Old English Newsletter


Back  |  Print


"Hrothgar Built Roads": Grendel's Ride in LA


Allen J. Frantzen, Loyola University, Chicago

Why, as medievalists, do we often leave the theater, playhouse, or opera house disappointed in what writers, composers, and directors have done with the masterpieces of the Middle Ages? The Canterbury Tales, Beowulf, and other works regularly turn up in preposterous modernizations that leave most of us shaking our heads. [1] There are exceptions. Harrison Birtwistle made a great opera of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight (1990); Paul Hindemith based a great opera on the making of a late medieval wonder, the Isenheim Altarpiece of Matthias Grünewald (Mathis der Maler, 1938); Carl Orff's Carmina Burana (1937) would appear on some lists as well. [2] But for every success one can name five failures.

Grendel, the new opera by Elliot Goldenthal that was seen in Los Angeles and New York in summer 2006, falls into the latter category. [3] Based on the novel of the same name by John Gardner, the opera is an object lesson in the perils of a twice-told tale. [4] Those who rework novels and short stories for the stage seldom manage both to keep the gist of the original and to make something new of it. In opera the usual problem is a libretto that lies too close to the original text. This was not a problem for Verdi and his librettists as they revised Shakespeare, it is true, but such inspiring precedents are more often ignored than honored. [5] Goldenthal's opera is not a remake of a medieval narrative but rather an interpretation of an interpretation, a replication of a modernization. On the winning side, parts of the opera's libretto are written in Old English, the first time I have heard that language in an opera and reason enough for Anglo-Saxonists to take an interest in the work. On the losing side, Grendel's creators pay slavish homage to Gardner's work without so much as looking Beowulf in the eye.

Gardner could (and did) assume that his readers knew Beowulf well and would use the poem's culture as a background for the novel's reinterpretation of it. The creators of the opera, working many years later, could safely assume nothing about the audience's knowledge either of Gardner's novel or of Beowulf. Published in 1971, the novel exists in clear tension with heroic culture and pays that culture a certain (if somewhat grudging) respect. The opera's creators, as if stuck in time, failed to realize that the heroic ethos undermined, deconstructed, and/or reinterpreted by the novel has now been undermined, deconstructed and/or reinterpreted virtually everywhere. Heroism, as Gerard Jones argues in Men of Tomorrow: Geeks, Gangsters, and the Birth of the Comic Book, has moved from the genres of realism to genres of fantasy ruled by superheroes. [6] A historically situated hero like Beowulf no longer enjoys claims to greatness. Popular genres now make heroes of victims who survive persecution or natural disaster and make villains of men in positions once seen as heroic.

This reversal of power and powerlessness squares with the novel's promising if derivative premise: what happens when a story is viewed through the consciousness of a marginalized character? Anglo-Saxonists are familiar with something akin to this reversal in Ælfric's Latin Colloquy, whose Old English gloss contains a memorable representation of a plowman's misery. Chaucer's Clerk's Tale is another medieval example. Gardner dressed up his version of this reversal with snickering cynicism that spoke to its time—that is, to 1971. In 2006 the opera settles for replicating rather than reinvigorating Gardner's existential riff. Gardner set up his anti-hero against a formidable and familiar rival. The opera never gives heroic culture a chance to shine and thus deprives the opera of the confrontations and clashes that make for compelling drama.

A new opera on a medieval – much less an Anglo-Saxon – topic is a rarity, and my expectations for the Los Angeles premiere were high. The director, Julie Taymor, also the co-librettist with Yale poet J. D. McClatchy, was credited with a much-admired production of Mozart's Die Zauberflöte at the Metropolitan Opera in New York two years ago. She and Goldenthal collaborated on Frida, a film for which his score won an Academy Award. Everything down to the ads in the program book seemed right for the epic scale of Grendel. A full-page plug for the 2007 Mercedes-Benz S-Class proclaimed, "Even cars need a hero," adding that "the people who design and build automobiles also need something to look up to." [7] But the casting call for Grendel might have read "Heroes need not apply," although one or two figures to look up to would have come in handy. The opera mocks the heroic culture of the Danes (and, implicitly, of the Anglo-Saxons who created Beowulf) without establishing that culture's greatnesses or the weaknesses they invite. Gardner's novel had no such problem. A case in point is Hrothgar's success at expanding his kingdom. The poet describes the construction of Heorot:

                Him on mod bearn,

þæt healreced       hatan wolde,

medoærn micel       men gewyrcean

þonne yldo bearn       æfre gefrunon,

ond þær on innan       eall gedælan

geongum ond ealdum,       swylc him God sealde

buton folcscare       ond feorum gumena.       (67-73)

It came to his mind that he would command men to make a hall-building, a greater meadhall than the sons of men had ever heard of, and inside it share among young and old everything that God had given him—except the people's land and the lives of men. [8]

Readers of Beowulf know where this glorious beginning will lead:

                Sele hlifade,

heah ond horngeap;       heaðowylma bad,

laðan liges;       ne wæs hit lenge þa gen,

þæt se ecghete       aþumsweoran

æfter wælniðe       wæcnan scolde.       (81-85)

The hall towered, high and horn-gabled, awaited war-fierce flames, hostile fires, nor was it yet long until that the sword's edge, between the son- and father-in-law after deadly hostility should arise.

Celebrated in the great hall with laughter and the scop's melodies (88-90), the king's feats awaken the envy of the wonsæli wer and bring about Hrothgar's retribution (105).

Gardner, and after him the librettists of Grendel, portray Hrothgar and his people as warlike and rapacious and view the monster as a victimized outcast. According to Gardner's novel, Hrothgar was the first king to work out "a theory about what the fighting was for" and to prosper (37). As his empire grew, he conferred with his counselors and "they built roads" so that tribute could then be collected more efficiently and the king's realm expanded at a corresponding pace (39). "They hacked down trees in widening rings around their central halls and blistered the land with peasant huts and pigpen fences till the forest looked like an old dog dying of mange." They caused "accidental fires that would burn for days." Soon "there was nothing to stop the advance of man" (40).

This passage appealed to the environmentally-correct instincts of the opera's creators. As the supertitles flash the news that "HROTHGAR BUILT ROADS," out rolls the king in an S-Class vehicle of his own, an elegant wooden-wheeled cart with two shovel-like claws at the front. Trees in a small forest (each held by a black-clad dancer) tremble and fall as Hrothgar's machine advances. Behind it a road, composed of dancers (also black-clad) lying rigidly like a string of corpses, magically emerges. [9] The stage picture, which brilliantly captures Gardner's modernist rage against his age, seemed especially appropriate in Los Angeles, the ever-expanding kingdom of many fabulously wealthy and well-wheeled kings and queens.

This is one of few moments when the opera manages to do something both disturbing and effective. In the main, Grendel, the anti-hero's anti-hero—sung by Eric Owens, who is onstage nearly every minute—exploits a smirking kinship with the audience and invites onlookers to share his baffled contempt for the Danes' cult of heroic glory. When Grendel witnesses an elaborate heroic funeral, complete with flaming pyre (Act 1, scene 1), the rites are probably as alien to the audience as they are to him. But as Hrothgar chews up quaking trees and as corpses line the road behind him, the audience can, for a moment, recognize their own world in the king's and confront a choice: either feel the pain of those murdered trees or own up to the cost of the superhighways for which their culture is justly famous.

Eric Owens as Grendel. Photo by Robert Millard.

© 2006 Los Angeles Opera. Used with permission.

Environmentalism also makes an appearance in Act 1 (scene 5), an extended star-turn for diva Denyse Graves. Reclining on a chaise longue cleverly disguised as an immense red tongue, she emerges from a dragon's mouth. Then, as the voice of the dragon, she lectures a suddenly-puerile Grendel on the mysteries of life (her formula for happiness: pile up gold and sit on it). The last member of her species, she also prophesies her own death. "The conservationists will howl," she sneers. This time the audience laughed. But shouldn't they have found her plight, like that of the trees, a little more poignant? Perhaps Taymor should have put the dragon's barrow in the path of Hrothgar's next expressway.

As the dragon's presence in Act 1 suggests, Gardner's Grendel is not quite the "retelling" of Beowulf from the monster's point of view so often alleged. The dragon does not appear in Beowulf until the hero is an old man (2312), and Grendel's consciousness disappears from the poem at line 835. At that point Beowulf has met the monster, ripped off his arm, and nailed Grendel's huge claw under the roof of Heorot (835-36). After Grendel's mother is killed by Beowulf (1567), Grendel himself is beheaded (1591) and his head dragged before Hrothgar, where it lies as Beowulf recounts his triumph over the monster's mother (1647-76).

By introducing the dragon to a youthful Grendel, Gardner perhaps wanted to parallel Beowulf's reflections as an old man on the ways of youth (2425-2509). This is one of many points when the novel silently plays off of an assumed knowledge of Beowulf. The dragon supplies an ancient consciousness, provides cynical advice, and, not incidentally, casts a spell that protects Grendel from weapons. Gardner's dragon is sour but also magnificent. "'Ah, Grendel!,' he said. 'You've come … we've been expecting you'" (58). [10] Gardner describes the dragon as having a "vast, red-golden, huge tail coiled, [with] limbs sprawled over his treasure-hoard." Even his teeth are grand: "razorsharp tusks, [they] gleamed and glinted as if they too, like the mountain beneath him, were formed of precious stones and metals" (57). The opera leaves this rich world of reference behind and plays the dragon for laughs. Near a tacky treasure-heap, Graves prances around in an immense red-feather boa, her lines echoed by a chorus of three "dragonettes" floating in space as three prongs of a tail strangely unconnected to the dragon's body. [11]

Denyce Graves as The Dragon. Photo by Robert Millard.

© 2006 Los Angeles Opera. Used with permission.

Wealhtheow, sung by soprano Laura Claycomb, is also set up. Hrothgar's new queen makes a striking entrance to music that conveys both purity and inaccessibility (Act 2, scene 7). Again, Gardner lets something of the queen's complex political context seep into the novel; the opera reduces that context to sex. Wearing a white and ice-blue dress and a long gold braid, the pale maiden advances slowly as women on either side, in diaphanous tunics, process in a stately but erotic dance. This moment was beautifully realized in Claycomb's person and voice, a brief glimpse of what grand opera does best. How disappointing it was — if inevitable — that, after she mounted the steps to the high seat, Wealhtheow would also mount Hrothgar and hump away as the maidens continued to sing. The staging not only vulgarizes a great moment but leaves the happy couple with nothing to do when, two scenes later, Grendel surprises them in bed, a point at which the king and queen seem so unconnected that they might be viewing different channels of late-night TV.

In the interim scene (Act 2, Scene 9), Grendel dreams that he sails in a glass-bottomed boat with the queen, another wonderfully-realized stage picture. Goldenthal supplies a passionate duet for Wealhtheow and a tenor, one of the monster's three shadows, as they ride in a seemingly-weightless ship that floats across the stage. The magic is sabotaged when the queen suddenly slaps the shadow-monster's face. Taymor scorns the commonplace that less is more; still, if the director wants to make a point of Grendel's dawning awareness of his monstrosity and his distance from human perfection, she could simply have him wake up.

The librettists and director save their greatest contempt for the poem's unlikely representative of the heroic code—not Beowulf but his foe, Unferth, onto whom the writers shrewdly displace heroism, the better to mock it (Act 2, scene 7). In Grendel Unferth is the only one of Hrothgar's thegns to confront the monster. He arrives at Grendel's cave as an outcast himself, already humiliated by the monster's indifference to him in the king's hall (pp. 82-85). The opera omits any reference to the shaming scene in the poem to which Gardner alludes. Unferth, who has never seen Grendel before, sings passionately about his desire for heroic fame. Grendel is unimpressed and, like a good Hollywood hipster, shows it by using the occasion to urinate (upstage, the coward). Later Grendel sends Unferth, alive and unwilling, back to Hrothgar, aided in this by the monster's shadow figures. Then he twirls the hero's sword and tries it as a golf club. The audience chuckled appreciatively. The scene contains some of Goldenthal's most beautiful music; Jay Hunter Morris sang Unferth with exquisite ardor. But the librettists give the last word to Grendel: "This whole shit-ass scene was his idea, not mine," the monster sneered. Big laughs! "Shit-ass" at the opera!

Again and again, such trivialization derails what might have been an impressive and memorable work. The creative team's antipathy to heroism sets the opera's only significant achievement, Goldenthal's music, against its richest resource—not Gardner's novel, surely, but the heroic world encoded in the novel and, ultimately, Beowulf itself. Grendel is admittedly a difficult work to imagine for the stage. The novel ends unpromisingly with the central figure's defeat in death, leaving the field to his hated opponents. In Gardner's version, Grendel's contempt for the heroic culture of the Danes seems, if not compelling, at least plausible as the view of a self-hating monster, since the monstrous is represented by the heroic culture that marginalizes him, builds roads, kills off endangered species, and exploits its subalterns.

The librettists make little allowance for the heroic culture of Beowulf that the novel so slyly upstages. One of their few compelling devices is the use of Old English dialogue, some taken from the poem and some written by the librettists and translated into Old English by Roberta Frank and Steven Jaeger (both inconspicuously credited). [12] Grendel speaks in modern English and the Danes in Old English. Fortunately, the Old English dialogue is translated in supertitles, for I found it very difficult to understand as sung (even by Richard Croft as the scop, who wears rather than carries a harp and makes a splendid entrance singing "Oft Scyld Scefing"). Danish characters periodically lapse into modern English, as does Unferth. However inconsistent, this use of Old English language has important consequences, since it creates an immediate alliance between Grendel and the audience and simultaneously alienates the audience from the Danes, a strategy that reinforces the opera's premise that the heroic is alien and incomprehensible in the modern world.

Beowulf positions absolute evil—and hence heroic opposition to it—at its center (or its margins, depending on where you set the monsters). In Gardner's novel, and in the opera, Grendel is central; he is possibly pathetic but he is not evil, even though his sole objective is the destruction of heroic culture. Grendel despises that culture because it excludes him, not only because he bears the mark of Cain (this not-so-subtle-racism is duly positioned in the libretto as the view of the Danes) but because he was misunderstood as a youth. He has a pre-linguistic mother who, in the novel, at least has the good sense to protest the stinking carcasses he drags home, albeit only with growls and grimaces (36). In the opera, less terrible than pathetic herself, she stands by as he blunders into a game played by Danish children. The children mock and bully him, enough to provoke any dam's ire. After she frightens off the offenders, Hrothgar comes upon the scene. Provoked in turn, he hurls an axe at Grendel (excuse an uncle for looking out for his nephews!). Combined with the children's taunts, this violence seems to be what pushes Grendel over the edge.

As an opera, Grendel adheres too closely to the numerous, often tedious idiosyncrasies of Gardner's novel. The organization of the narrative into twelve chapters, each related in some way to one of the signs of the zodiac, is faithfully replicated, ensuring both excessive length and maximum incoherence. The book's shifts in genre, from first-person narration to dialogue (chapter 8) and poetry (in various places), contribute to the opera's inconsistent tone. [13] The librettists struggled with Gardner's richly embroidered backstory of Grendel's childhood, which takes up most of Act 1. This material is staged so confusingly that no one I overheard during intermission understood what had gone on. McClatchy noted that the "dizzying manipulation of scale and time" was already part of the libretto before he became involved in the project 2003. [14] It must be said that "dizzying manipulation" rarely translates into lucid drama, and even in Beowulf temporal shifts (such as the stories of Onela, Ongentheow, et al., 2354-90) create problems for most readers. The opera seems to strand Grendel in adolescent preoccupations that were helpfully defined by music critic Michael Walsh, in a pre-performance lecture, as sex, violence, and—Gardner's brainchild—poetry. There's a sure sign of a Golden Age: adolescents who obsess about poetry! Grendel's murderous instincts seem further infantilized by the use of Taymor's trademark puppets to represent the Danes who attack him. These small figures, holding rubber swords and spears, seem more like dolls than warriors and are difficult to take seriously.

No matter where one turns, it becomes clear that the opera creators deliberately refuse to produce anything or anyone to care about. This is not a problem in Gardner's novel, where the decay of the heroic world and its greatness are never far from view. No relationships among the Danes are developed in the opera—no confrontation between Beowulf and Unferth, no bonding between Beowulf and Hrothgar, or, apart from sexual intercourse, no link between Hrothgar and Wealhtheow. The personal relationships that stand out in Beowulf, especially that between Hrothgar and the hero, Beowulf and Grendel, and the old hero and Wiglaf, or such tensions as that between Wealhtheow and Beowulf, are ignored. Even though Gardner bypassed most of this material, the librettists might have built some significant tension into the opera by exploring one or two such connections. Instead they bank on sympathetic concern for Grendel, the abused child who grows up to be a murderous adult. This is more than a stretch. Indeed, the problem with Grendel, and hence with Grendel, on stage or on the page, is not only that the monster at the center of the work does not stand for anything—except perhaps victimization leavened with a touch of cynicism—but that he seems to know it. Cynicism and victimization, alone or together, do not make a compelling protagonist. One wonders if they make a protagonist at all.

To reinforce the linguistic alliance between Grendel and the audience, the writers try to make the monster more attractive than Gardner makes him and to diminish the glory of the Danes. The sole exception to this approach is the conventional protagonist, Beowulf himself, who is spared the indignities heaped on the Danes (the other Geats figured into the action so briefly that one could not distinguish them from their hosts). The role is a non-speaking part for a dancer whose lines are voiced by a small chorus. The dancer, Desmond Richardson, is also black. Thus his person (but not his role) triangulates the opera's tensions, positioning him between the monster and the Danes not simply as a Geat but, possibly, as an outsider among his own people. He alone fights without weapons; he alone does not sing. More so than any other character, he also comes out of a comic-book world, a world of computer-games and fast-food action figures, a fantasy superhero whose human flaws never emerge because he is, simply, not human. This approach to casting ultimately creates confusion, since up to the moment of Beowulf's entrance (and the showy stripping of his armor to reveal tattoo-like body paint—perhaps an African warrior?), Grendel is both the hero of the piece and its villain. In the last moments of the opera, a new kind of hero arrives; although victorious, he is silent, enigmatic, automatic, and soon forgotten.

For good reason, then, the creative team relies on program notes to explain ideas that music and drama do not bring to life. There is no shame in this any longer, it seems. Even at operas in the standard repertory one has to read the notes to understand what is happening on stage. Goldenthal focuses on one of Grendel's last phrases ("Is it joy I feel?" p. 173) and sees the end as the monster's confrontation with transcendence. In Goldenthal's view, Grendel "meets his reconciliation with eternity before he leaps." I cannot readily explain how one meets a reconciliation, but no doubt Goldenthal's nearby allusion to Nietzsche explains the fog. [15] Taymor elaborates the dragon's claim to Grendel that "Human beings need the 'enemy'." "If he's not there, they'll find, or create, another," she writes. Thus "Grendel mirrors modern man, completely self-conscious, trapped in his own history, seeking the possibilities of optimism and redemption" [16] —a most implausible gloss on the opera, let it be said. If Grendel seeks optimism or redemption he might try to understand Unferth's heroic desire rather than piss on it. McClatchy amplifies Taymor's assertion, claiming that Grendel "is a monster because humankind needs to feel threatened, needs 'monsters' (be they heathens or terrorists) to find a communal identity and feel good about itself." [17]

It might be the case that a people challenged by war, hunger, and internecine rivalries of nearly unimaginable complexity, not to mention sickness, old age, treachery, and long winter nights, do not consider themselves sufficiently beset and so must fabricate forces to threaten their happiness. But it is scarcely credible, absent a compelling demonstration of proof, that the cause of evil is the determination of the unhappy to console themselves by persecuting others. By grouping terrorists together with 'heathens', whoever they might be in the modern world, McClatchy rationalizes terrorism as a weakness of those on whom terrorists prey. 'Heathens' do not usually seek to kill thousands of innocent people every chance they get. That is what terrorists do, and they often do it out of deep religious convictions that, one would have thought, clearly separate them from nonbelievers, even for a poet at Yale.

Perhaps McClatchy really is persuaded that we need terrorists to "find a community identity and feel good" about ourselves. But if this sauce is good for the gander, it is also good for the goose. One should then propose that Grendel is no more than Taymor's and McClatchy's need to demonize their own enemies, represented in the opera—and outside it as well?—by heroic, military, male-dominated culture, and thereby to find "community identity" and "feel good" about themselves. Pious stuff in any form, this thesis evaporates amid the opera's overheated stage business. People who skipped the program notes no doubt left the theater untroubled by the views of terrorism, communal identity, and human happiness that the work's creators claim they want to advance. Gardner, to his credit, had more insight into his project and exercised more restraint. Taken at its most reductive, his novel belies the political aims suggested by the opera's full title: Grendel: Transcendence of the Great Big Bad. Describing evil—terrorism in particular—in such childish terms as a "great big bad" looks like an attempt to banalize it as a nuisance, like crabgrass or a traffic jam.

At the final curtain the audience applauded politely but stayed in its seats. [18] People with whom I spoke found the second act (about fifty minutes), with its brief episodes of conflict between Grendel and his enemies—Hrothgar, Unferth, and Beowulf—clearer than the first (a Wagnerian ninety minutes). Many wondered, as did I, how so much effort and expense could have amounted to so little. The principal set of Grendel is a monolithic construction called the "ice-earth unit," nearly 50 feet long, almost 30 feet high, weighing twenty tons. It is run by twenty-six motors and cost $900,000. The "ice-earth unit" formalizes the opera's reductive vision, winter (ice) on one side, spring (earth) on the other, each side crammed with obscure devices and designs. With all that weight and all those motors, one would have thought the unit would have some practical as well as symbolic functions. But the simple matter of getting characters onto the back of it so they could make their entrances requires stage hands to wheel on platforms with low-tech clanks and bangs.

The "ice-earth unit" symbolizes deeper problems with Grendel: too big, too complicated, and at the same time two-dimensional. The opera rests on a binary premise that sacrifices the drama of relationships to the demonstration of ideas. In an effort to dress up the repetitious premise (winter/spring, monster/hero, good/bad), the artistic team piles on expensive effects, decorating ideas (sometimes handsomely, it is true, as in the spectacular destruction of Heorot that ends the first act) rather than developing conflicts. Textbooks on writing screenplays and scripts warn against this dangerous cliff, but Grendel drives over it in the first ten minutes. [19]

The opera itself, which had been in the works since 1992, cost the Los Angeles Opera and the Lincoln Center Festival (where Grendel went next) over $2.8 million. The premiere had to be postponed because the unit set malfunctioned. [20] Two subsequent performances were speedily renamed "previews," a word rarely used in the opera world—and understandably so, given that top ticket price for the "previews" was, in this case, $175. The cost of the delay, a new form of opera-house boasting, was another $300,000. Announcing the postponement, Taymor said that the production staff was in "computer hell." [21] She failed to note that the creators had mired the project in a conceptual hell that could not be fixed by tweaking code.

Grendel would be improved by a few cuts and by a director not afraid to learn from Gardner and let heroic culture strut its stuff. The heroic is a powerful lure, and, for all their attempts to diminish heroism, Taymor and McClatchy cannot resist it. In the novel, once bested by Beowulf, Grendel nears his end and muses self-pityingly: "'Poor Grendel's had an accident,' I whisper. 'So may you all'" (174). The librettists turn the monster's parting curse into its antithesis: "I will fall. I want to fall. I will my fall." And then Grendel says, "So may you all." [22] Having rejected delusional institutions such as the heroic code and the expansionist depravities of humanity, Grendel becomes self-determining and autonomous (he leaps to his death), all those things that, in a post-Foucauldian world, humanity supposedly cannot be. Grendel's death became his decision, his defeat his wish for himself. Ennobled by this transparent pragmatism, Grendel blesses the audience with a sentimental wish for existential freedom.

Few in the audience seemed to grasp the malice of this parting shot. When, like Grendel, we fail through our errors, should we too be allowed to disguise miscalculation as self-determined victory? Nobody gets off that easily in Beowulf, or in Gardner's novel. It is nonsense to claim that Grendel wills his fall. Vanquished by a foe he underestimates, he is the victim of his own hubris. And in this he begins to resemble the heroes he spends three hours railing against. You don't have to be an Anglo-Saxonist to see that Grendel depends, at its heart, on a gross, surely deliberate misreading not only of Gardner's novel but of Beowulf. The program essays imply that Beowulf is a simple-minded celebration of heroic masculinity, not a sober reflection on heroes and their followers mired in cycles of death and defeat. Someone should have called the writers' attention to the poem's pessimism and showed them that the ethical and narrative power of Beowulf arises from struggles against evils more difficult to eradicate than monsters (or heathens)—i.e., from unexamined pride, love of power, and the frailty of human achievement, observations that dwarf Gardner's cynical retelling. Like many celebrated figures in heroic narratives, Grendel discovers too late a fatal flaw in the magical reputation on which he has begun to coast. There's a lesson from Beowulf—one of many, it could be said—that Grendel's creators ought to have heeded.



[1] Beowulf seldom translates successfully into other genres. For a summary of popular works based on it, including films, see Ethan Gilsdorf, "Epic Proportions: Tracking the Business of Beowulf," The Common Review 4 (Spring 2006), 15-21.The poem served as the basis for Beowulf: The Rock Opera at the Irish Repertory Theatre in Manhattan, Oct. 7-Nov. 27, 2005. According to Playbill, "Beowulf, the circa eighth-century English verse epic that is the bane of college students the world over, is now a rock opera by 'Saturday Night Live' musician Lenny Pickett" (Kenneth Jones, "Warrior Prince Sings in Beowulf: The Rock Opera, Opening Oct. 16." http://www.playbill.com/news/article/95677.html My thanks to Roy Liuzza, Scott Gwara, and an anonymous reader for the OEN for their comments and criticism.

[2] One makes an exception for Wagner, too, although his is a special case, since so many of his operas are based on medieval legends but use libretti of the composer's own creation: Parsifal, Lohengrin, Tristan und Isolde, and of course the entire Der Ring des Nibelungen.

[3] Grendel: Transcendence of the Great Big Bad, an opera in two acts and twelve scenes, composed by Elliot Goldenthal, libretto by Julie Taymor and J. D. McClatchy, co-conceived by Goldenthal and Taymor, directed by Taymor, and conducted by Steven Sloane. I saw the performance of June 11, 2006 at the Los Angeles Opera (http://www.LAOpera.com).

[4] John Gardner, Grendel (1971; New York: Vintage, 1989). Subsequent references are given in the text.

[5] Jay Harbison created a mediocre opera for The Great Gatsby; Nicholas Maw did the same for William Styron's Sophie's Choice (2002); one could list McTeague (Frank Norris), View from the Bridge (Arthur Miller), and many others. There are exceptions: Benjamin Britten repeatedly turned great literature into great opera: The Turn of the Screw (Henry James), Billy Budd (Herman Melville), Peter Grimes (George Crabbe; in this case not necessarily "great" literature).

[6] Gerard Jones, Men of Tomorrow: Geeks, Gangsters, and the Birth of the Comic Book (New York: Basic Books, 2004).

[7] Performances Magazine, published for the LA Opera by Southern California Magazine Group, Los Angeles, June 2006, hereafter cites as Performances.

[8] Quotations from Fr. Klaeber, ed., Beowulf and the Fight at Finnsburg, 3rd ed. with supplements (Lexington, Mass.: D.C. Heath and Co., 1953), pp. 3-4. Subsequent references are given by line number in the text.

[9] The synopsis puts it more picturesquely: "King Hrothgar's tractor gobble[s] up trees and excretes roads," Performances, page P4.

[10] This moment is a reminiscence of Wagner's Siegfried (Act 2, when Siegfried awakens Fafnir, the treasure-hoarding dragon, from his sleep and fights with and kills him). Wagner, John Adams, and Karl Orff seem to be the composer's chief inspirations.

[11] The "dragonettes" were a clever touch, if not an original one; the device is used by John Adams and Alice Goodman in Nixon in China (1988), wherein Chairman Mao is surrounded by three secretaries who echo his words and serve as his back-up chorus. The Grendel team overused this ploy. Grendel was accompanied by three "shadow-monsters," Wealtheow made her first appearance with no fewer than six dancers, and when Beowulf appeared, his lines were spoken by a chorus.

[12] Performances, P14.

[13] Craig J. Stromme, "The Twelve Chapters of Grendel," Critique: Studies in Modern Fiction 20 (1978): 83-92.

[14] J. D. McClatchy, "Grendel: The Transcendence of the Great Big Bad," Performances, pp. 10, 12, 62, quote from p. 62.

[15] Elliot Goldenthal, "A Note from the Composer," Performances, p. P5.

[16] Julie Taymor, "A Note from the Director," Performances, p. P6.

[17] McClatchy, "Grendel," p. 12.

[18] The audience at Lincoln Center, honoring convention, reportedly leaped to its feet. The New York performances were part of a festival, those in Los Angeles part of a regular subscription series. Audiences at subscription performances are usually said to see more opera than festival audiences and to be harder to please.

[19] "In your zeal to persuade," Robert McKee tells the aspiring screen writer, "you will stifle the voice of the other side. Misusing and abusing art to preach, your screenplay will become a thesis film, a thinly disguised sermon as you strive in a single stroke to convert the world." Story: Substance, Structure, Style, and the Principles of Screenwriting (New York: HarperCollins, 1997), p. 112.

[20] Financial data taken from "Computer Gremlins Delay Opera Premiere," Los Angeles Times, May 25, 2006.

[21] Quoted in "Computer Gremlins Delay Opera Premiere."

[22] Grendel's final lines quoted from Goldenthal, "A Note from the Composer" p. P5. In the opera Grendel's pathetic whine, "Grendel had an accident," is spoken after he is bullied by the Danish children and run off by Hrothgar. The librettists use the line to show that Grendel mistakenly interprets the prejudice he suffers as his responsibility rather than the responsibility of those who persecute him, an example of "internalized repression," a familiar twist of pop psychology.