Performing Closet Drama: Milton’s “Samson Agonistes” as a staged reading by Red Bull Theater

As my colleague Randall Sessler pointed out in a recent post, Milton claimed his “dramatic poem” Samson Agonistes was not to be staged, but should be read as a tragedy.Professor Jeffrey Miller of Montclair State University, present at the talk back session following Red Bull Theater’s staged reading of Milton’s poem, said Milton was aware of the poem’s potential for staging, and his protests are designed to prevent that eventuality. Miller suggested that although Milton was adamant the dramatic poem not be staged, it is unclear he would have been opposed to what happened onstage at the Lucille Lortel Theater Monday, October 14, 2013. Professor Miller said that after his blindness, which is the period to which most scholars date the composition of Samson Agonistes, Milton’s writing process was one of dictation, and that Milton’s dictation was a performative process not unlike the reading performance by Red Bull’s actors.

Michael Sexton, director of the Red Bull reading and artistic director of the Shakespeare Society, describes the poem as reminiscent of Greek tragedies: “There’s a lot of Greek in the poem…it’s as if Prometheus Bound were married to the Book of Job.” Sexton said he had been dismayed upon being asked to direct the reading because “it’s dense, difficult, and Milton said not to do it,” but that he was surprised at how well it worked as a staged reading, attributing much of its success to the poem’s “great music.” Though Milton’s language is beautiful, it is also difficult. Dakin Matthews, who played a member of the Danite chorus, said Milton was more difficult than Shakespeare, because the verse is less regular, and “Milton experimented with moving the pauses in sentences, and with syntax…He writes longer sentences but denser for their length.” Certainly Milton’s dense and beautiful language rendered the long speeches musical and appealing, but the play has minimal action. It is written on the Greek model: never more than two speakers “on stage” at the same time, Samson alternately speaks with the chorus and one of four or five visitors, and all action takes place off stage, to be reported by a messenger. Since the play beings after Samson has been taken captive and blinded, and his death takes place off stage, nothing really happens onstage.

And yet, the actors and director found much to perform. Sexton set the stage by placing the three chorus members in tall stools on the left of the stage, with Samson and his current interlocutor standing front and center, while the actors not currently reading sat in a row further back on the stage. As Samson’s father Manoa (played by Richard Easton), his wife Dalila (Christina Rouner), and the Philistine giant Harapha of Gath (Ron Cephas Jones) visit Samson (Robert Cuccioli), they used the chorus’ elaborate descriptions of their approaches to convey much of their character in the walk up to the front of the stage. They used volume, expression, and most interestingly, gesture, to reinforce the emotion with which they imbued their readings. Even whether they looked at Cuccioli while speaking to Samson lent interpretive power: one of the most amusing moments of the play was when Samson mournfully imagined himself in “contemptible old age,” at which words Easton, playing his elderly father Manoa, suddenly looked up at him in surprise.

When asked by an audience member whether he thought it could be successfully performed in a full staging, Sexton said that were he to stage it, he would stage it like a concert or oratorio—more as the presentation of a text than a full staging. Milton’s play owes so much to the Greek dramatic tradition that this seems to be the most appropriate choice, and a closet drama benefits most from a sparse staging. But this is where Romantic “closet dramas” differ from their Miltonic predecessor: even the most Greek of Byron’s dramas, Marino FalieroThe Two Foscarii, and Sardanapalus, are better described as halfway between Shakespeare and Aeschylus. We will see next month how a less realistic Romantic drama, Shelley’s Prometheus Unbound, fares in the medium of the staged reading. (For information and tickets, click here.)

Veronica Goosey

Reblogged from The Romantics Research Group of New York University.

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John Milton’s “Samson Agonistes” and the Rise of Mental Theater

On Monday October 14th at 7:30 pm at the Lucille Lortel Theater (for more into and tix, visithttp://www.redbulltheater.com ), Red Bull Theater will be putting on a staged reading of John Milton’s Samson Agonistes. Milton’s work combines Hebrew scripture and Greek tragedy in order to tell the story of the blind and imprisoned Samson. Red Bull’s selection could not have been more perfect because Milton’s work is often cited as a founding model for Romantic mental theater. With the staged reading of Percy Shelley’s Prometheus Unbound just a little over a month away, Milton’s Samson Agonistes offers the perfect primer.

Milton first published Samson Agonistes with Paradise Regain’d in 1671. The title page of the reads, ”Paradise Regain’d. A Poem. In IV Books. To which is added Samson Agonistes.” The initial title page suggests a hierarchical relationship between Paradise Regain’d and Samson Agonistes. While the relationship between the two works is indeed interesting, I want to focus on the title page and essay Milton included before Samson Agonistes. In the essay, titled “Of that sort of Dramatic Poem which is call’d Tragedy,” Milton claims his work was never intended for the stage and instead should be read as a tragedy.The play itself lacks many of the features of drama: there are no act or scene breaks, no stage direction, very little action (and when there is action, it occurs offstage) and an intense examination of the interior workings and motivations of the characters. The absence of these usual dramatic markers has led literary scholars and performers to find new criteria for dividing the play into parts.The play itself offers one possible “structure.” Dialogue, soliloquy, and choruses disrupt one another and mark crucial turns in plot. Furthermore, as Alan Richardson points out in A Mental Theater, the dramatic poem’s “basic dramaturgical pattern, a suffering protagonist confronting a succession of tormenting antagonists in a series of dialogues broken by soliloquy and choruses, recurs both in Manfred and in the first act of Prometheus Unbound” (15).

The influence Samson Agonistes had on Romanticism and Romantic era dramatic practice, therefore, is evident in several ways. First, the fact that Milton’s concept of a “dramatic poem” that emphasizes the inner workings of characters finds a home in the Romantic period seems fitting. After all, the Romantics are known for their inward turn and hybrid forms, most notably the lyrical ballad, the historical novel, the prose poem, and, as Shelley claims of Prometheus Unbound, the lyrical drama. Second, Milton’s prefatory essay and its claim that his dramatic poem was never intended for the stage cannot but remind one of Charles Lamb’s famous 1811 essay “On the Tragedies of Shakespeare Considered with Reference to Their Fitness for Stage Production” and its assertion that Shakespeare’s tragedies are better read than performed. Third, Milton’s prefatory remarks also foreshadow similar claims that Romantic writers including Lord Byron and William Wordsworth would make about their dramatic efforts a century and a half later.

The staged reading of Samson Agonistes will not only challenge Milton’s preface, but, along with the staged reading of Shelley’s Prometheus Unbound, provide a new means of examining Milton’s influence on Romanticism.

–Randall Sessler

Reblogged from The Romantics Research Group of New York University.