Thursday, April 16, 2009

Beowulf: 1000 Years of Baggage

This was one of the performance club shows this month. I wasn't able to go with the club but I did go on my own. The performance club discussion is here. I started writing this blog post days ago and if I had started now instead I might have written something slightly having read the comments over there. As always, they've given me all kinds of things to think about. But I'm lazy, and my general take on the show hasn't changed, so you're pretty much going to get what I wrote before. (This is what happens when you leave your taxes to the last minute. I did them Tuesday night and was so tired that I fell asleep at about 8:45 yesterday [that's a little sad and maybe shouldn't have been admitted publicly].)

I'm a bit conflicted about this. On the one hand, I thoroughly enjoyed the show. I thought it was fun and funny. On the other hand, I felt like what I was seeing was Beowulf divorced from its context and that this was being put forth as more desirable--less "stifling"--than academic study. The three academics featured throughout the show are basically caricatures. But was it really less stifling? The poem is part of a formulaic Old English literary tradition. And also related to a body of interconnected Scandinavian work that features the same people and places. Does knowing that--being familiar with these traditions--turn the work into a museum piece or does it deepen and strengthen one's appreciation for it? 

In the musical* the story rarely felt full-bodied. It seemed like they didn't necessarily believe in the strength of the source material. The biggest victim of this is Beowulf himself, who is portrayed through much of the show as a musclebound idiot--like the dumb jock in a high school comedy--which seemed to me like a strange choice in part because I don't think the violence is really the most remarkable or noteworthy feature of the poem. I mean, that's kind of a feature of Europe in the early middle ages, no? And shouldn't Beowulf be so much more than that. So it's not so unique to see it represented in literature.When the performance focuses less on the aspects of the story that can be reduced to cartoons--or action figures in this case--it starts doing something interesting and distinct from what you'd find in academia. Instead of attempting to understand Beowulf as it was created, it seems to be addressing the ways in which the story can speak to a modern audience across the years. 

Toward the end of the musical, Beowulf challenges the most straight-laced of the three academics (who up to that point has pretty much been a caricature), saying that she hasn't experienced the kind of violence she's describing, a sword slicing flesh, etc. It's true of course, but it's also true of pretty much everyone who is going to read Beowulf or see a play based on it. These people and their concerns are pretty alien to us; we can't really understand them. And maybe that's the point. Or maybe it's not. Still, it feels at the end like they want to be doing something more serious, but because the show up to that point hasn't really gone below the surface it can't really support the reach for something more significant. 

*They call it a songplay, which I found obnoxious until I realized that "songplay" was kind of a kenning and therefore pretty appropriate to a musical based on Beowulf. So now I find the term tolerable--score one for academia and formal teaching there--but not so much so that I actually want to refer to the work as anything other than a musical.

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