Epic, Rock, Camp, and Beowulf
America lacks a national epic that helps to define our national identity. In English we inherited from the British two great epics, Paradise Lost and Beowulf, but they have never resonated broadly with the public.
In the past fifty years Americans have increasingly embraced epics from science fiction (Star Wars, Star Trek) and fantasy fiction (The Hobbit, The Lord of the Rings, and Harry Potter). Almost fifty years ago rock opera also tried to fill the void, but Jesus Christ Superstar, Godspell, and Tommy did not succeed as enduring art. Only the surrealistic and campy The Rocky Horror Picture Show seems to continue to find an audience, but it would be hard to make the case that Rocky Horror fulfills our need for epic grandeur and resolution.
In 2008 Jason Craig (script and lyrics) and Dave Malloy (music) took on an imposing challenge when they first staged their rock musical, Beowulf: A Thousand Years of Baggage. Despite the unfamiliarity of Beowulf to most Americans audiences even after the 2000 Seamus Heaney translation, the original show found a small but enthusiastic audience and toured internationally for about five years. It has now been revived and modified by one of our best regional theatre companies.
I was caught off-guard—delightfully—by the first five minutes of the play, which begins with a panel of three aging academics discussing the original poem. The scene serves an important function in the play because it provides a substantial amount of basic information about Beowulf without being too obvious. It succeeds as entertainment because the academic discussion wickedly lampoons a range of academic pomposities, and the skilled physical humor of the actors enhances the satire. In particular, Anne Scurria, a thirty-six-year Trinity Rep veteran stole the scene—and continued to steal scenes in multiple roles throughout the show.
When the academic panel ends, we enter the play within the play, and everything goes rapidly downhill. The script echoes the tones of campy burlesques that sometimes celebrate the end of mind-numbing corporate training seminars.
We meet the dimwitted hipster Beowulf and the snarkier Hrothgar, who are backed up by a chorus of four female “warriors” who resemble strapping Cyndi Laupers in football pads and Goth makeup. We hear pulsing but mediocre rock, which at least drowns out such dull refrains as “Hey, it’s that guy,” “It’s my body,” and “That was death and then they died.” There are only two breaks from musical dreariness: one song that incorporates Beowulf’s Old English lyrics and one clever parody of Broadway love songs sung by one of the Cyndi Laupers.
By the time the play reverts to satirizing pompous professors, it is a relief. However, it is a short-lived relief because this part of the play starts to feel like a Saturday Night Live skit that doesn’t know when to quit. When the action returns to the purported reinvention of the poem, it becomes painfully clear that it has nothing to say; it is just uninspired camp. Hipster Beowulf wanders around with the Admiral Stockdale “Why am I here?” look, and monsters die offhandedly, but not humorously. In short, the play doesn’t respect the original poem enough to reinvent or satirize it.
Artistic Director Curt Columbus believes Beowulf: A Thousand Years of Baggage is a “meta-narrative” that comments significantly on the “us” and “them” in contemporary politics, but that belief is wishful thinking. At one point an American flag appears behind the characters, but it quickly gets folded into a scarf and disappears with one of the Cyndi Laupers without becoming part of any apparent statement. One can imagine a reinvented Beowulf that would move us with commentary on exile, revenge, and duty, but this play seems to try to avoid those themes.
A post-play session with the creators largely confirmed my reactions. Jason Craig acknowledged that he hadn’t read Beowulf when he was commissioned to write this rock musical. He also admitted that he did not like the poem when he read it in the Heaney translation and that he contemplated cutting “the play within the play” entirely.
This session also made it clear that the Trinity Rep had done a heroic job of trying to infuse some life into an unambitious farce. The original script had no stage directions, so the successful sight gags and physical humor were largely the inspirations of the Trinity Rep team, a talented group of actors who deserve better material.
Posted: September 29, 2016
Did you see this one?
What About Booth?
Volume 46, Number 3 (Fall 2008)