Hiawatha by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, adapted by Pauline Harris

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Hiawatha by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, adapted and directed by Pauline Harris.  Perf. Henry Goodman, Neet Mohan, Ramon Tikaram.  BBC Radio 4, 24 Jan. 2015.  BBCiPlayer to 23 Feb. 2015.


Constructed as an epic narrative with distinct links to earlier epics such as Paradise Lost and The Faerie Queene, Hiawatha describes the life and death of the eponymous central character (Neet Mohan) and his love-affair with Minniehaha (Harriet Judd). 


In Pauline Harris’s enthralling adaptation, the story was told by a Narrator (Henry Goodman) who seemed to have an instinctive understanding of Longfellow’s purpose to create a story that was not only exciting in itself, but rendered listeners aware of the potential of language to create atmosphere through sound as well as meaning.  The regular use of alliteration and assonance drew us into a particular environment in which dreams and ‘realities’ were inextricable.  This might sound rather pretentious, but seemed especially suitable for a production of a poem centering on Native American mythology, wherein the borders between ‘life’ and ‘death,’ gods and mortals were inextricable.  Hiawatha endured various trials and tribulations; like any epic hero, his mettle was being continually tested.  But it seemed that he was always protected, not only by the community he inhabited, but by the rituals they performed.  Their act of worship was not only a paean of praise to God, but a means of drawing people together, making them aware that there was no such thing as an “individual.”  We all inhabit one world: the divisions between ‘life’ and ‘death’ are human inventions bearing little or no relevance to divine realities.


Harris’s production emphasized the oneness of this world through various sonic techniques – for example, the use of overlapping voices or echoes to emphasize continuity.  The production avoided the traditional radio drama structure of a series of conversations delivered by actors – statements and replies – and instead emphasized the lingering nature of all the voices.  Olly Fox’s atmospheric music helped to reinforce this mood, with its blend of electronic melodies and strings.


As Hiawatha unfolded, we became more and more aware that we were not listening to a drama, with a clearly defined beginning, middle and an end.  Rather we were being introduced into a mythopoeic world, one where Hiawatha – like everyone who peopled it – was considered no more or less important than anyone else.  Gods and human beings were indivisible; they were all subject to similar processes of change (but not decay).  Hiawatha’s death provided a cause for celebration, a passing from one world to another, rather than an occasion for mourning.


The only emotion one might have felt as the drama ended was one of regret; that Native American mythology should have been so effectively suppressed by European settlers.  Hiawatha reminded us of the importance of recognizing and understanding other cultural constructions of humanity, that have sustained peoples over centuries without any interference from western-originated ideas of enlightenment and progress.