Archives For theater

I first met Beowulf on a field trip. My grade school class had a special engagement to see a stage version of the story, performed – I think – by St. Louis’ Metro Theater Company. The spare production featured only a few actors and a set of props that, like those of The Fantasticks, were few enough that they could have been brought on stage in a gunnysack. A central platform at the center of the stage doubled as all the locations of the poem – the darkened hall of Heorot, the haunted mere, the dragon’s cave. A long pole served for almost everything else; it became swords, treasure, and, most memorably, the arm of Grendel, which Beowulf tears from him in their famous wrestling match.

We all read our own Beowulf. This collection belongs to Western Michigan University’s Medieval Institute. [Photo Credit: E. Scott]

I recall feeling disappointed. Being a child, I had no real understanding of theatre or literature, and so I did not understand theatrical minimalism, or that there might be good reasons to tell the story in this way besides a lack of money. One of the actors explained that they did not want to show us Grendel as a latex-and-animatronics spectacle, and I remember thinking that was exactly what I wanted. Oh, well; children’s theater is wasted on children. I’d give anything to see that play again today, with adult eyes, if only to see their dragon again – a man perched atop the platform in cloak of red and gold, which he swirled around his body to create the image of flame.

Some twenty years on, I have spent the past three weeks standing deep in the poem, working with a number of scholars in a summer institute about Beowulf and its relationship to Old Norse-Icelandic literature. Much of this has focused on some very specific textual echoes: Beowulf fights monsters in a king’s hall and a watery mere; Grettir Asmundarson, the hero of the Icelandic Grettis saga, fights a similar pair of trolls in a farmer’s hall and a waterfall cave. Bodvarr Bjarki, a character in Hrolfs saga Kraka, can be read as an Icelandic equivalent to the hero, and even serves a king whose name is cognate to a relative of Beowulf’s King Hrothgar. But beyond these textual correspondences – and the arguments for whether they are mere coincidence or represent evolutions of a common source – much of our discussions have focused on how Beowulf fits into the broader picture of the medieval north, and indeed, just what we know about those societies.

The central, seemingly inescapable question of Beowulf is the poem’s relationship to paganism. The poem, which survives in a single monastery-produced manuscript, clearly survives because of Christian literary practice; just as clearly, its story looks back to the heathen past and the heroic mode. Though every character in Beowulf is, logically, a heathen, the language itself is suffused with Christianity. Critical opinion has ranged from the notion that the poem is largely an oral heathen epic with a veneer of Christian commentary layered over it to reading it as an entirely Christian document that serves to criticize the ethical failures of the past.

The picture isn’t any clearer for other documents from the medieval north, either. The problems with Snorri Sturluson’s Edda are well known, being a prose synthesis of a pagan mythos several centuries after the official conversion to Christianity. But even a poem like Völuspá, which underpins so much of what we think we know about Norse mythology, often gets read as a Christian reflex, perhaps a systematizing of the heathen ways in the face of Christianity. Pick a feature of the literature and you can find a critic who will argue for its Christian influences.

Although I do my best to keep myself objective when I’m in a scholarly context, I admit that I struggle with this. In part I grumble because I feel that medieval studies, across the time period and the discipline, overemphasizes Christianity; while the religion clearly had more social influence than just about any other institution in the period, medievalists seem to interpret everything as though all people living in the middle ages were fanatically devoted, which simply seems unlikely to me. But these interpretations also go against my personal attractions to the literature. I read Beowulf and its Old Norse analogues, ultimately, because it’s the literature that’s shaped me, in ways obvious and not. It’s bound up with my Paganism, and therefore with my sense of self.

That means I want to see the pagan core to the poetry, and I want to see the coherent system of the cosmology. I want to read about Beowulf’s Geats pleaing to their gods for aid against Grendel and ignore the narrator’s snide commentary on their beliefs. I want to read Völuspá as a history that was complete before the Scandinavians ever heard of Christ. Above all, I suppose I want to read the texts with the comfortable sense of understanding they had when I first read them, even though I realize that is an impossibility.

Our modern Paganisms depend in large part on the institutions that study the ancient paganisms from which we draw our inspiration. While we come to our own individual understandings of our sources – and some of us even do excellent research of our own – ultimately, there are matters of expertise and access that underpin our understanding of the past that go beyond the average person’s resources. But that scholarship too is precarious, and often as not reflects assumptions and desires alien to those of the religionist.

Earlier in the Beowulf institute, I had a friendly disagreement with a religion scholar, whose position was that it was wrong, conceptually, to think of ancient Scandinavian paganism as a “religion.” To him, the word betrayed too many modern assumptions, too many Christian influences. For me, it was exactly the opposite: the idea that a “religion” can only refer to an Abrahamic-style proselytizing system seemed to demonstrate the exact kind of bias that he was trying to avoid. I absolutely wanted to think of Norse paganism as “religion,” because religion implies a degree of legitimacy that no other English word contains.

I don’t think either of us quite understood the importance of the others’ framing of the question, what is a religion. It was as if we were both children in the theater, watching the man in the cloak of flame, neither of us quite sure as to the shape of a dragon.

CHICAGO, Ill. –Theatergoers who live close to the Windy City will have a special treat this year from the troupe Terra Mysterium in the form of “A Midwinter Mummers Tale.”  The play is being described as “an original folk adaptation of Charles Dickens’ beloved classic A Christmas Carol.” Those who are familiar with the classic story of redemption for Ebenezer Scrooge will no doubt find the theme familiar, but this is really an entirely new play. It draws upon spirits and gods in a way that might be more familiar to the modern Pagan than the average consumer of winter holiday entertainment.


Matthew Ellenwood, artistic director for the performance troupe, explained that seeing this production in person is the only way right now. “We use projections for the our backdrops, which makes filming the production (at a level of quality we’d be proud of) very challenging,” Ellenwood said. As this is the first-ever performance, there aren’t even many photographs to give a hint as to what will transpire, although he promised a number of high-quality images will be available after the performance.

The few details that Ellenwood could provide give a sense of the original tale. It is set in a “parallel history that never was,” different enough to allow for a few tweaks here and there. “Because this is a parallel history . . . we are welcome to populate it as we see fit,” he explained. “It is our choice to see a world where mixed and same sex marriages are not uncommon, where women are equal to men in every regard, and where indigenous traditions as frequent as any Christian denomination. This is a world where real magick is matter of fact, and the spirits walk amongst us. It is a place where joy emerges from pain, and transformation is accepted freely.”

The main character, Esmerelda Pennywise, is a powerful and independent Regency-era businesswoman. Ellenwood explained a bit more about her:

I feel it is compelling to consider how powerfully strong Mrs. Pennywise would have to have been to be able to thrive, without a male partner, in a cutthroat businessman’s world. Her ‘coldness’ would seem to be a trait acquired out of need, and due to circumstance. However, her choice to transform into a woman of integrity and compassion speaks volumes about her soul’s fortitude.

Mummers performing in England [source: Wikipedia]

Mummers performing in England [Source: Wikimedia Commons]

As the title suggests, the play draws upon the tradition of mumming, which Ellenwood describes as “seasonal plays, often performed in disguises and masks with performers (known as guisers) playing archetypal characters (such as Punch and Judy). These simple and humble stories contain universal and profound themes of light and dark, death and resurrection, and the magical power of good over evil, truth over falsehood. They are still performed from door to door in many parts of the British isles.” Yuletide mumming traditions such as wassailing and the horse-rite will be part of the fun.

Founded in 2008, Terra Mysterium “is a Chicago-based collective of performers who create, produce, and perform experiential works of theatre that are rooted in the Earth Mysteries” according to the group’s Facebook page. From the description provided, “A Midwinter Mummers Tale” is true to form as they “seek to bring our audience into the unique, warm embrace of these midwinter folkways and rekindle an interest in honoring (or even creating our own) traditions for the current time as we descend into the dark half of the year.”

Throughout the tale, Pennywise encounters a cunning man, the Trickster, the Holly King, and the Dark Goddess as she is given the opportunity to reflect upon her life and to consider choosing a different path for the future. Tricksters are part of many world traditions, and the one chosen for this production is not malicious as some versions are, “but he does know the answer to every question he asks,” said Ellenwood. “He plays dumb and the clown to see how evil Esme has become.  When he senses that she has the power to change, he uses all manner of tactics — sympathy, joy, sadness, and anger — to push her closer to transformation.”

As for the Holly King, that character is described thus in the dramaturgy guide Ellenwood provided:

Santa and goat

[Source: Wikimedia Commons]

In a literal sense, [he] is one half of the vegetation or Green God. As such, he is a force of nature, and in a cyclical battle with the Lord of Summer, the Oak King. Their story is ancient, but is centrally presented in “Sir Gawain and the Green Knight.” He is the Lord of Winter, the bringer of joy in the dark, the protector of life in the bleak winter. He is also an amalgamation of all the proto-Santas in existence. His magical tool is the cornucopia, a magical horn that contains everything one could wish for.  It also links him to the horned beasts, like the goat for the Lord of Misrule.

Finally, there is the Dark Goddess, who is described as the “lady of fate, time, death, and the afterlife. She is the catalyst for karma, and the potential for regeneration.” The version used is inspired by the Norse goddess Hel, or Hela.

Already sold-out, the play’s the limited three-day performance is scheduled for this weekend at the Lincoln Loft. For those who don’t have tickets, the troupe does expect “A Midwinter’s Mummers Tale” to become an annual tradition. Those Pagans who will be attending are encouraged to write a review to share the magic as best they can.

Pagan Community Notes is a companion to my usual Pagan News of Note, a new series more focused on news originating from within the Pagan community. I want to reinforce the idea that what happens to and within our organizations, groups, and events is news, and news-worthy. My hope is that more individuals, especially those working within Pagan organizations, get into the habit of sharing their news with the world. So lets get started!

The Bonewits Papers: On their official Facebook page, Isaac and Phaedra Bonewits have announced that Isaac’s personal papers will be donated to the American Religions Collection at the library at University of California, Santa Barbara.

“It’s been a rough week, but we’d like to share one piece of good news. Isaac’s personal papers will be going to the American Religions Collection at the library at University of California, Santa Barbara. So all you researchers will be able to rummage through his stuff :-)”

Bonewits has been, and continues to be, an influential author, ritualist, theologian and thinker within modern Paganism. It is heartening to know that as he continues to struggle with cancer, his rich legacy will live on for future generations to benefit from. For those who’d like to support Isaac and Phaedra during this trial, you can still donate to offset their mounting medical bills.

Pagan Pacifists Speak: A month ago I announced a new initiative, the Voices of Pagan Pacifism project, and now their first issue of interviews, essays and articles has been released.

“Part monthly newsletter, part educational archive, part resource directory, the VoPP project hopes to further the causes of peace, nonviolence, social justice, ecological balance and creative living. By providing a forum for conversation and connection, VoPP seeks to dispel misconceptions about the philosophy of pacifism and the spiritual traditions of modern Paganism. To encourage Pagans and non-Pagans, pacifists and non-pacifists alike in pursuing the challenging work of confronting and engaging authentically with that place in all of our lives where the political meets the spiritual, and both are transformed.”

Contributions include an interview with Dana Rose, an article on pacifism in ancient Greece by Jeff Lilly, a meditation from Alison Shaffer, and more. This looks like a strong start to the project, and I look forward to many more issues in the future.

Exploring Pagan Theology: The Pagan Portal at Patheos has posted three new essays exploring Pagan (poly)theology from different angles. First, portal manager Star Foster looks at the challenges of discussing and exploring theology in a pluralistic (and polytheistic) manner. Then, Alison Shaffer examines the problems of relating to the gods through an American capitalist framework. Finally, P. Sufenas Virius Lupus (boy that name sounds familiar) discusses syncretism, Process Theology, and “polyamorotheism”.

“The insurmountable divide that people put between humans and gods in terms of our ability to understand them (e.g., “the Gods’ ways are not our ways” — a passage here paraphrased from the Hebrew Bible!), and of our abilities to communicate and negotiate with them, therefore, is not necessarily in operation. The gods may have a great deal more power, or knowledge, or freedom due to their position and their conditions of existence, but if they cannot be understood, communicated with, or related to, then the entire enterprise of religion and spirituality is useless entirely.”

All are well worth the reading, and should provide some food for thought (and discussion). Kudos to Star Foster and for working to bring us quality Pagan content at this multi-faith religion site.

AREN’s Action: The latest issue of the Alternative Religions Education Network’s (AREN) newsletter, ACTION, is now out, and features a wealth of interesting interviews. This includes Selena Fox, Brian Ewing of the Pagan Pride Project, and Cathryn Platine of the Maetreum of Cybele.

“Throughout this mess the “reasons” for denial have been almost impossible to pin down. Apparently the Town attorney is under the mistaken impression that I am the religion and my not living on the property for a short time is significant. He also has argued in his legal opinion that the fact we have always done charitable work, even before formal incorporation, housing women in need is some sort of proof of not being an exclusive religious property which is absurd given that the New York tax law covering mandated exempt classes is quite clear that charitable work, education and other activities are all equal and any two or more activities on the property are still in the mandated exempt class.”

Christopher Blackwell at ACTION is like a Pagan interviewing machine! Seriously, his efforts really do deserve more attention, and I hope that the ACTION archives can be saved for posterity since they provide such a fascinating snapshot of modern Paganism in the last decade.

Finding Eleusis at Fringe: The Chicago-based Pagan/magical performance troupe Terra Mysterium will be performing their new Fall show “Finding Eleusis”, an urban and modern take on the Eleusianian Mysteries, at the Chicago Fringe Festival September 1-5th. Here’s a clip from their previous show, “Professor Marius Mandragore’s Salon Symposium regarding Spirits, Spells, and Eldritch Craft”.

If you’re going to be in the Chicago area, you can buy tickets for the performances now. I wish I could afford to jet-set to the Midwest and catch this show!

That’s all I have for now, have a great day!

Back in 2008 I reported on the innovative theater company, The Motion Group, and their efforts to put together a stage musical of the classic 1973 film “The Wicker Man”. While they’ve only sold about half of the “shares” they made available to help fund the project, it looks like the ambitious play is hitting the stage in Scotland this August.

In the woods there grew a tree…

“Previews, opening and tour all coming into shape…. Previews at the Brunton Theatre in Musselburgh: 4th and 5th August. Previews at the Pleasance Two in Edinburgh: 7th, 8th and 9th August – 11pm – 12.30am Run at the Pleasance Two in Edinburgh: 10th – 31st August (apart from the 18th) – 11pm – 12.30am Then Perth Rep, Eden Court in Inverness and the Glasgow Citizens Theatre in September and October….”

If you want to see the previews, you have to buy a “share” of the play, but tickets for the Edinburgh performances are on sale now. I can only hope, that if this adaptation is successful, it will end up in America someday. In the meantime, I urge my UK readers to catch the show, and tell me how it was.