Sunday, June 25, 2006

Beowulf comes to Appalachia

As readers of this blog might have noticed, one of the things I find absolutely fascinating is re-interpretations of Anglo-Saxon literature. At the moment, my interest is (and for good reason) focused on renditions of Beowulf. There are any number of operas (rock or no), plays and movies out right now about everybody's favorite doomed warrior-hero-king. However, when my artistically minded younger sister mentioned this play today during lunch, I was honestly completely taken aback. Theatre-Sis is way more informed concerning not only the stage but also the arts more generally in our area than I am -- she's the one who pointed out to me that a movie everyone thought I'd like because it was set in North Carolina was actually filmed in our hometown, and with a lot of people who we both used to do theatre with (it's called Junebug, and I'd highly recommend it!). Theatre isn't just a hobby for her -- it's part of her job, which she does in her "spare" time as she studies toward a degree in Music Education. It's a pretty awesome course she's taking, actually.

But anyway, back to the Old English connection. This past spring, the Greensboro Theatre -- Triad Stage -- put on a play called Brother Wolf, by Preston Lane. Set in the Blue Ridge Mountains of North Carolina, this play tells the story of Brother Wolf, an "itinerant preacher, demon slayer and Blue Ridge Legend" (See the Charlotte Observer review for a review by Julie Coppens) who faces such fiends as Grin Dell (I'm not making this up), Grin Dell's Maw, and Rattler Man (who stands in for the dragon, it would seem, as a "preacher" who says true faith comes from picking up a poisonous snake and trusting it will not harm you (see the quote in this linked article). One of the things most interesting about the piece seems to be the way Lane figures "wyrd" -- reading further down in the Coppens review linked above, Lane "illustrates the concept of "wyrd," or fate, with four silent, black-suited players who move set pieces and characters through space and join Rattler Man in sealing the preacher's doom." A fascinating thought on how to put "wyrd" to work, I think. Or at least, how to put it up on stage for all to see.

I'm not quite sure how to take this play, and given that I've never seen it, I can only react to the information I've gathered on the internet(which is mostly from the articles above -- I'm still looking to see if there's a version of the play available in print...). My first thought is "Oh dear" -- a Beowulf made to be far more religious than the Anglo-Saxon one, and set in the North Carolina mountains to boot. A part of me wants to run away -- how could they do this to the poem that takes up so much of my time and attention, when there is no way this play could really be anything but distressing. To top it all off, Lane's inspiration is Seamus Heaney's translation -- which, although certainly the most readable, is one I've never been able to really enjoy. I usually go with Liuzza or Chickering, if I need a translation -- though when, wyrd willing, I teach the poem in literature classes, I will probably decide to use Heaney just for the students' enjoyment-level, since it seems most undergraduates react more favorably to his translation of the poem.

But as usually happens with such things, something stops me. In this case, its a line that is quoted relatively near the beginning of another Julie Coppens article on the play. From the opening scene, then:

Maybe there's a power in a story told and told and told over and over down through the years. Maybe there's a magic. My pa told me about Brother Wolf. And I tell you. Maybe the telling makes him real.

Maybe the telling makes him real. This line stopped me in my tracks, and lured me back to the fascinating possibilities of folklore and legend. Mythologies are shaped by -- and shape -- the cultures which tell them. Beowulf is no different. Maybe the spirit of the Geatish warrior is something we're all trying to "make real," in some sense -- to ourselves, to others, every time we write an article on the poem, every time we write a book. These lines render vividly the power of stories -- stories that are saved from fate and fires -- stories written in a metrical form literally made to be remembered.

And so I withold judgement on Brother Wolf. An Appalachian Beowulf set to the country sounds of bluegrass music may not seem like the Beowulf I find when I turn the pages of Klaeber, or click through the electronic edition of the manuscript by Kiernan. It may not be the Beowulf I hear in Heaney's Irish tones, or in Gardener's Grendel.

But maybe, for this time, for this place -- for North Carolina and Appalachia, it's a way to make Beowulf real again.

And yes, if it's ever out again -- in NC or elsewhere -- I will be travelling to see it.


Anonymous said...

Just saw this production of "Brother Wolf" remounted by Triad Stage at Appalachian State last week. One word...AMAZING. I have seen many stage productions over the years, including Broadway, but this production takes the cake. It was unlike anything I have ever seen!