Having fallen into the clutches of sportscasters, marketers, and those who post zingers online, the word “epic” is going slack and baggy, like “ironic” before it. There’s something especially nasty and small about the buzzer-like phrase “epic fail.” Its hostility to the possibility of saying or doing anything poetic or meaningful deflates the very idea of the epic — which is, very crudely defined, a long narrative in which characters, action, themes, tradition, and language are all treated in a heroic, exalted style. Everything from paint-by-numbers superhero movies to college basketball matchups is pimped as “epic” these days, but should anyone attempt actual epic of the “Sing in me, O Muse” variety, the self-appointed anti-epic police will rush to sound the buzzer and deliver the stock verdict of our time: lol you suck epic fail.
But epic is resilient; it’s been fighting back all over the Boston area this spring. “An Iliad,” a widely lauded one-man riff on Homer’s poem starring Denis O’Hare, recently completed its run at the Paramount downtown. “Beowulf: A Thousand Years of Baggage,” a rollicking “songplay” based on the Old English poem, just completed its run at Oberon, American Repertory Theater’s club venue in Cambridge. And Brookline’s PALS Children’s Chorus recently staged Raoul Gehringer’s children’s opera, “The Tale of Moby Dick,” which was the most ambitious and perhaps the most affecting of the three productions — and, not coincidentally, the one that reached most earnestly for the feel of epic.
There are stricter and looser definitions of epic, but “The Iliad” and “Beowulf” qualify by even the narrowest reckoning. And if any novel qualifies as an epic, it’s Melville’s “Moby-Dick.” All three are also classics in the sense that they’re living literature, constantly given new resonances by the succession of historical moments in which they are read.
“An Iliad,” staged with Beckett-like spareness, played up the continuing timeliness of Homer’s portrait of unquenchable rage by citing a long list of wars throughout history, and by merging the original’s catalogue of the Achaeans’ ships with a roll call of American places from which young men and women have been going off to fight in Iraq and Afghanistan. The Brechtian staging of “Beowulf” played on the notion of epic hero as rock star, a befuddled celebrity going through familiar paces for an audience that already knows his story and can’t wait to take him apart. Both productions were well-executed and enjoyable (and mead was served at performances of “Beowulf,” which always helps), but neither update tried for an earthshakingly fresh take on the original. And both were intimate stagings, diffident about scale.
The wildly ambitious production of “The Tale of Moby Dick,” by contrast, went for it all in an unironic way that children are perhaps best equipped to attempt. Gehringer’s music is melodic but also tonally and rhythmically challenging to sing —
That happy ending came as a shock, since it’s essential to Melville’s tale that Captain Ahab takes his ship and crew down with him and only Ishmael survives, but I was willing to regard this major alteration as just one more aspect of the necessary process of contemporary performers taking on an epic, a classic, and giving it new life by making it their own.Carlo Rotella is director of American studies at Boston College. His latest book is “Playing in Time: Essays, Profiles, and Other True Stories.’’