Last night, October 14th, I had the pleasure of attending a dramatic reading of Samson Agonistes (directed by Michael Sexton) at the Red Bull Theater in Greenwich Village. Milton himself wrote that his dramatic poem “never was intended” for the stage. I therefore count myself privileged to have seen it performed twice now. The first of those performances, at the 10th International Milton Symposium in Tokyo, adapted the drama to the strict formal requirements of a Japanese Noh play. Its stylized representation of the characters and concern with “karma” as an operative force within the drama set it apart from anything one might imagine upon reading Samson Agonistes.
The reading at the Red Bull caused some concern when advertised on the Milton email list. Along with others on the list, I worried about the description given in the Red Bull program and website:
“The biblical hero, imprisoned, blind and without his hair, faces God in this lyrical, violent epic.”
It was rapidly pointed out on the (sometimes less-than-patient) list that Samson clearly has regrown his hair in Milton’s poem, that the apparent absence of God makes a face-to-face showdown unlikely, and that “epic” is a particularly unfortunate word choice here.
And yet, the performance was lovely and true to the text in word and spirit. In fact, the 90- minute reading gave me new insight into the work in the way that only well-rehearsed and directed performances might. Unfortunately, I was unable to stay for the talk back, hosted by Jeffrey Miller of Montclair State University, so my thoughts may unintentionally echo or conflict with topics discussed there. But here they are: some thoughts about Samson Agonistes after a performance in Greenwich Village.
Pacing: Milton may not have intended Samson Agonistes for performance, but in the reading I was struck by the pacing. It moves quite nicely, punctuated as it is by the comings and goings of Samson’s comforters and antagonists. The 90 minutes went by quite quicklyf or the audience, and perhaps less so for Samson (Robert Cuccioli) who had to stand for the bulk of the reading. And yet, by the time Manoa (Richard Easton) urged the final messenger to spill the tale of what happened at the temple, the audience could feel his frustration. It is time – tell us the end. This creates the kind of sympathy and meta-theatrical synchronicity that would be applauded in a work for the stage.
Humor: Yes. Humor. In conjunction with pacing, I noted the moments at which appropriate laughter happened. There was some nervous laughter earlier in the performance that seemed out of place. But there were genuine moments of mirth, such as when old Manoa blithely says, “I cannot praise thy marriage choices, Son…” in response to Samson’s litany of the abuse he suffered at the hands of his wives (420). Also, some of Dalila’s lines seem fittingly delivered in ways to add levity – for example at 746, her line, “though late” — delivered as a somewhat ironic aside — drew a good laugh. Other more obvious moments belong to the Chorus, who tend to comment wryly on the exchanges they’ve just witnessed and thus punctuate and speed along the tragedy.
Characterizations: I realized that in the past I’ve been too harsh on the Chorus (Dakin Matthews, Stephanie Roth Haberle, and Robert Stanton). On stage they seemed more kindly and less holier-than-thou. In fact, they seemed less like Job’s comforters and more like actual comforters. Dalila (Christina Rouner) remained a conundrum. While I’ve written long ago about how she serves a similar therapeutic & mirroring function that Eve does after the Fall in Paradise Lost, now I’m not sure what to think. And that, I think, is the point of a performance like this.
Linguistic Riches: In all, I was reminded of how rich Milton’s language remains in this spartan poem. Echoes, connections, rhymes, and playful language that glide by, barely registering on the page, were evident on the stage. The performance has revived a rousing motion in me that finds in Samson Agonistes the sort of playfulness and linguistic inventiveness that Stephen Booth discovers in Shakespeare’s sonnets. To change “obloquie” and “venereal trains” to “silent obsequie and funeral trains” is, indeed, the trick of Samson Agonistes.
For a closet drama, Samson Agonistes is very readable. In fact, this might be something to consider if you are teaching it. It would help if, as during this reading, a train could rumble by exactly when the temple was being pulled down offstage.
Key words that jumped out at me during the reading: zeal. inevitable. light/sight/insight.
– David A. Harper
The Red Bull Theater hosts a variety of Jacobean productions and readings of rarely performed and new plays. Check them out at this link.