In the 1971 novel Grendel, by author John Gardner, readers experience the Old English poem Beowulf from a new perspective: Through the eyes of the monster.
It is a life of frustration for Grendel, a monster who wishes to connect with the humans he encounters, but is immediately ostracized.
From Nov. 7-10 at the Maxwell Theatre at Augusta University, Theatre AUG will present Grendel as adapted by students Kayla Johnson, Sabrina Nacci and Rachel Visintainer, along with their director, Dr. Melanie Kitchens O’Meara, an assistant professor of performance studies in the Department of Art and Design.
“I remember being in college and learning about performance studies and adapting literature and thinking, ‘One day, I will adapt Grendel,’” O’Meara said. “I loved the idea because when I was in high school and read Grendel, it was the first time that I really thought about the other’s perspective.”
As part of the Center for Undergraduate Research and Scholarship’s Summer Scholars Program at Augusta University, O’Meara worked with the three students to develop a play using Gardner’s novel.
In creating the play, it was important for the students to pay attention to the literature and respect the narrator’s voice in the story, she said.
O’Meara also felt that she had the right cast of talented actors to pull off the production because the students were passionate about the story.
“In reading Grendel, I was really taken by the book,” Visintainer said. “I absolutely loved it because it was so powerful and the sense of ‘the other’ became very real. So, our central goal was to maintain the narrator’s voice in adapting it to the stage.”
Innocence before evil
For their play based on Grendel, O’Meara and the students decided to use chamber theatre, a method of adapting literary works to the stage using a maximum amount of the work’s original text.
The group also agreed the narrator, Grendel the monster, should be played by multiple actors.
“We wanted to use chamber theatre to find a way to keep the voice of Grendel as the teller of the story, while also keeping the audience interested and invested in the literature,” Visintainer said. “What we really decided to do was to split Grendel, himself, up into multiple characters, so I actually play baby Grendel.”
Visintainer said her character represents the monster before he loses his innocence.
“I play both Grendel when he is younger, but also part of his innocent personality that sticks with him throughout most of the story,” she said. “Grendel actually becomes a monster due to people’s response to him. At least that’s how John Gardner paints it.”
“He was actually drawn to the people’s music and song and moved by poetry,” she added. “Grendel was going out there, thinking, ‘This is beautiful,’ but then, the people just start attacking him because he looks so weird. That’s kind of how the monster first starts in him.”
While Grendel is forced into self-isolation, he is still haunted by the beauty and creativity of the humans he encountered.
Augusta University student Edgar F. Miles plays the main role of Grendel the monster, who is tormented by the shadows and voices in his mind.
“Grendel is one of three monsters who Beowulf has to kill in the epic poem, Beowulf,” Miles explained. “In fact, Grendel is actually the first monster in English literature because he is the first monster to appear in the story.”
But Gardner’s version of the story truly captures Grendel’s perspective, Miles said.
“It’s beautifully poetic, dark and funny,” Miles said. “It’s really empathetic to Grendel. The story essentially points out that while Grendel, yes, is a monster because he eats people, he’s not the only monster. The people can be monsters, too.”
The monster is born
Actor Trenijah Griffin plays one of the shadows tormenting Grendel throughout the play.
“I am the voice in the back of his head,” Griffin said, laughing. “Grendel has to struggle with hearing all these voices and trying to figure out what he’s supposed to do. His head is so chaotic, so I love playing that. It brings out the crazy in me.”
The audience will also become a part of the inner struggle that is gripping Grendel, Visintainer said.
“In telling the story, we tried to create ways that the shadows and the different parts of Grendel interact with each other, and even with audience to a degree, in order to demonstrate Grendel’s mindset,” she said. “And Grendel changes a lot over the course of the story.”
In the play, his innocence is lost and the complete monster is born, she said.
“During the moment that Grendel really actively embraces his identity as a monster, my character, baby Grendel, is actually drowned by the other shadows,” Visintainer said. “So, that is symbolic of Grendel choosing to let the innocent part of him die and, in fact, murdering that part of him in order to fully embrace the monster inside of him.”
As the group was adapting Grendel into a play, O’Meara felt it was important to capture the emotions and turmoil of the monster.
“It could easily be a boring show if we had one Grendel standing on stage, just talking,” O’Meara said. “Well, we don’t bore the audience. This show is very exciting and, I think, it’s surprising. It’s always shifting and changing. There is absolutely nothing boring about it.”
Tickets prices are below:
- General public: $10
Augusta University alumni: $7
Seniors (60+): $7
Children and students: $5
AU and EGSC faculty and staff: $5
AU and EGSC students: free with valid JagCard
- Theatre AUG’s production of Grendel is at 7:30 p.m. Thursday, Nov. 7, Friday, Nov. 8, and Saturday, Nov. 9, and 3 p.m. Sunday, Nov. 10, at the Maxwell Theatre.