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Staging Paradise Lost: a workshopped reading of the text

Written by Dr. Caroline Spearing reviews |

ICS Research Associate Dr. Caroline Spearing reviews a reading of Milton’s Paradise Lost which took place at the Sam Wanamaker Playhouse at Shakespeare’s Globe on May 14th 2018. The event was a Research in Action Event supported by the UCL Arts and Humanities Dean’s Strategic Fund.

Classicists tend to see Milton as the English Virgil, struggling to accommodate the measures and diction of his predecessor to the demands of vernacular epic just as Virgil himself did with Homer. For the even more select band of neo-Latinists – among whom I am bold to number myself –  Milton is a minor Latin poet whose efforts in the language, at least in Dr. Johnson’s view, fall short in originality and modernity of those of his contemporary Abraham Cowley.

The team who staged Paradise Lost at the Sam Wanamaker Playhouse on May 14th, however, set the work squarely in its English context. Directors Dr. Farah Karim-Cooper and Dr. Emma Whipday explained their goal of interrogating the performance value of non-dramatic poetry and, in particular, considering the text in terms of its Shakespearean intertextuality. Virgil was nowhere to be found. Nor was Cowley.

This was not the first attempt to dramatise Milton’s epic. Michael Symmons Roberts’ two-part adaptation, starring Ian McKellen and Frances Barber, was broadcast by BBC Radio 4 in March this year; in 2015, New College Chapel staged a costumed reading over three nights; 2004 saw two separate productions, in Bristol and Northampton. Back in 1674 John Dryden valiantly attempted a stage adaptation snappily entitled The State of Innocence and the Fall of Man. Milton himself made his first attempt on the story of the Fall in the form of an unfinished drama called, in one of his less successful neologisms, Adam Unparadised.

William Blake, ‘The Casting of the Rebel Angels into Hell’ (1808): illustration to Paradise Lost. Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.
William Blake, ‘The Casting of the Rebel Angels into Hell’ (1808): illustration to Paradise Lost. Imag. courtesy of Wikimedia

And yet the enterprise is beset by difficulties. The first is a simple one of length: the 12,000 lines of Milton’s epic need to be reduced to something acceptable to the attention spans of modern audiences – in this case, around 2,000. Then there is the issue of staging, with the director needing to represent not only Heaven, Hell and Eden, but also such set-pieces as Satan’s Disney-esque flight through the cosmos (not to mention his momentary metamorphosis into a cormorant) and the hordes of rebellious angels careering lemming-like over the edge of Heaven (this last pragmatically cut by the adaptor, Dr. Eric Langley). The audience was encouraged to picture the cosmos in the three-tier space of the candle-lit Wanamaker playhouse, its ceiling helpfully embellished with celestial paintings, its pit offering an infernal space well below the level of the stage.

More serious is the challenge of Milton’s poetry itself, the leisurely periods and Latinate syntax making considerable demands on the listener. As one of the actors observed in the Q and A that followed the performance, the contrast with the direct and urgent communication of Shakespearean blank verse could not be greater. When the rich imagery and extended similes (many cut) of Milton’s text are added to the mix, the result is certainly a powerful experience for the listener, but not necessarily a dramatic one for the spectator. Only towards the end, when Adam and Eve (played beautifully by Tok Stephen and Aruhan Galieva) exchanged their anger for sorrowful tenderness, did the production take on a dramatic vigour independent of the glorious euphony of the text.

Ultimately, however, any staging of  Paradise Lost must stand or fall on its attempts to address the vast distance between Milton and a modern audience. For Milton and his contemporaries, Hell was a real place, and one where real people stood a real chance of ending up; Sin was an absolute presence; Death, as Horace puts it, always sitting behind the horseman. Bitter and often violent dispute surrounded the nature of God, but his existence was never seriously in doubt. Paradise Lost’s story of human sin redeemed by the sacrifice of the Son of God was accepted as a fundamental truth. Chastity was an important virtue, lust a sin. And the inferiority of women to man, analogous to man’s inferiority to God, was taken as read.

William Blake, ‘The Temptation and Fall of Eve’ (1808): illustration to Paradise Lost. Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.
William Blake, ‘The Temptation and Fall of Eve’ (1808): illustration to Paradise Lost. Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

All this is markedly at odds with twenty-first century sensibilities. Many of those who frequent the Globe inhabit a secular world of moral and cultural relativism. There is little room in this world for the cosmic, for the heroic, for the divine – those key ingredients of classical epic. Audience laughter greeted the narrator who presented ‘hanging in a golden chain, / This pendant world’;  Eve’s apostrophe of Adam as her ‘guide / And head’ was met with similar amusement; even Adam failed to keep a straight face during a frenzied post-lapsarian coupling.

The adaptation, too, emphasised the human and personal at the expense of the divine and universal. The character of Raphael was completely excised, along with his narrative of the War in Heaven – thus at a stroke erasing the important parallels with Odysseus’ narrative in Homer and Aeneas’ in Virgil. Also missing was the Son, whose decisive role in the war prefigures his redemptive self-sacrifice. The vast Virgilian vista of imperium sine fine is closed down into a scene of domestic suffering.

And yet the production did engage with classical epic, in the form of Ovid’s Metamorphoses. Nowhere was this clearer than in Eve’s narrative of her creation, where, Narcissus-like, she gazed enraptured at her reflection in the water but, unlike her classical antecedent, was successfully enticed away by Adam’s ‘manly grace / And wisdom.’ Some recent work on classical intertextuality in Paradise Lost, notably by Mandy Green and Maggie Kilgour, has emphasised this Ovidian strain: here, it was Ovid’s deft irony, his knowing textuality, that came to the fore. For an audience unfazed by Sin and Hell, the production became an exploration not of humanity’s place in the cosmos but of its representation. Ovid exposes the surreal absurdity of traditional myth through the resolutely quotidian nature of his characters. In the same way, here we saw a Satan so lacking in bombast as to evoke nothing so strongly as a Lib Dem councillor deprived of his seat; an Adam and Eve reacting to the Fall with a petulant marital spat; and a rape of Persephone – extraordinarily – played for laughs. The wonderful economy and invention of Miltonian diction, the jolt with which we recognise how he has said something better than anyone else conceivably could, became an Ovidian delight in language for its own sake, a coruscating display of pyrotechnic cleverness.

In discussion with the audience following the show, the actors freely acknowledged how their performances had been shaped by the audience reaction, recognising the contribution of both actors and audience in generating the reading of the text. ‘This audience is smutty,’ remarked one actor, identifying a level of innuendo and double-entendre that had not been there in rehearsal. It is this demonstration of the power of an audience to privilege one reading over another – here, Ovid over Virgil – that is the experiment’s real legacy.