There are two characters whom Grendel holds in particular contempt — for reasons, to Grendel’s way of thinking, that are very much connected. The first is the hero Unferth (Joel McHale), who comes to Grendel’s cave to slay him or die, for a lofty purpose which, like all higher purposes, Grendel finds laughable. In his cruelest humiliation of Unferth, Grendel declines to kill him, unceremoniously dumping him back on his own doorstep, where he’ll babble away the rest of his life, a broken man.
Grendel has an even more virulent beef against the local balladeer and storyteller known as the Shaper (Scott Tuomey), who croons to New Age–y accompaniment like a cross between Bob Dylan and Gil Scott-Heron. The Shaper is a dream-weaver, a poet, a spinner of lies who can take the chaos of existence and contrive it into “In the beginning, God created the Heaven and the Earth.” What heaven? What God? Grendel rages. And yet, the Shaper’s songs are so seductive, even to the monster, no wonder they inspire men to die fruitlessly in battles, to swim in rivers of blood. That art is a tool for warmongers intent upon the preservation of society’s entrenched values is the play’s most subversive notion. (This should give pause to liberal arts institutions: Jesse Helms, Rudy Giuliani et al. may, after all, be overstating art’s danger.)
Grendel’s story is, in the end, an attack upon Romanticism, presented as a somewhat Romantic yarn about an outcast monster who scores a good many rhetorical points, but also happens to eat people. He must, like King Kong, eventually perish. The use of dialogue, enhancing emotional connections, would belie the purpose of this adaptation. No thank you, says Mullin, who knows exactly what he’s doing. Waging war against sentimentality, his play is about the very constructions of words, and stories, and how they work both to reveal truths and sustain lies.