[Milton-L] performing PL Bk IX

John Hale john.hale at otago.ac.nz
Fri May 16 22:27:02 EDT 2014

The opportunity came up to take Paradise Lost to an unusual general audience this week — a reunion  of alumni who had majored in English.  I'm passing on some impressions, in case they interest other people or might help their  outreach.
        The reunion met to hear Book IX. Rehearsed stalwarts took the story up to Satan's opening gambit. Then volunteers did the rest unrehearsed. I was hoping the stalwarts would generate enough momentum to encourage all and sundry to pitch in, living again their participation as undergraduates in my Milton marathons. I was expecting a genial shambles after half time, as rusty readers murmured or muttered. Instead, an opposite result. The standard of the rehearsed readers deterred the inexperienced, and it was the smaller number of the theatre buffs or teachers who volunteered. They had the best passages and excelled. It became one of the best performances ever. A silence followed, like the one which acclaims a worthy performance of music.
        I concluded that (1) was mistaken to mix the two kinds of reading (2)I wish we had recorded the whole event for podcast to alumni globally, not just the first half and (30the kind of reading where novices learn on the job belongs with an all-day reading of the whole poem, and with students who benefit most directly from having no option but to read, and so (4)being retired, I miss the regular teaching which enables me to go the whole hog, and yet (5)there is such extraordinary power, even by Milton's stellar standard, in Book IX that no amount of re-ceding dulls or stales it, rather (6)I found many new things or things made new, not to mention (7)that some participants' responses gave me more new leads afterwards.
        Here's part of one such response, from a former research student:

"Wasn't last night a wonderfully successful evening? Congratulations to you,  your loyal family, Alison, the readers and the backstage crew and everyone else who helped make it such an enjoyable event. I thought the unrehearsed reading in the second half went extremely well - the seating, ordering, staging, and marked script all made for a smoothly run and coherent performance. It was lovely watching the way the readers entered into the spirit of it all.
I think that this style of performance is well worth repeating - it lets you potentially point or emphasise particular themes or episodes in the poem and it's a less demanding way of being introduced to Paradise Lost. It can't or shouldn't replace the Marathon event - I don't think anything compares to that experience - but  focusing closely on one book or a very few means that the audience have the opportunity to 
to really absorb more of the poem - the vocabulary, the imagery, and the characters. Book 9 is an excellent choice - I know it can be humorous in part but I actually find it excruciating listening to two people decimate each other and I thought the delivery of the very final lines, in particular, last night captured that. 

"It's hard when we know the story and there is so much overlay about the whole male/female cliches in style of argument (and I think the cliches are the point - that's one of the consequences - genuine and deep thought, genuine recognition each of the other, has been damaged) - but it seems to me as much as  Adam and Eve are accusing one another they're also dealing with the mind numbingly catastrophic implications of what they've done. Those lines about Adam dropping the garland are awful. To me, they're working things out - as much as Eve might be indignant about being a rib stuck to Adam's side she's also asking a genuine question - was that how she was to live? The way in which  they move further and further away from logic and reason and compassion is very real and very powerful - human beings do that when they're defensive, angry or frightened.

"All a bit of a rave - but see - that's what an evening like last night generates!"

John Hale

More information about the Milton-L mailing list