A recent stage adaptation honors the power of Milton’s famous epic while highlighting its more problematic aspects.
Paradise Lost, John Milton’s religious epic poem detailing the Fall of man, has earned both for its author and for itself a kind of literary immortality since its 1667 publication. To readers today, more than 300 years later, it should be obvious why. The verse is exquisite; the depiction of Biblical events and characters in Heaven, on Earth, and in Hell is vivid, despite having been dreamed up by a blind man. Even modern action-movie fans might thrill to some of the tropes that the poem employs. In one scene of angelic combat — such scenes are by far the most exciting parts of the epic — Heaven’s champion, the Archangel Michael, and its fiercest foe, the rebellious Satan, fight separately in a massive fray. Then, seeing each other on opposite sides of the battlefield, they fight across it to each other before engaging in a one-on-one duel. The exact same scene appears in Enter the Dragon and The Dark Knight Rises, to name just two examples.
But, as befits any great work — as all such things should challenge as well as inspire — Paradise Lost has also generated lots of controversy over the years. Critics have tended to focus on three things in particular: the trinitarian heresies Milton sneaks in; the subordination of Eve; and, most important, the status of Satan. (Is he a tragic hero, an anti-hero, or just a charismatic villain?) Adaptations of Paradise Lost benefit from content that can withstand even severe bastardization. But they also must confront these three issues or risk failing to be of any interest.
These are the proper metrics by which to judge the new theatrical production of Paradise Lost scripted by playwright Tom Dulack and directed by Max McClean, which played at the Fellowship for Performing Arts at Theatre Row from January 15 to March 1. Describing itself as “inspired by John Milton,” the play hits many of the basic beats of the epic poem, while reasonably accommodating a limited runtime and modest budget. (So, no epic angelic combat.) Some of its production choices, such as the deliberate introduction of anachronistic props in the form of modern technology, are questionable, but mostly incidental. The play’s quality depends much more on how it handles the three main controversies surrounding its source material.
It handles the first, concerning actual heresy, mostly by avoiding it. Milton was a fascinating, idiosyncratic man: a radical republican, one of the world’s first free-speech advocates, and a promoter of divorce. He would come eventually to reject organized religion almost altogether; in Paradise Lost, he bemoans those who “. . . the truth / With superstition and traditions taint, . . . to themselves appropriating / The Spirit of God, promis’d alike and given / To all believers.” But that is near the very end of the poem. Closer to its beginning, he stages his battle between unfallen and fallen angels with one curiosity: God appears to watch its events unfold somewhat passively, and the fallen angels truly lose only when God the Son, Jesus Christ, seemingly intervenes of his own accord. God and Christ, in other words, are genuinely distinct in Paradise Lost, reflecting Milton’s own latter-day Arianism, an early Christian heresy that the Son of God was separate from, but still subordinate to, God Himself.
The play eschews all of this, partly by not depicting mass angelic strife but also by quite ruthlessly compressing all the poem’s godly elements into the role of the Archangel Gabriel (Mel Johnson Jr.). In the play, Gabriel serves purposes that in the poem he shares with the angels Raphael and Michael. Johnson gives the role a stately, dignified presence, both gently treating the humans his Gabriel guides along a pedagogy with parental compassion, and sternly rebuking the wily Satan (David Andrew Macdonald). This cannot, however, hide the fact that the play largely ducks the most controversial spiritual questions of the poem.
The lack of angelic combat and the restraining of serious theology make room for greater exposition of Eve (Marina Shay), Adam (Robbie Simpson), and their relationship. This is the play’s attempt to address one of the other lingering controversies about the poem: Milton’s treatment of Eve. Throughout the epic, Eve’s status as somehow lesser is more or less accepted, in a manner that can offend modern sensibilities (as can the unavoidable Biblical depiction of her sinning first). Adam, for example, upon first beholding her, describes her thus:
For well I understand in the prime end
Of nature her th’inferior, in the mind,
And inward faculties, which most excel,
In outward also resembling less
His image who made both, and less expressing
The character of that dominion give
O’er other creatures. . . .
McLean has explicitly said that he wished to elaborate on why Eve took that fateful bite of the Forbidden Fruit, lamenting in the playbill that “there is almost no backstory given in the Genesis account for Eve’s disobedience.” It’s true that the account does require some interpretation. Unfortunately, the play’s solution to this problem is to turn the story of Adam and Eve into a romantic comedy, and Eve into what is, in that genre, known as the “Manic Pixie Dream Girl,” a wild, somewhat naÏve, and largely innocent free spirit who exists to introduce some much-needed levity into the life of a staid, male protagonist (here, Adam, portrayed as well-meaning but oafish).
One can see the aim of this treatment, but it ultimately plays out to the adaptation’s detriment. The poem’s depiction of Eve’s fall, and Adam’s being brought into it, is unflinching, more Kramer vs. Kramer than Garden State. After they both eat of the Forbidden Fruit in the poem, the post-Fall relationship between them falters: “Thus they in mutual accusation spent / The fruitless hours, but neither self-condemning; / And of their vain contest appear’d no end.” The play’s depiction of this does not reach the lofty yet familiar heights of Milton’s diction; in its modern, banal character, it ends up feeling more like the part of a rom-com when the main characters have their breakup at the end of the second act.
To be sure, there is some genuine and interesting innovation to the play’s depiction of Eve. The first thing she sees upon waking to her humanity is a bird, and her immediate reaction is to wonder why she herself can’t fly. She spends much of the rest of the play wishing to do so, and Satan carefully manipulates this desire to his benefit. Yet this then raises the question of why Satan, described in the play as a shapeshifter, would not have turned himself into some kind of winged creature to tempt Eve, rather than appearing in lowly human form (wearing a scaly jacket, in a subtle touch by the costumers).
Ah, yes, Satan, the character everyone remembers from Paradise Lost. In the epic, he gets the best lines, is in most of the best scenes, and is quite arguably the most dynamic presence. He’s so engaging that many have argued over the years whether he is actually the protagonist. Romantic poet William Blake even said Milton was “a true poet and of the Devil’s party without knowing it,” owing to his complex, sympathetic portrayal of the fallen angel.
One can see Blake’s point. Satan is, in some ways, the most relatable character in the poem. His wrath is righteous, and superficially understandable: He feels he’s been unjustly “passed over” by God as the Savior of mankind in favor of Jesus. It’s, ahem, tempting to imagine a superficially comparable scenario in which we, say, are denied the promotion we deserve in favor of the boss’s son. But it is at best ludicrous — and at worst sinful — to think of God in such terms. Milton, despite his aforementioned heresy, knew that, and did not neglect to make it clear in the poem. After rebelling against God and being forced to suffer, Satan does not pause to consider what he did wrong, but instead casts about for a way to make others suffer as well:
But neither here seek I, no nor in Heaven,
To dwell, unless by mast’ring Heaven’s Supreme;
Nor hope to be myself less miserable.
By what I seek, but others to make such
As I, though thereby worse to me redound:
For only in destroying I find ease
To my relentless thoughts; . . .
In case you didn’t get the message, he also announces, “I glory in the name, / Antagonist of Heaven’s almighty king.” It’s far more honest to argue that Milton made Satan relatable because he wanted to emphasize mankind’s own sinfulness than to argue that he did so because he was “of the devil’s party without knowing it.”
Regardless, the role of Satan is a complicated one to portray. He has to be charismatic and attractive enough that we can relate to him. But he also has to emphasize those qualities — pride, wrath, vanity — that ultimately damn him. And Macdonald as Satan does this almost perfectly, helped by the fact that he gets most of the lines in the play that are unaltered from the poem. He exudes charisma and charm in the role from the moment the play starts on him, just as in the poem, emerging charred and disheveled from the lake of fire (somewhat modestly portrayed with projector screens and light alterations to the stage’s only set) after having been cast out of Heaven.
The play also nails a subtler aspect of Satan’s character: his demagoguery, a prideful warping of his charisma that he uses to inspire his fallen-angel troops at their lowest point. An anachronistic microphone in hand, Satan rouses his troops partly by appealing to their “patriotism” as their “commander-in-chief.” There are probably some pedantic anti-Trump undertones to this, of course, but it still captures a timeless truth. For Milton likely did intend the comparable portion of the poem, a kind of demonic legislative session at which Satan deceives his troops into arriving democratically at the end he had in mind all along, as a critique of representative government. It was a striking admission against interest for a radical republican such as Milton. But he wanted to show that republican government could easily be manipulated, while also showing, in stark contrast, that the only acceptable monarchy was one where God Himself ruled. (Milton’s Heaven is no republic).
In Satan’s interactions with Eve, Macdonald sells both a verbal and a physical commitment to his temptations. His words are beguiling, delivered with a false compassion that comes just short of sincerity only for its deliberate intensity. And his bodily motions are lithe and carefully controlled, doing more than enough to suggest the serpentine bearing otherwise only hinted at by his scaly jacket.
The damning aspects of Satan come out mostly in his interactions with his two allies in the play: Sin, his daughter/wife (Alison Fraser), and Beelzebub (Lou Liberatore), his second-in-command. Sin is portrayed as a kind of lusty old broad, which works better than it has any right to. Satan, who gave birth to her and her son, Death, upon his rebellion, promises to restore her to her former beauty. He is clearly blowing her off, lying to her, and manipulating her throughout. Yet he’s nowhere near as cruel to her as to Beelzebub, who is portrayed as a comically incompetent lieutenant, a hellspawn Barney Fife whose jokes mostly fall flat, making one wonder what the point of his character is. Only his hectic, beleaguered demeanor in handling the myriad tasks Satan doesn’t want to deal with provides a sense of why this character choice matters: It shows that Satan, despite his towering personality and charisma, is in fact a poor leader, one whose vanity wouldn’t ever allow him to consider the greater good. Through both Sin and Beelzebub, it becomes clear that Satan doesn’t even respect his allies.
Aside from making Satan so compelling that his absence is clearly felt whenever he is not on screen, the play really makes just one mistake with respect to his characterization: He wins! Yes, he “wins” in the poem too. But in the poem, Milton shows a truly horrifying contrapasso for his second transgression: Returning to Hell to inform his troops of his victory, he suddenly finds himself and all of them transformed into snakes, and confronted with a tree whose fruit they desperately desire, but that turns to ash when they attempt to consume it. The last we see of Macdonald’s Satan before the play ends, he simply walks away from Eve after having successfully gotten her to consume the Forbidden Fruit. We do not even get a reprise of an earlier, striking repulsion of Satan by Gabriel. He just . . . wins, with only a hint from Gabriel of the eventual victory over him that Milton’s epic makes explicit in the form of Jesus Christ. Only here does the play fall into Blake’s trap of forgetting that Satan is still the villain and deserves punishment.
All of which is to say that, even at its best, this adaptation of Paradise Lost is not quite what it could have been. But that even a heresy of a heresy matches some of the power of its source is compliment enough: The play is certainly a testament to the magic of Milton’s verse, which, for all the controversies it engenders, still exerts a strong grip on readers all these centuries later.