Beowulf: Musical theatre as character exploration

Currently out from writer/director Aaron Sawyer at the Red Theatre is a musical simply (and a little confusingly) called Beowulf. The trailer on the show’s website grabbed my attention as tightly as a man with the strength of 30 could. But, not being able to jet down to Chicago and watch it myself, I’m only able to write about it based on reviews from Third Coast Reviews and The Chicago Reader.

Sawyer’s adaptation of Beowulf is quite an original take, though its focus isn’t anything too new. The basic premise is that Beowulf and Grendel’s mother have been trapped together for all time by Odin. Simple enough. But their past together has not been erased. Grendel’s mother grieves for the loss of her son, and Beowulf questions his heroism as the two become romantically entangled.

These details make this show sound like quite a romp indeed, but it’s definitely playing off of themes that exist in the original poem.

Grendel’s mother is definitely charged with sexual energy in the poem itself. After all, she is the controller of dangerous femininity (giving birth to monsters, wielding a concealed dagger, overpowering Beowulf and landing on top of him (almost fatally)). And she’s certainly contrasted with the much more socially constrained queen Wealhtheow. Wealhtheow is portrayed as nothing but demure, though there are hints of her own desires for Beowulf but she never acts on them.

Grendel’s mother on the other hand acts on her desires for Beowulf so vehemently that she comes very close to killing him. I mean, she pounces on him and then tries to stab him with a dagger. An act of fury, to be sure, but it’s hard for me to not see the symbolism in what she does while on top of him. The dagger she pulls out is pretty phallic as a symbol. Stabbing is a form of penetration. And a female stabbing a male while on top of him seems (at least to me) like a pretty clear metaphor for male rape; a thing no doubt circled by shame and sorrow in the Anglo-Saxon society from whence Beowulf came.

But, interestingly enough, (and maybe this is where Sawyer got the idea for making Grendel’s mother the focus of his play and Tolkien got the idea for having fewer women in the Lord of the Rings trilogy than you could count on both hands), Beowulf never shows much interest in Grendel’s mother.

In fact, he never really shows much interest in any woman. He’s just concerned with glory and heroism (as he is in that trailer).

But maybe Beowulf’s apparent asexuality is part of the bigger picture of the poem. In keeping with medieval ideas of males somehow being closer to god than females, perhaps part of Beowulf’s manly virtue is that he’s beyond all that icky sex stuff. Even when we see him rule his own people there’s no real indication that he’s ever been married or had children. There’s not even any explicit mention or clear implication that he had some kind of mistress.

Ultimately, it sounds like Sawyer’s Beowulf is one that, though it strays pretty far from the source material in terms of story, keeps very close to its characterization of Beowulf and of Grendel’s mother. As goofy and incoherent as Jack Helbig of the Chicago Reader says it is, I think those elements are built into Sawyer’s premise. How else but farce could locking Grendel’s mother and Beowulf in a room turn out? As such, I think this take on Beowulf would be worth seeing just to get a glimpse of two of Beowulf‘s most interesting characters.

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