Paradise Lost in Second Life: Dress rehearsal and some thoughts

Poster for Paradise Lost in Second Life; premieres on April 5th, 2014.

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.

Gustave Doré, Depiction of Satan, the antagonist of John Milton’s Paradise Lost c. 1866. Image: Wikipedia

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.

Paradise Lost in political, ideological and religious context

John Milton - From a miniature by Fairthorne, painted in 1667. Image: Project Gutenberg

John Milton – From a miniature by Fairthorne, painted in 1667. Image: Project Gutenberg

But what exactly is Paradise Lost? And who was John Milton, and why did he write it? Paradise Lost is an epic poem, first published in 1667 and republished, in lengthened (twelve “Books”, following the example of Virgil’s Aeneid) form in 1674. It is considered to be the major work of John Milton, a poet, polemicist, intellectual and civil servant for Oliver Cromwell’s theocratic Commonwealth of England.

His works, both poetry and prose, show deep personal and political convictions, a passion for freedom and self-determination, and allow us to see his views on the social and political matters of his turbulent days. He wrote in English, Latin, Greek and Italian and became internationally famous during his lifetime. Another famous work of his was the Areopagitica (full title: Areopagitica; A speech of Mr. John Milton for the Liberty of Unlicenc’d Printing, to the Parlament of England), a 1644 prose polemical tract condemning the practice of pre-publication censorship, is considered to be one of history’s most influential and eloquent defences of free speech and press freedom, both of which are increasingly under attack nowadays.

Pre-Commonwealth, Milton’s thought was viewed as dangerously radical, if not downright heretical. But, under Cromwell’s rule, there was a shift in accepted attitudes in government, which enabled him to be appointed as a civil servant – he even acted as an official spokesman in some of his publications. Milton was a staunch republican, and his political leanings made sure that a great deal of what has been written about him in later years was influenced (to say the least) by partisanship. His political thought was not unaffected by his religious views; as a matter of fact, his religious and political ideas were so tightly interwoven that it becomes almost impossible to separate Milton the political ideologist from Milton the religious intellectual.

As mentioned earlier, Milton was very committed to republicanism. His views prompted James Tully to write about Milton in his 1993 work “An Approach to Political Philosophy: Locke in Contexts“:

“… with Locke as with Milton, republican and contraction conceptions of political freedom join hands in common opposition to the disengaged and passive subjection offered by absolutists such as Hobbes and Robert Filmer.”

Religion-wise, Milton’s views were a mixture of many heterodox ideas. While broadly protestant, he rejected the idea of the Trinity, favouring the Arian notion of the Son being subordinate to the Father. In his 1641 treatise Of Reformation, he expressed his disapproval of Catholicism and episcopacy – and, consistently with his puritanical preference for Old Testament imagery, he presented Rome as a contemporary Babylon and bishops as Egyptian taskmasters.

The parliamentary victory in the English Civil War prompted Milton to write in defence of the republican principles that the Commonwealth represented. In The Tenure of Kings and Magistrates (1649), he defended popular government and implicitly sanctioned King Charles I’s execution. His political reputation was such that he was appointed Secretary for Foreign Tongues by the Council of State in March 1649. Although his main job was to compose the English Republic’s foreign correspondence in Latin, he was also called upon to write propagandistic texts for the regime and even serve as a censor.

Throughout the Interregnum years, Milton presented England, emancipated from the “ungodly” monarchy, as an elect nation similar to the biblical presentation of Israel, and its leader, Oliver Cromwell, as a contemporary Moses. He hoped or believed that the Commonwealth could elevate England to the status of a truly godly state.

This, however, was not meant to be. The fall of the Commonwealth and the Restoration of the Stuart monarchy in 1660 steered his poetic work in a new direction. In Paradise Lost, which Milton wrote to “justify the ways of God to men”, its sequel Paradise Regained, and in Samson Agonistes, he laments the end of the godly Commonwealth. The Garden of Eden, as depicted in Paradise Lost, reflects Milton’s view of England’s Fall from Grace – as he viewed the Restoration. And Samson’s blindness and captivity, mirroring Milton’s own blindness, as he had lost his sight in the later years of his life, may be viewed as a metaphor for England’s blind acceptance of Charles II as king.

Getting back to Paradise Lost, famous English writer and critic Samuel Johnson wrote in “Lives of the English Poets” that Paradise Lost demonstrates Milton’s “peculiar power to astonish” and that “[Milton] seems to have been well acquainted with his own genius, and to know what it was that Nature had bestowed upon him more bountifully than upon others: the power of displaying the vast, illuminating the splendid, enforcing the awful, darkening the gloomy, and aggravating the dreadful.” However, the Angelic War as depicted in Paradise Lost is a point of contention. How and why did a defender of regicide, a staunch republican, choose a theme that dictated a benevolent depiction of monarchical authority? Milton scholar John Leonard writes in his introduction to a 2000 Penguin edition of Paradise Lost:

Paradise Lost is, among other things, a poem about civil war. Satan raises ‘impious war in Heav’n’ (i 43) by leading a third of the angels in revolt against God. The term ‘impious war’. . .implies that civil war is impious. But Milton applauded the English people for having the courage to depose and execute King Charles I. In his poem, however, he takes the side of ‘Heav’n’s awful Monarch’ (iv 960). Critics have long wrestled with the question of why an antimonarchist and defender of regicide should have chosen a subject that obliged him to defend monarchical authority.

This sentiment, however, is not shared by the editors of the Poetry Foundation, who, on their biography of John Milton, argue that his criticism of monarchy was directed specifically at the Stuarts and not at monarchy as a political system per se. C.S. Lewis also shares this view, arguing that there is no contradiction in Milton’s position in the poem as – according to Lewis – “Milton believed that God was his ‘natural superior’ and that Charles Stuart was not.”

According to literary critic William Empson, “Milton deserves credit for making God wicked, since the God of Christianity is ‘a wicked God.'” In The Marriage of Heaven and Hell (1793), the poet William Blake wrote “The reason Milton wrote in fetters when he wrote of Angels & God, and at liberty when of Devils & Hell, is because he was a true Poet and of the Devil’s party without knowing it.”, depicting the way 18th- and 19th- century English Romantic poets viewed Milton – a view that was aptly demonstrated by Empson. But is that all there is to Milton, or is Empson’s interpretation more complex? Leonard argues that “Empson never denies that Satan’s plan is wicked. What he does deny is that God is innocent of its wickedness: ‘Milton steadily drives home that the inmost counsel of God was the Fortunate Fall of man; however wicked Satan’s plan may be, it is God’s plan too [since God in Paradise Lost is depicted as being both omniscient and omnipotent].'”

Paradise Lost in Second Life – the play

Adapting such a long (over ten thousand verses) poem for the theatre presents a serious challenge, and even more so on a virtual world platform like Second Life, where lag (whatever its cause: badly-written scripts, complex objects and high-resolution textures on the region and the neighbouring ones, computer configuration isses, network issues) is always a serious cause of concern and can ruin one’s enjoyment of an event. But there are other areas of concern besides lag: Coordination of the movements of the actors’ avatars through LSL scripting, making custom props and animations, synchronisation of the dialogues…

Certainly, Harvey (Harvey Crabsticks) and Becky (Canary Beck) of The Basilique Performing Arts Company are not people who shy away from a challenge, and this is why they proceeded with this huge project. Together with their team, they worked very hard on this ambitious adaptation of Milton’s epic, choreographing it in fourteen movements, underlined by Mozart’s Requiem.

Sian Pearl’s custom angel and demon audience avatars for Paradise Lost.

As I mentioned earlier, on Wednesday I had the honour of attending and watching the show’s dress rehearsal and, despite my hardware’s limitations, the experience was nothing short of astonishing. Great attention to detail was evident everywhere: Choreography, scenery, props, costumes… Everything. They even went as far as to commission Sian Pearl, a very talented content creator (and good friend of mine) to design custom angel/demon avatars for the audience. However, I would rather restrain myself from discussing specific topics pertaining to how the plot was adapted, or to technicalities that only people who have experience with organising and preparing theatrical works would understand. For a more in-depth analysis, I recommend that you read this post by Inara Pey, where you can gain some insight on the technical challenges faced by Becky and Harvey. Sadly, although I fully intended to write a post on the preparation and the technical side of Paradise Lost, this was not meant to be; although both I and Inara were there at Becky and Harvey’s workshop where everything was being prepared, choreographed and scripted, she chose to edit me out of the photos she included in her post. So, I ended up ditching my own post, which I’d been working on.

Second Life turns eleven years old this June, and it has been much-maligned, fairly or unfairly, for all sorts of reasons: from the composition and behaviour of its community to its technical issues and limitations. However, in my years of being in it, I have witnessed great technical and technological advances, and Second Life today doesn’t look like Second Life of 2006 at all. In this context, Paradise Lost in Second Life is not only (perhaps) the most important and ambitious artistic event of the entire metaverse for 2014, but also a magnificent display of what can be achieved within the framework of this platform when creative, skilled, talented people with exquisite taste like Becky and Harvey put their hearts and souls into such an undertaking.

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Mona

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Full disclosure statement: I have been selected to be among the official bloggers for the Paradise Lost in Second Life production. I receive no recompense whatsoever for my blogging work; I cover the event because I believe in the talents and skills of everyone at the Basilique Performing Arts Company, because I liked the concept and because I want to help, with whatever powers I have, to show the creative and artistic potential of virtual worlds.

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Shortlink: http://wp.me/p2pUmX-t5

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9 thoughts on “Paradise Lost in Second Life: Dress rehearsal and some thoughts

    1. I’m in the process of writing it, but I’ll put that one out after the official premiere, which I will attend. I was tempted to write about the press preview (which also served as a test where several technical issues were spotted for ironing out), but I don’t want to give spoilers. So, yes, you can expect a review. Perhaps this review will also be combined with a review of something else that is related to this show and the people behind it. 😉

  1. Excellent Mona.
    I look forward to your review, I and a friend are attending April 12th, we are looking forward too, perhaps if a huge success they may extend the season.

  2. Thank you for this very thorough and well researched post about the poet and poetry behind Paradise Lost in Second Life. From the very first planning stages of this production, I’ve been humbly reminded of the cleverness, power and influence of this stunning work of literature. I can only hope to have even mildly done it justice with our efforts. I look forward to your review!

    1. Thank you for your kind words, Becky. I’m in the process of writing a review this week and expect to make the deadline. My only regret is that my laptop has aged in a not exactly graceful manner and so I don’t have photographic material that does the show justice. As a poem, Paradise Lost is magnificent and, even with all of its political connotations, it’s groundbreaking in many ways that are not always easily visible at first sight.

  3. Reblogged this on The Basilique and commented:
    Mona Eberhardt has outdone herself with this very well researched and presented post, focusing on the poet and poem behind Paradise Lost in Second Life.

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