’s world premiere musical “Moby-Dick,” running through Jan. 12 in Cambridge, the themes of Herman Melville’s 1851 novel are as fresh as today’s catch. A veritable United Nations of immigrants come together to grapple with a vengeful captain, in pursuit of nothing less than the meaning of existence. (Meanwhile, there’s a Starbuck in almost every frame.) It’s all a reminder, as the narrator Ishmael tells the audience, of “what a beautiful, sprawling mess this country can be.”

Melville’s book sold poorly upon publication. It wasn’t until the first decades of the 20th century that “Moby-Dick” began to accrue the critical attention that would make it an undisputed Great American Novel. In Hollywood, John Barrymore played Captain Ahab in the 1926 silent film “The Sea Beast,” and Mickey Mouse, Donald Duck, and Goofy starred in the one-reel cartoon parody “The Whalers” in 1938. From then on, Melville’s elusive white whale has come up for air at reliable intervals in our art and popular culture.

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Bernard Herrmann, “Moby Dick” (1940 orchestral work)

Still in his 20s in the 1930s, the composer Bernard Herrmann was writing incidental music for radio dramas when he set about creating a cantata based on Melville’s whopper, with librettist W. Clark Harrington adapting lines straight from the novel. The piece premiered at Carnegie Hall in 1940, the year before Herrmann launched his Hollywood career with something called “Citizen Kane.”

Jackson Pollock, “Blue (Moby Dick)” (1943 painting)

Pollock’s 1943 painting named after Melville’s white whale doesn’t feature any obvious cetacean form. Instead, it might be interpreted as the shattered aftermath of Moby-Dick’s attack on his pursuers. More recently, in the 1980s the Malden native Frank Stella created a series of abstract paintings, prints, and sculptures inspired by the whale, or the idea of it.

Norman Mailer, “The Naked and the Dead” (1948 novel)

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The pugnacious author used “Moby-Dick” as a guide in constructing his debut novel, which features an Army platoon attempting to climb an insurmountable mountain under superiors’ orders. Melville’s saga continues to take contemporary novelists on a Nantucket sleighride: Sena Jeter Naslund’s “Ahab’s Wife” (1999) sprouted from a passing reference in “Moby-Dick,” and in Chad Harbach’s Melville-obsessed “The Art of Fielding” (2011), the college baseball team is called the Harpooners.

Orson Welles (director), “Moby Dick — Rehearsed” (1955 stage play)

The artistic leviathan behind “Citizen Kane” was a Melville fanatic, very much in tune with the notion of monomania. In 1955 he brought his bare-bones production of “Moby-Dick,” with actors in street clothes, to the London theater. He planned to make a feature film of it, but the footage was reportedly destroyed in a fire some years later at Welles’s home in Madrid. The tenant at the time was the actor Robert Shaw, who apparently fell asleep while smoking in bed. Shaw, of course, went on to play Quint, the ‘Gansett-crushing deep-sea fisherman in “Jaws.”

Led Zeppelin, “Moby Dick” (1969 song)

It’s the hard rock instrumental that might as well be the dictionary entry for “long drum solo.” The young Jason Bonham, son of drummer John Bonham, supposedly begged his father to play it, calling the song — originally named “Pat’s Delight,” in honor of his mum — the one that was “big like Moby.” Years later, the parody group Dread Zeppelin recorded it with lead singer Tortelvis reading from Melville’s book.

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Mastodon, “Leviathan” (2004 album)

On a 30-hour plane ride from Europe to Hawaii, Brann Dailor of the Atlanta heavy metal band Mastodon read “Moby-Dick” from cover to cover. He already knew he wanted the band’s second album to have a water theme; their debut revolved around fire. To Dailor, the crew of the Pequod seemed like an obvious metaphor for a group of rock musicians enduring the rigors of touring. Over the years waves of musicians have set out in search of “Moby-Dick,” from the late New Bedford folk singer Paul Clayton (“Whaling and Sailing Songs From the Days of Moby Dick,” 1956) to the performance artist Laurie Anderson (“Songs and Stories From Moby Dick,” 1999).

“Assassin’s Creed IV: Black Flag” (2013 video game)

In the historical gaming franchise’s pirate-themed installment, players have the option of going on a whale hunt. Sighting the white whale is a rare event, but gamers are encouraged to pool their resources. Moby-Dick has long been a favorite subject for animators, from classic comic books to graphic novels, from “The Flintstones” to “The Simpsons.”

These are just a few of the various descendants of Melville’s colossal book. “All of us are Ahabs,” as the great writer put it. Actually, it’s been years since I read the book. I grabbed that quote from @MobyDickatSea.

James Sullivan can be reached at jamesgsullivan@gmail.com. Follow him on Twitter @sullivanjames.