Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, adapted and directed by Pauline Harris. Perf. Henry
Goodman, Neet Mohan, Ramon Tikaram. BBC Radio 4, 24 Jan. 2015. BBCiPlayer http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b0501k2f
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
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.
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
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.