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A Banner Year for Beowulf on the Boards


Lisi Oliver, Louisiana State University

One of the most widely anticipated, discussed and dissected productions of the 2006 theatre season was the adaptation of John Gardner's Grendel, a joint production of Los Angeles Opera and Lincoln Center, composed by Academy-Award winner Eliot Rosenthal (Frida), and directed by Tony-Award winner Julie Taymor (Lion King). This production opened to mixed reviews, generally praising the production values while decrying to greater or lesser degrees the qualities of the libretto and score (see the essay by Allen Frantzen in this issue). Nonetheless, it is a triumph for medievalism that a major opera company was willing to invest such a considerable amount of money on a new production based, at least indirectly, on Beowulf. Unfairly overlooked in much of the media hype surrounding this extravaganza, however, were several original regional theatre productions, far more modest in scope and budget, but in many cases nonetheless considerably more satisfying and interesting, at least to an audience of Anglo-Saxonists.

Although this season has provided a plenitude of staged versions, they are not unprecedented. Shortly after Hair began the rock opera boom in 1967, Ken Pickering and Keith Cole's Beowulf premiered at the Theatre Royal in Plymouth (1970). Leading the way on this side of the Atlantic, Canadian Victor Davies' Beowulf (1974) predated his far more famous Tommy (1975) by a year. Time has not been particularly kind either to the genre or to the work itself; no one who is familiar with PDQ Bach's Oedipus Tex can take very seriously a Beowulf who greets the Coastguard with the aria "Here is mah hand, Ah am Beowulf", sung with a twang worthy of Willie Nelson.

The meteoric rise of Seamus Heaney's translation of Beowulf to the bestseller lists in 2000 apparently inspired a further burst of enthusiasm for Beowulf stage adaptions. Princeton University produced a Sondheim-inspired musical in 2001, which imposes on the story a bizarre love triangle between Beowulf, Wealhtheow, and Hrothgar and Wealhtheow's daughter Hygd, who is given in marriage to Beowulf following his victories over the mere monsters. Calgary's Old Trout Puppet Workshop expanded the genre by presenting the poem as "A Viking Puppet Opera" in 2002. Four staged musical versions in only 28 years, not even counting the Hasty Pudding Club's spoof in 1970, the musical suites (one scored for modern and one for ancient instruments) by John Caton, or the oratorio composed by my old friend Jeffrey Brody! By any count, this is an impressive number.

By any count, that is, until the 2005-2006 season, which has seen three and a half new adaptations in nine months. (Not including Grendel, which I would count as another half).

In October, the Irish Repertory Theatre (http://www.irishrep.org) was the first to mount a musical version, simply entitled Beowulf. Composed by Lenny Pickett, the musical director of NBC's Saturday Night Live, and staged by the company's artistic director, Charlotte Moore, it reminds the viewer (at least it reminded this sometimes jaded teacher of Beowulf) that if you strip the poem of its poetics, moralizing, philosophy, and historical interjections, it still remains a darned good adventure story. This 75-minute through-composed version features eight instruments on pre-recorded tracks, accompanied by a small live band. The musical styles range effectively from the medievally-inspired estampies of the feasts to the atonal clashes of the battle scenes to the elegiac accompaniment of solo harp or flute over the laments. This juxtaposition of old and new extends to the characters themselves: in his first appearance, Beowulf acknowledges that "I'm a song that lives: Beowulf, the man and the legend." Two of the risks that the IRT took are explicit in this line. First, they elected to present the opera in Modern English, declining to hide behind the safety of a language most of the audience would not understand; it is a great tribute to the librettists that only rarely do the words wander into jarring anachronism or cliché. Second, the IRT basically adheres to the legend, eschewing the interpolations (such as a love affair with Wealhtheow) that mar many earlier adaptations. Grendel attacks; Beowulf arrives and defends himself in the flyting with Unferth; Grendel's arm is cut off. Then we have the more successful of two interpolated scenes: Grendel's (baritone) mother in the mere complains to her dying son that he was never much good at anything, and now she has to finish the work he began. This grumbling mere-witch provides a welcome and comic change from the frequent modern portrayal of Grendel's mother as victim. The descent into the mere is recounted by a skillfully-constructed Greek-like chorus, and Beowulf himself finishes the story upon his emergence, consoling Unferth with the remark that the failed Hrunting will nonetheless "live forever in my song." Beowulf returns across the whaleroad to Hygelac/Ecglaf (the character is not named, but he is both Beowulf's king and father).

Battle Scene from Beowulf. Photo by Carol Rosegg.

© 2005 Irish Repertory Theatre. Used with permission.

Then comes the second and less successful interpolated scene: Hygelac, accompanied by Beowulf, leads his men into battle and falls, leaving Beowulf to carry them to victory. The Beowulf poet knew what he was doing when he left this part of the story as a distant narrative. Three is a mystical narrative figure; four is one too many. Moreover, the scene is not differentiated enough musically from the monster scenes, and dramatically it might have been better presented in a choral form similar to that in which the descent to the mere was so well managed. Indeed, in general the lead-ins to scenes are the show's weakest moments. It's one thing for Gilbert and Sullivan to begin The Mikado with "We are gentlemen from Japan"; it sounds a bit ridiculous to start Beowulf with "We are the Danes." A highlight of the production is the pantomime in which the thief finds the goblet: in the music we hear him rustling, the water in the cave dripping, and the grumbling growl of the dragon as it gradually awakens. Beowulf is, of course, mortally wounded in the ensuing fight, and—with a conflation of cremations—asks his followers to build a pyre and push out his burning ship. At the end, he remains lofgeornest: with his last words he exhorts his men: "Do not forget my song!" In what struck this viewer as a stroke of brilliance, the only female voice we hear all night is that of the Geatisc meowle, who finishes the piece with her lament. Medievalists may quibble with some parts of it, but this is a Beowulf they will both recognize and enjoy.

March saw two very different musical versions. First, the Triad Stage in Greensboro, North Carolina, produced an Appalachian Brother Wolf, a version surely inspired by the film Oh Brother, Where Art Thou, which transposes Homer's Odyssey to rural Mississippi. This realization of the Beowulf story by librettist Preston Lane with accompanying music by Laurelyn Dossett is remarkably true to the deeper issues presented by the poem, without tying itself to the actual period. In doing so it provides almost an exact counterpart to the Irish Repertory version: if you strip the poem of its action and its medieval elements, the moralizing and philosophy still carry a profound message.

The action is set both in modern and in 1840s Appalachia: we are constantly aware that this is a story being recounted to the descendents of the original participants to provide them—suitable to the location—with a Christian moral. This transposition is not as drastic as it might seem: the creators consider that "Beowulf's mix of early Christianity and pagan beliefs is actually pretty similar to the primitive Christianity practiced in Appalachia." All the characters play roles both in the recounting of the story and in the action itself. The Speerdane family decide to erect a church high on their mountain home. Close by, we are told, was the landing spot for two of Lucifer's fallen angels: Grin Dell (so called "on account of the fact his mouth was stuffed so full of teeth, sharp as knives, he couldn't make no face but a hojous grin") and his mother. Grin Dell attacks and kills the son of the family; for the first time, in a theme which will be repeated, "the blood-cold river runs red." Now only Father Speerdane and his daughter Mabel are left to protect their new church; then arrives Brother Wolf, a backwoods itinerant preacher: "I fight sin with the word of God. But I fight hell with a long sharp knife." Mabel greets him with a shotgun at the door, representing Unferth in the flyting that follows. Brother Wolf accepts her as his reluctant sidekick, and together they defeat Grin Dell in battle. His body is hoisted to the rafters; Mabel agrees to marry Brother Wolf as Grin Dell's mother screams in agony.

The second act opens with Grin Dell's mother on the march for revenge; Mabel falls victim to the monster-woman. Brother Wolf draws deeply on his religious beliefs and overcomes Grin Dell's mother's fury with forgiveness. But he is devastated by the loss of his wife: his faith is shattered. For many years he refuses to defend those in need: he can no longer find his God. Finally, the youth Enoch convinces him to test his faith once more, this time against Rattler Man, a contemporary figure who challenges Christians—in what is simultaneously a genuine Appalachian tradition and an echo of the medieval ordeal—to thrust their hands into a box of rattlers and bring forth a snake. Brother Wolf pulls out the snake—victory—but as he holds it in the air he is bitten—defeat and death. Enoch refuses to let the story end like this, and plunges his own hand into Rattler Man's box, from which he pulls forth an old rope. The snake has been destroyed by faith.

The accompanying music is a mixture of old time (similar to bluegrass, though that is technically a newer genre) and newly-composed folk/country tunes. And the responsive rhythmic speech of the text is itself a kind of music. This version is a reminiscence in dialogue: a story told to the young Enoch, who finds the strength to overcome doubts in his own faith. Little of the music is directly sung by the characters: rather, it comments on the story or complements pantomimed action. Nonetheless, the crucial elements of the Beowulf story are retained, and given new emphasis in this primal Christian re-imagining, and—against all odds—it works well.

Also in March, University of Texas at Arlington doctoral student Edwardo Perez's Beowulf was given an elaborate workshop production at Tarrant County College in Fort Worth. This full operatic work shows promise, although at the time of the workshop the libretto was a mess of pseudo-Old English. The composer has enlisted an Anglo-Saxonist to help with revisions, so this problem should be rectified by the time of the next production. The music, set in a modern idiom and scored for brass, percussion and organ, generally succeeds in representing the tone of foreboding that underlies most of the poem, at times almost too well—it would be a welcome relief to have a little leavening. Particularly effective are Grendel's and Beowulf's trips into the mere, where we hear the yowling of the surrounding beasts, and Beowulf's first two battles. The scene in which Wealhtheow and a female chorus serve the men in Heorot breaks up the monotony of men's voices, although the preceding rollicking banquet would have given the piece some needed variation in tone. The dragon seems weak and lethargic—and a light soprano seems an odd choice to kill Beowulf! But in general, there is much to build on here, and a revised version should be forthcoming soon.

The "half" (by which I really mean unstaged) production is an audio recording in which a combination of professional actors from the American Players Theatre and the Guthrie Theatre have combined with translator Dick Ringler to record "a fully dramatized—but otherwise unmodified—version of the translation … with appropriate music and sound effects." The recording is an unedited version of Ringler's translation (available at http://digital.library.wisc.edu/1711.dl/Literature.RinglBeowulf), and runs slightly more than three hours. The text itself is foregrounded; sound effects provide a distant background. Some of these work exceptionally well. It is chilling to listen to Beowulf's descent into the mere and his subsequent battle with Grendel's mother; and the awakening of the dragon, which could easily sound feeble or comic, raises a similar frisson. On the other hand, distancing the sound effects achieves the result that all the battle scenes, even Grendel's breaking down the iron-banded doors of Heorot, sound a bit like the clatter of spilt forks and spoons on a tile floor. Atmosphere is provided by lapping waves, seagulls, and an occasional harp. Rarely do background effects interact with the plot: one notable moment is when the banquet guests shush their comrades at the beginning of Unferth's verbal challenge. The Geatisc meowle keens behind her description in the text, but oddly it is a male voice's lamenting wail that ends the piece.

Beowulf: The Complete Story — A Drama.

© 2006 Nemo Productions

(cover image © The Trustees of the British Museum).

Used with Permission.

Ringler's translation is billed as "A New Translation for Oral Delivery." I'm not sure how this distinguishes it from the recent Seamus Heaney version, which was also recorded by the translator himself, or the equally recent Liuzza translation, which hasn't been recorded but perhaps ought to be, as it resonates well when read aloud. Nevertheless, it is an interesting experience to sit and listen to the poem as a recounted story. As a rule, the word choice is fortuitous, although Ringler should probably have avoided the overly Latinate 'preternatural', and certainly shun the repeated word 'seamen', which is only unambiguous in a printed context. Conversely, orality allows the alliteration of 'knowing' and 'gnawing', which might give a reader visual pause. Ringler makes frequent use of alliteration, but generally in a more conversational way than Heaney's more elevated style.

One of the odd effects of the oral/aural (the original) format is that the historical interludes seem more integrated into the flow of the narrative, although I admit that I still found myself getting bored with the Encyclopedia of Swedish History that weaves its way through the story of the dragon slaying. Perhaps this is simply due to the authority of the narrator: the fact that the story moves at the pace of the speaker rather than that of the reader doesn't allow the latter to stop and wonder, for example, why the Finn episode is included. The story simply progresses through time with its various ramifications, roundabout digressions and repetitions, and it all adds up to the final whole. Ringler's American-accented, slightly twangy reading of the narrative passages certainly sets him apart from previous recorded readers such as Magoun, Bessinger or Heaney. It takes a little getting used to, but the eventual effect is of someone you know telling the story in your living room. Annoyingly, the least successful character portrayal is that of Stephen Pelinski as Beowulf, who sounds old and tired from his first entrance. Would that he had some of the energy of Jason O'Connell, who manages to make a real role of the Messenger who reports Beowulf's death at the end of the poem.

An obvious question raised by this recording is who its intended audience might be. It could seek radio distribution; the BBC has done very successful series on Lord of the Rings and Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy. This shorter tale would have to be broadcast as a miniseries. Another good option would be to use it in a secondary education curriculum, to teach the poem in the oral format for which it was designed. Finally, I myself plan to use it in my Beowulf seminar to fill in the narrative gaps we don't have time to translate in the course of the semester. But I won't give it to my father for Christmas: he wouldn't have the patience to listen to it all.

2005-06 has indeed been a banner year for Beowulf. But will any of these versions survive beyond their original productions? The Los Angeles Opera's Grendel went as a shared production to Lincoln Center; it may well be revived, if only to recoup its substantial costs. It seems unlikely, however, to become a standard item in the modern repertory (such as Carlyle Floyd's Susanna or John Corigliano's Ghosts of Versailles). Perez' opera deserves another go once the revisions are complete, although that will depend on an organization willing to supply the resources to produce it. If this occurs, it will probably be in an academic setting. Most likely to be revived professionally are the Irish Rep's Beowulf and Triad Theatre's Brother Wolf. Both these versions are daring, original, and entertaining both for Beowulf scholars and for their non-academic friends. I greatly hope we have not seen the last of them. We should be happy that 2006 was a Beowulfian annus mirabilis. As Anglo-Saxonists head into their Beowulf seminars next year, they find themselves tagged with an epithet they have never dared dream of: trendy.

Citations from Irish Repertory Theatre's Beowulf and Triad Theatre Company's Brother Wolf from unpublished materials generously supplied to the reviewer by the producers. Citations from Ringler are from Beowulf: A Drama; 3 CD set (2006, Nemo Productions: http://www.sandmansions.com).

Lisi Oliver, Associate Professor at LSU, has been writing supertitles for opera companies in the United States and Canada for 22 years. She is working on a book on how the Anglo-Saxon past is recreated on the musical stage.