I’ll begin with three admissions on my behalf: First of all, I don’t consider myself to be particularly well-versed in English poetry, not least because I’m a citizen of neither the United Kingdom nor the United States – or of any former British colony. I’m better suited to speak about my country’s poetry, with which I am much better familiarised. Second, I’m not well-versed in classical music – in fact, classical music is not something I go out of my way to listen to; my tastes in music are usually far more contemporary and, if you like, more pedestrian than that. Third, I’m not a particularly religious person, although the writings of the Scriptures are not alien to me.
This post concerns the Basilique Performing Arts Company’s show “Paradise Lost in Second Life“, which will premiere on Saturday, April 5th 2014, at 1PM SLT; an invitation-only Press show will take place on Saturday, March 29th at 1PM SLT, and I had the great honour of having been invited to attend and watch the dress rehearsal on Wednesday, March 27th. The show is extremely ambitious and highly challenging, from a technical and artistic standpoint. It is a ticketed event, and there will be twelve performances, each with an audience of up to forty spectators. Tickets can be purchased on the marketplace for L$1000 each, while you can see the performance schedule in this explanatory post by Canary Beck. However, before I tell you more about the show itself, I will need to write a few words about its subject matter, John Milton’s epic poem “Paradise Lost“.
An introduction to the Poem
For a long time, I would hear and even use the phrase “Paradise Lost” without knowing where it came from – it was only fairly recently that I began to understand its origins. Such is the extent to which Paradise Lost, John Milton’s epic poem that was first published in 1667, has become ingrained not only in English culture, but also in the English language itself. For its time, the poem carried forward-looking, novel ideas and concepts that led many of Milton’s contemporaries to label him a radical: The ideas he expressed w.r.t. marriage, for instance, as shown in his depiction of Adam and Eve’s relationship; or his extremely strict views on idolatry, which led him to also reject the idea of Dei Gratia monarchy.
Milton’s portrayal of the poem’s characters also had a very strong impact on English storytelling: Satan, the first major character that the poem introduces to the reader, was the most beautiful of all Heaven’s angels and is portrayed as a tragic figure who describes himself with the famous line “Better to reign in Hell than serve in Heaven.” His failed rebellion against God for control of Heaven, stemming from his unwillingness to be a subordinate to God and his Son, claiming that angels are “self-begot, self-raised” and thus God is not entitled to rule over them as their creator. Milton portrays Satan as a very arrogant, but also powerful and charismatic character, with a formidable ability to persuade others to do his bidding. Besides his (true to the religious description) cunning and deceptive character, he is able to persuade the angels that followed him to continue their rebellion against God, despite their defeat in the Angelic War. According to Satan, God is a tyrannic ruler and angels ought to rule as gods.
There are parallels that can be drawn between Milton’s Satan and the tragic heroes of ancient Greek drama, but Satan’s hubris makes the behaviours of Greek tragic heroes that trigger the dramatic events pale in comparison. On some occasions in the poem, he seems to play the narrative role of the anti-hero, but it is always clear, at least to me, that he is really the narration’s antagonist. Regardless of this, though, his role has been discussed quite vigorously. For instance, C.S. Lewis sees Paradise Lost as a genuine Christian morality tale, while William Empson and other critics see an ambiguity in Milton’s complex characterisation of Satan.
Milton’s depiction of Satan has been more than a tad influential in the way antagonists and forces of evil were portrayed in later works; Laskya Claren describes him as a figure of “heroic evil”, and this description is not lost on me. I am certain, for example, that the way Satan is characterised in Paradise Lost has influenced the portrayal of Morgoth (initially called Melkor) in John Ronald Reuel Tolkien’s Silmarillion; able to disguise himself as a charismatic, attractive gift-bearer and tutor, capable of persuading Men and Elves to do his bidding against the will of Eru Ilúvatar, against whom he rebelled in Ainulindalë. On the other hand, Sauron from Lord of The Rings was, despite his might, an inferior copy and a one-dimensional shadow of his satanic master, made of pure evil and darkness, with no features that could make him even mildly attractive – in contrast to both Milton’s Satan and Morgoth, who have the twisted, destructive charm of a sociopath. Another author whose work has been influenced by Paradise Lost is Salman Rushdie, whose controversial novel The Satanic Verses adapted important motifs and plot elements from Milton’s poem, including a “fall”, followed by a transformation.
One must also note the nature of the relationship between Adam and Eve and their temptation and fall: their tale is a domestic one and differs vastly from the biblical account, which set the “dictated by God” tone for the way Abrahamic religions viewed womanhood: In the biblical narration, Adam was innocent and goaded into sinning against God by Eve, who had been deceived by Satan. Ever since then, all three Abrahamic religions viewed women as inherently wicked, foolish and inferior to men in every way – thus, they must be kept under the rule of the Man, to whom they must belong as property. Of course, Judaism was hardly original in this, as the Torah’s unknown authors were merely reflecting and sanctifying the predominant views of patriarchal societies. Milton’s narration, on the other hand, shows us Adam and Eve as having a complete relationship while still being without sin. They are also portrayed as having their own personalities and passions. In a further departure from the biblical narration, Adam is not portrayed as having been deceived by Eve; instead, when she relates to him what persuaded her to eat from the forbidden tree, “at first amaz’d, but perceiving her lost, resolves through vehemence of love to perish with her; and extenuating the trespass, eats also of the Fruit“. He knowingly chooses to commit the same sin as Eve, fully aware that what he is doing is wrong and a transgression against God, with his thought not clouded by Satan’s wiles. He declares to Eve that, since she was made from his flesh, they are bound to each other and, therefore, if she dies, so must he. With this, Milton delivers a triple blow to the “orthodox” description of the Original Sin and subsequent religious and societal view of the two sexes’ relationship:
- He absolves Eve (and, with her, all women) of the stigma that she deceived Adam and is thus (and, along her, all women) the source of expulsion from Paradise and humankind’s subsequent woes.
- He elevates Adam from the status of the gullible man that was deceived by Eve to that of a hero who knows that he will be lost, yet chooses to be lost, together with the woman he loves.
- By removing the excuse of “having been deceived by Eve” from Adam and portraying him as knowingly choosing to commit the same sin as she did, he places on Adam (and, with him, on all men) at least the same degree of responsibility for humankind’s expulsion from Paradise and even shows him to be a greater sinner than Eve, because Eve was deceived by the Serpent that preyed upon her vanity, whereas Adam knew that what he was doing was wrong, yet chose to do it.
After Adam and Eve committed the Original Sin, they had lustful, passionate sex, and Adam was convinced that Eve was right in thinking that eating the fruit would benefit them. Shortly thereafter, though, they fell asleep and their sleep was troubled with terrible nightmares. When they awoke, they felt guilt and shame for the first time in their lives. It was then that they both realised how terrible and grave their transgression was, and the harmony of their relationship was marred for the first time by mutual blaming for their situation.
In a further, perhaps even more astonishing, departure from the biblical account, it is because of Eve’s pleas that the two are reconciled and, more importantly, whereas in the Genesis they try to hide from God, it is Eve that convinces Adam that they should own up and beg for forgiveness; and forgiven they were, although they still were expelled from Paradise. Yet, unlike what is written in Genesis, God placed no curse on them. In fact, the Son tells God that their prayers of contrition and repentance are sweeter than any gift Adam could have grown and offered, even before sinning.