Paradise Lost in Second Life: Pushing the artistic and technical envelope

The Fall

Contrary to what we have known from the Genesis, Milton does not portray Adam as 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 anyway.

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 cower and 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.

Is then Paradise Lost a piece of early feminist work, astonishingly written by a man? I think it would be unfair to judge Milton by modern standards. We can comfortably pontificate, having benefitted from centuries of philosophical, political and religious debate and scholarly study, as well as from decades of feminist thought and writing. Feminist thought, of course, did not exist in Milton’s age. So, to criticise him for not being an equal to the likes of Egyptian-American journalist Mona Eltahawy would be missing the point entirely.

Milton is not entirely free from the trappings of his age, and he also knew he was addressing an audience that was born and raised with the misogynist views that were considered normal back then. So, we see Adam being portrayed as intellectually superior to Eve – a nod to commonly accepted ideas of the time. Yet, we also see that Eve is intelligent, curious and seeking self-knowledge. Furthermore, it appears that Milton was not examining the story through Adam’s or Eve’s eyes exclusively, but rather through both characters’ eyes. In the eyes of Milton, husband and wife (Adam and Eve, in this case) depend on each other and can only thrive through their differences, traits and what each individual contributes to the relationship.

Paradise Lost in political, ideological and religious context

A few words about John Milton

 

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

John Milton – Miniature by Fairthorne (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.

The influence of John Milton’s world on Paradise Lost

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, in their biography of John Milton, argue that his criticism of monarchy was directed specifically at the Stuart dynasty 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].'”

Analysing Paradise Lost in Second Life

God creates Adam. Image courtesy of Canary Beck.

Adapting any large work to the limitations of a theatrical production always presents considerable challenges. Several works adapted to theatre feature multiple scenes, some of which can be quite complex or difficult to reproduce within the confines of a theatre. Then, there are aspects like effects, etc. Paradise Lost is no exception to this rule. It is a long (over ten thousand verses) poem written in blank verse (which Milton calls “heroic verse”, expressing his disdain for rhyme), and the descriptions of the scenes make it clear that a theatrical adaptation of it would be no mean feat at all, if the grandeur of the narration is to be maintained.

Short of an adequately high-budget cinematic production, complete with properly designed computer-generated effects, I can think of few options for such an undertaking. Theatrical adaptations would need to be similarly expensive, with a full array of foley effects. Then, there are the fully computerised options, one of which is Second Life. In spite of what this particular virtual world’s detractors may say, in its (nearly) eleven-year course it has come forward by leaps and bounds and offers excellent opportunities for artistic expression. One would only have to look at the number of artists who use Second Life as their creative medium, taking advantage of the opportunities provided therein. Sadly, I must go on record here for saying how disheartening – to say the least – it is to see that the Lab’s marketing department ignores this potential and opts to merely peddle Second Life as an IMVU-style meat market and dress-up application.

Paradise Lost in Second Life is, as I’ve said before, perhaps the most ambitious in-world theatrical production in the entire history of Second Life. Approximately one thousand hours have been spent on its production – from the creation of the sets and choreography, to the scripting of every capability that is needed to really make the piece come alive: bespoke RLV-controlled mesh angel/demon avatars for the audience, windlight control, even audience camera controls (during the three performances – dress rehearsal, press preview, and official premiere – I attended, this particular capability was under development).

The play is divided in three acts and fourteen movements – the movements are equal to the number of the movements of Mozart’s Requiem in D minor. It has forty-three roles, performed by eight players and, as one can imagine, coordination of everything is more than a tad tricky. I will, once again, refrain from giving spoilers regarding the poem’s plot. Instead, I will focus on certain aspects of the narration that have been noted and spoken about, as well as on aspects of the play and the production I could not help noticing.

It goes without saying that, in order to adapt the poem to what is essentially a dance performance, certain artistic licences had to be taken. The most characteristic one of all is the depiction of Lucifer/Satan as a woman – and it has been discussed quite a bit. It seems like an adoption of Tertullian‘s misogynistic rant in De Cultu Feminarum, section I.I, part 2:

Do you not know that you are Eve? The judgment of God upon this sex lives on in this age; therefore, necessarily the guilt should live on also. You are the gateway of the devil; you are the one who unseals the curse of that tree, and you are the first one to turn your back on the divine law; you are the one who persuaded him whom the devil was not capable of corrupting; you easily destroyed the image of God, Adam. Because of what you deserve, that is, death, even the Son of God had to die.” (trans. C.W. Marx)

I am not going to get into theological debates as to whether Tertullian’s rant is heretical or not, as he essentially (and in a most insolent manner) invalidates the Redemption that was granted to humankind by Jesus Christ’s sacrifice. This is not the place for it, after all. As said, in the play we see Lucifer, who becomes Satan, in female form: woman is not just “the gateway of the devil”; she is the devil. This is consistent with the way women were seen back then, and are still seen today by far too many people, and I have every reason to believe this was meant to be a statement, a depiction of prevailing societal perceptions in that era – and in this I concur with Inara Pey’s assessment. Also, the sexually-charged dances offered up by the female Satan to Eve and the Son of God seem like both a depiction of societal heteronormativity doctrines and a depiction of the then-prevailing ideas about sex, i.e. that sex is evil, sinful and leads to death and punishment.

<i>Satan, in the tree, watches Adam and Eve and plots revenge. Original image courtesy of Inara Pey.</i>

Satan, in the tree, watches Adam and Eve and plots revenge. Original image courtesy of Inara Pey.

Plus, as an artistic medium, these dances are convenient: To this reviewer, the sensual/quasi-sexual dance between Satan and Eve is an analogy of Satan’s argumentative eloquence and double-talk that lured Eve into her Fall, with deft body moves visualising Satan’s way with words. And the openly sexual dance Satan performed in an attempt to tempt the Son of God is, to me, akin to the vulgar ways in which power, wealth and privileges (which Satan promised to Jesus) corrupt even people we once thought to be fundamentally decent.

<i>Adam and Eve are driven from Paradise while the Son of God weeps. Original image courtesy of Inara Pey.</i>

Adam and Eve are driven from Paradise while the Son of God weeps. Original image courtesy of Inara Pey.

There are numerous touches in the play that show Becky and Harvey’s perception of Milton’s poem and their artistic flair: When Adam and Eve were driven from the Garden, it was a mutually tearful separation, with the Son of God weeping in sadness. In the Angelic War, a spectacular battle happening in front of, and above the audience, Archangel Michael – who also later shows Adam a vision of what is to be – is shown as a hooded, badass character that would not be out of place in a game like Assassin’s Creed.

<i>Adam (watching on the right) is shown a vision of Noah's Ark. Original image courtesy of Inara Pey.</i>

Adam (watching on the right) is shown a vision of Noah’s Ark. Original image courtesy of Inara Pey.

As I’ve written before, the audience is placed in the play – everything happens not only before you, but also around you. Before each act, the audience is informed by a very well-spoken voiceover by Becky of what will be shown and where they should look. This was meant as an aid for when audience camera control was still under development, but it also helps the spectator to understand the play and the poem. By placing the audience in the play and by controlling, via RLV, the appearance and dances of the audience’s avatars, the Basilique Performing Arts Company not only breaks the Fourth Wall, but actually makes the audience participate in the play to a certain extent.

Finally, Adam returns to Eve to relate his vision to her, and she too tells him she was given a similar dream. Much older now, they take their sons, Cain and Abel, and walk into the light – a symbolism of the mortal nature they were confined to after the Fall, of their aging, and eventual death… And of the passing of their generation, which would be succeeded by numerous other generations of humans, leading all the way up to our age.

A few final words

In all, Paradise Lost in Second Life lives up to the “hype”. Meticulously conceived, designed, scripted and directed, it really brings Milton’s poem to life and pushes the envelope of what we thought (or knew) could be done within Second Life and similar virtual worlds. As I sat and watched the performance, I could not help thinking “why can’t Linden Lab’s marketing people take notice of works like this and go out and tell people outside SL ‘hey, forget IMVU and other such bullshit: this is what can be done with and in virtual worlds, it’s done all the time in Second Life’?”. Honestly, I do not think I can recommend this event highly enough. I’ve said it before: even if it is the only in-world artistic event you’ll attend in 2014, do not miss it. You cannot afford to miss it. Also, 50% of the proceedings will go to the WWF for the welfare of a mountain gorilla that has been adopted by Becky and Harvey. Tickets are sold on the Second Life marketplace and are priced L$1000 each, which is more than reasonable, considering the work that has been put into this production.

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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-tM

5 thoughts on “Paradise Lost in Second Life: Pushing the artistic and technical envelope

  1. Thank you very much for this detailed and insightful review. You’ve clearly spent the required time to dig beyond mere commentary, and have dug into the poem itself, the cultural and historical context in which it was first published, the background and disposition of the poet that dictated it, and the impact and response that this work has had on both historical and contemporary views of Abrahamic mythology since it was published.

    I can see you have also clearly identified many of the topics that have surfaced as salient as the conversations have evolved: God being green, Satan as a female, the implicit homosexual references between Eve and Satan, Adam’s motivations behind eating the apple, Adam and Eve’s sex scene, the Son of God’s sadness, and Archangel Michael’s characterisation, the audience’s involvement as angels and devils, the ageing of Adam and Eve, and their final walk into the light.

    I have refrained from commenting on analysis to date, and this has been deliberate. I’d like the analysis to continue and I feel that commenting on it will move the conversation towards a conclusion, and I don’t want to do that. In some cases, I’ve found that some commentary has even lead me realise some of my motivations, post hoc. Closing the door on that opportunity would be counter-productive to that goal, so I’m going to stay closed-lipped, for now.

    Again, thank you for this excellent and intelligent review.

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    1. Thank you very much for your comment Becky. 🙂 I greatly enjoyed the performance and was pleased to see it had a definite, distinctive outlook on things rather than attempt to slavishly copy the poem. Once again, congratulations on a great show.

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