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On January 27, a man garbed in black and endowed with the authority of his craft strode onto the Harold Prince Stage at Penn Live Arts. Holding a small, six-stringed harp, he turned to the audience and intoned “Hwæt!” (“Listen” in Old English). Everyone did, and thus began a remarkable evening.
The medieval world may seem long ago and far away, but for 90 minutes, Benjamin Bagby totally transported his audience there, bringing the 6th century—or maybe as late as the 10th, no one’s quite sure—startlingly into the present with his unforgettable bardic recitation of the epic Beowulf.
Beowulf survives in a single manuscript, written down in the 11th century by a pair of monks, but it is much older than that. A pagan tale of more than 3,000 lines threaded with Christian imagery, this Anglo-Saxon epic poem details a hero’s exploits over his lifetime. But for his telling, Bagby chose the first part of the story: Beowulf’s fight with the demonic monster Grendel (lines 1-852). The poem opens in Denmark, where for a dozen years, Grendel (who lives in a nearby swamp) has terrorized the kingdom of King Hrothgar, coming at night to raid his splendid mead hall (Heorot) and carry off his warriors to devour them.
Learning of the Danes’ troubles, the young prince Beowulf, a hero of the Geats, comes from what is now southern Sweden and declares he will rid the kingdom of this scourge. After an evening of feasting (filled with courtesies and some discourtesy), the court retires, leaving Beowulf and his small band of retainers to guard the hall. Grendel comes as expected and Beowulf grapples with the monster hand-to-hand, defeating him, tearing off his arm, and restoring joy to the kingdom.
The life of an epic
For more than two decades, Bagby has presented this intricately constructed epic—speaking, singing, orating, exhorting, intoning—by channeling a bard called the “scop” (pronounced “shope”). The scop was a storyteller and reciter at formal and informal gatherings whose job was to keep alive the oral traditions binding the fabric of early medieval English society. No two tellings were the same because this story and its music (and surely untold others that have been lost) were passed orally from a scop to each new generation.
The text on the page is linguistically thrilling to behold, and there have been multiple translations of Beowulf into many languages. The work of a skilled storyteller, it is filled with poetic conventions that differ from ours. Alliteration (not rhyme) creates the flow, and Bagby carefully evolved his text to translate that intricate poetic structure into drama.
Using a myriad of sources and his lifelong expertise in early music (he’s co-founder of the legendary ensemble Sequentia), Bagby has carefully structured this exceptional performance to seem unstructured, recreating (in a slyly metatheatrical way) a bard recreating history for his long-ago audience. The 21st-century device that makes it easy to enter this world is the seemingly effortless supertitles. Easy to read, unobtrusive, and flowing smoothly with the unfamiliar spoken words, they render this language of Anglo-Saxon England before the Norman Conquest totally comprehensible. Though it may sound unfamiliar, recognizable words often glimmer tantalizingly through the Old English.
The bard reborn
The magic of this legendary story is incomparably enhanced by Bagby’s magisterial performance. He holds his audience in one palm of a great storyteller’s hand while strumming his harp with the other, using music in a variety of ways to underscore the narrative flow, by turns reflective, lyrical, violent, descriptive, confrontative. His beautiful six-string harp (built in 1997 in Germany) is based on the remains of an instrument excavated from a 7th-century grave near Stuttgart. The harp was integral to the scop, then and now, and in this performer’s hands, the instrument becomes a character: commenting on, underscoring, or illuminating the action.
As well as using music and narrative, Bagby peoples the tale with recognizable characterizations. Among them are the aging, once-powerful ruler (Hrothgar); Wealhtheow, his elegant and noble queen; an officious border guard; and Unferth, a drunken, jealous courtier. Striding among them is the superhero Beowulf; rightfully boastful of his exploits, deferential to the declining ruler, and resolved to remedy this situation. Bagby’s changes of diction and tonality for each character were often greeted with chuckles of recognition.
A revelatory recreation
Among the questions in a post-concert session was one about the relevance of a tale so old and mythic. Bagby responded that he is consistently reminded of the work’s enduring power. He performed in Ukraine several years ago (before the current invasion), where there was (even then) a palpable looming presence. For that audience, Beowulf, with its exploration of courage in the face of evil, held a strikingly relevant contemporary significance.
The sold-out theater held scholars, students, musicians, actors, and performance-seekers who sat riveted by this ancient yet prescient tale. For those of us who struggled to read the epic in some class or other (long ago or recent), this recreation was a revelation. A recording of a previous performance lives on YouTube, but it’s in no way comparable to being in Bagby’s encompassing presence. Very few things can be called “once in a lifetime” experiences, but this was certainly one of them. Everyone there knew it and felt honored to be enfolded and enriched by the work of this contemporary scop. And I was absolutely among them.
What, When, Where
Beowulf. Performed by Benjamin Bagby. January 27, 2023, at the Harold Prince Stage at Penn Live Arts, 3680 Walnut Street, Philadelphia. (215) 898-3900 or pennlivearts.org.
Face masks covering the nose and mouth are strongly recommended, but optional.
Penn Live Arts is wheelchair-accessible via a long hallway and elevator. There are no restrooms on the Harold Prince Theatre level.
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