[Milton-L] Samson Agonistes performed Oct 14th in NYC

Jeffrey Miller miller.jeffrey.alan at gmail.com
Fri Oct 11 16:04:44 EDT 2013

Dear All,

While I'm relieved to say that I wasn't the author of the little blurb that David forwarded around the other day regarding New York's Red Bull Theater Company's upcoming staged reading of Milton's "epic" Samson and its hairless hero, I have been asked by the company to be a scholarly respondent to the reading this Monday, Oct. 14th.  As part of that, I've also been asked to supply a brief program note about Milton and the poem.  It's of course victim to the exigencies of the form and to my own limitations, but I've appended it below for any who might care to take a gander at it.  Hopefully it's at least not as risible as the blurb!  (Although I think David is almost certainly right that the author of the blurb meant "epic" in the more colloquial sense that he outlines, I've made sure to include a gentle explanation of the more particular meaning of the term in my note, inspired by the exchanges on this list.)

I believe tickets for the reading are still available -- they can be purchased here -- so if anyone on the list happens to come to the show and fancies getting together afterward for some Miltonic drinking of the kind that I think the young Milton (at least) would have approved, do send me a note.  In the meantime, if the company does happen to have their Samson up on stage in a bald cap, I'll be sure to say something about it during the response portion of the evening!

All best,

Jeff Miller
Montclair State University

About the Author
Born in 1608, John Milton stands by wide acclaim as one of the three greatest poets in the history of the English language, together with Chaucer and Shakespeare.  Milton’s first published poem was, indeed, a brief poem about Shakespeare, included in the prefatory material to Shakespeare’s Second Folio of 1632.  Milton himself dabbled as a playwright in his youth, yet from a very early age he aspired to join the ranks of England’s greatest literary figures not as a playwright but as the author of an epic poem, the genre of Homer’s Iliad and Odyssey and of Virgil’s Aeneid.  Moreover, though he was perhaps the most accomplished English writer of Latin in his day, Milton aspired to do this in his own native language, thereby doing for English what Dante had done for Italian.  He would come to fulfill this ambition and then some in the form of Paradise Lost, first published in 1667. 

It bears remembering, however, that the thirty-five years that lay between the publication of his poem on Shakespeare and the publication of Paradise Lost were marked for Milton as much by personal and professional disappointment as they were by heroic success.  By 1652, Milton had gone completely blind, and in 1660 the cause to which Milton had devoted the better part of his life was defeated in crushing fashion with the restoration of the English monarchy.  (Milton had taken the leading role in defending the English people’s right to have beheaded their king in 1649 and to have instituted a republican form of government in the monarchy’s place.)  In this light, Samson Agonistes, first published in 1671, may be the most personal of all Milton’s works, for it tells the story of a man brought low in blindness and in a state of profound political defeat who yet comes to feel “something extraordinary” still stirring within him.

 About the Poem 

            In a prefatory note to the first published edition of Samson Agonistes, Milton insisted that the poem, though written in the form of a drama, in fact “never was intended” for “the stage”.  It is a kind of drama of the mind, not meant to be acted in a conventional sense but rather read and reflected upon in the mind’s eye.  Whether that means that Milton would have been necessarily opposed to a staged reading of the play, however, is a more difficult question to answer.  For the blind Milton himself in the latter years of his life, when most believe he wrote Samson Agonistes, reading was a process not of seeing but of hearing, and writing was a performative process, too.  It is almost certainly the case that Samson Agonistes was dictated by Milton, just as Paradise Lost was, and contemporary accounts of Milton’s manner of dictation throw into relief the performative nature of it.  In that sense, Samson Agonistes has been performed from the first.

            The poem, whose title means “Samson the contestant” or “Samson the struggler”, tells the story of the biblical figure of Samson from the Book of Judges.  Specifically, the poem focuses on the end of Samson’s life, when, having been betrayed by Dalila and blinded by his Philistine enemies, he finds himself in Gaza enslaved and imprisoned:  or, as Milton would memorably put it, “Eyeless in Gaza at the mill with slaves”.  In numerous ways, however, Milton’s poem departs from the Bible’s version of the events that follow, and these departures have helped make the poem perhaps Milton’s most controversial work.  What, for example, is one to make of the fact that, in Milton’s version, Samson is described as having not prayed aloud to God before toppling the pillars of the “spacious theatre” to which his Philistine captors ultimately draw him to perform a feat of Herculean strength of the kind for which he previously made his name?

            This and the many other points of contention regarding the poem were only heightened with the events of September 11th, 2001.  In a famously controversial essay published a year later, the English literary critic John Carey argued that Milton’s Samson can been seen as a kind of “suicide bomber” and that accordingly “September 11 has changed Samson Agonistes, because it has changed the readings we can derive from it”.  In the intervening years, Carey has met with vociferous pushback on a variety of fronts.  But regardless of where exactly one comes down on the merits of Samson’s last act and the moral that should be drawn from it, the extent to which Milton’s Samson Agonistes challenges its readers to confront such questions, and in terms as pressingly relevant today as they ever were, stands as a testament to his and the poem’s achievement as an enduring work of art.

On Oct 10, 2013, at 1:14 PM, David Ainsworth <dainsworth at as.ua.edu> wrote:

> The OED does have a draft addition dated June 2013 with the colloquial modern meaning of epic, or OED 3 "A story, or series of events, worthy to form the subject of an epic" could apply.
> It is interesting to ponder how one would write ad copy for Samson Agonistes (assuming one would ever desire to write advertising). Does one address plot? "Biblical hero destroys temple?" "...fulfills prophecy and liberates his people?" Milton himself says the work's a tragedy and refers his readers to Aeschylus, Sophocles and Euripides, but he leaves the plot for such educated readers to judge themselves (and the word "judge" would seem especially meaningful in this context).
> If anyone on the list attends the reading, I'd be interested to hear the degree to which it takes liberties with the text.
> David
> On 10/9/2013 12:57 PM, David Urban wrote:
>> Interesting that they say that Samson "faces God in this lyrical, violent
>> epic."
>> How does that description sit with those who argue that a (the?) main
>> point of *Samson Agonistes* is God's absence?
>> (Of course, they also call Milton's drama an "epic," and it's debatable if
>> it's "violent," given that no physical violence takes place on stage.)
>> In any event, an interesting description, albeit of debatable accuracy.
>> David V. Urban, Ph.D.
>> Associate Professor of English
>> Calvin College
>> 1795 Knollcrest Circle SE
>> Grand Rapids, MI 49546-4404
>> Office Phone: (616) 526-8646
>> On 10/9/13 1:51 PM, "David Ainsworth" <dainsworth at as.ua.edu> wrote:
>>> I'm passing along this announcement of a dramatic reading of Milton's
>>> Samson Agonistes, this Monday in New York City.
>>> Please note that Milton Society members can get a discount!
>>> David
>>> October 14 at 7:30pm
>>> Red Bull Theater presents
>>> by John Milton
>>> The biblical hero, imprisoned, blind and without his hair, faces God
>>> in this lyrical, violent epic.
>>> Directed by Michael Sexton
>>> With Ron Cephas Jones, Robert Cuccioli, Richard Easton, Alfredo
>>> Narciso, Joan Macintosh, Dakin Matthews, Christina Rouner, Robert
>>> Stanton, and Marc Vietor
>>> Lucille Lortel Theater, 121 Christopher St.
>>> Tickets for Milton Society members are 35% off with code "MILT35"
>>> Click this link for tickets
>>> https://web.ovationtix.com/trs/pe.c/9824295/prm/Milt35
>>> or visit www.redbulltheater.com/readings
>>> All the best,
>>> Craig
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