Performing Medieval Narrative Today

A Video Showcase

Roland: Ballad of Roland and Oliver

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About the scene and clip:
“The Ballad of Roland and Oliver,” written by the performer, is a free adaptation of a passage in the The Song of Roland that emphasizes the terrible odds the French face as they go into battle against the Infidels. “The Ballad” evokes the traits that characterize Roland and Oliver—the one is bold, the other wise. The performer sings to music he composed, accompanying himself on the guitar. The audience increasingly joins in on the refrain.

About the work:
La Chanson de Roland (The Song of Roland) is one of the great masterpieces of French medieval literature. The earliest surviving version of this anonymous epic dates apparently from the late 11th century and is preserved in a famous manuscript now in the Bodleian Library at Oxford. This classic version—there were numerous others—is composed in laisses (or stanzas) of variable length with ten-syllable lines in assonance (the final vowel is the same within each laisse). Epics like the Roland were originally sung by jongleurs, often with vielle accompaniment. The Roland tells of the Emperor Charlemagne’s great struggle to conquer Spain from the Muslim Infidels. It recounts the betrayal of the French by the traitor, Ganelon, resulting in a great battle at Roncevaux. There, the French rearguard, led by Roland, defeats the Moors, but all the great French knights—the twelve peers—die. Charlemagne avenges the peers in two great battles, and Ganelon is punished. At the end, Charlemagne is called by the angel Gabriel to a new mission.

About the genre:
The epic is an ancient genre and is found in almost every culture. It is a long heroic narrative which tells of war and great deeds. Epics are generally composed in verse, and sung from memory or improvised in performance by professional performers with instrumental accompaniment. These narratives are created from traditional elements, commonly without recourse to writing, by poets whose names are often unknown to us. Among the famous traditional epics are the Iliad and the Odyssey, attributed to Homer; the Anglo-Saxon Beowulf; and the Old French Song of Roland. Many known poets adopt epic forms and themes for their literary verse (such as Virgil in his Aeneid).

About the edition/translation:
The Song of Roland, translated from the Old French by Dorothy L. Sayers, Penguin, 1957, laisses 81-87, pp. 91-94. French: La Chanson de Roland, ed. Ian Short, Paris, Lettres gothiques, 1990.

About the performer/ensemble:
Greg Powell is a Drama student in the Experimental Theatre Wing at New York University’s Tisch School of the Arts (2004).

About the production:
This performance was created for the course “Acting Medieval Literature,” taught by Prof. Timmie (E.B.) Vitz at New York University in spring 2004. It took place in an open class held at the Maison Française in March 1, 2004, and was videoed by NYU-TV.