Frontier Psychiatrist

Puppetry and Paradise Lost

Posted on: March 1, 2011

When asked – who is the greatest poet in the English language? – most people will say “Shakespeare.” When asked who the second greatest poet is they might say “Keats.” But would anyone say “Milton?” These days it’s hard to find a college graduate who has read Animal Farm from cover to cover, much less Paradise Lost, written by a man who was once thought to be a greater poet than Shax himself.

But it was not always thus. John Dryden, himself a onetime contender for the title of greatest poet in the English language, friend and younger colleague to Milton, supposedly said after reading Paradise Lost, “This man cuts us all out, and the ancients too.” Though Milton was an old republican revolutionary and Dryden loyal monarchist, Dryden liked Milton’s epic so much he adapted it for the stage by rewriting it in rhymed couplets and setting it to music.

Paul Van Dyck has done Dryden one better by keeping Milton’s sublime poetry unrhymed and using all the modern theatrical arts to make Paradise Lost come to life at the FRIGID Festival.  I can say without qualification that this is the best theater – the most relevant to our time, the most uplifting, the most artistic, simultaneously the most esoteric and exoteric, visually, aurally, and intellectually stimulating – that I have seen in a long time. And running under an hour, it makes getting some high culture as enjoyable as possible for those of us inflicted with ADD by the modern age.

Obviously Mr. Van Dyck isn’t reciting the whole poem from beginning to end. Milton’s epic is extremely compressed, though that shouldn’t be a problem for most viewers who probably only read selections (if they read it at all) in college. The war in heaven is gone and much of Satan’s discourse on his own fallen state – “Me miserable! … Which way I fly is Hell; my self am Hell” – is cut. Satan’s distress over seeing Adam and Eve in bliss for the first time is recorded only in his brief but apt ejaculation: “Oh Hell!”

Amazingly, however, almost all the cuts work, and little is left out that should have been left in. The most important and relevant lines of the poem for a contemporary audience concern the bond of trust between Adam and Eve, which she breaks by listening to the Satan’s “glozing lies” and eating from the Tree of Knowledge. I might have wished Mr. Van Dyck had kept her Satanic conclusion that eating the fruit might “render me more equal [to Adam], and perhaps, / A thing not undesirable, sometime / Superior; for inferior who is free?”

This is the logic underlying all contemporary right-wing political discourse: freedom and equality are talking points, only valuable as an excuse to disempower someone else. But Mr. Van Dyck kept my favorite lines, spoken by Adam as an interior monologue when he sees his holy wife, foully strumpeted: “Oh fairest of creation, last and best / Of all God’s works, creature in whom excelled / Whatever can to sight or thought be formed, / Holy, divine, good, amiable, or sweet! / How art thou lost, how on a sudden lost, / Defaced, deflowered, and now to death devote.” It is impossible for me to hear these lines and not think of all the beautiful, intelligent women (and men) who use their God given intellect to ruin the lives of their fellow citizens in the name of those Satanic euphemisms “free markets” and “right to work.”

The sound and visual design are very nearly perfect. Mr. Van Dyck cleverly and deftly uses The Rolling Stones as a soundtrack and commentary on the action, from “Gimme Shelter,” to “Monkey Man,” and – of course – “Sympathy for the Devil.” Adam and Eve are puppets, literalizing a latent metaphor in the poem, and Sin and Death, Satan’s daughter and son, are CGI animations projected onto two sheets that also serve as Mr. Van Dyck’s wings when he assumes the role of Michael at the end of the play. If the soul of poetry is compression, the team who designed and deployed this interpretation of Paradise Lost have come close to making a perfect theatrical poem out of Milton’s great epic.

The FRIGID Festival won’t last long, so if you’re a fan of Paradise Lost and want to see this play, you have to see it this week!

Will Kenton is a critic and teacher, and the founder of Cultural Capitol, in which this article originally appeared on Feb. 28. His book reviews for FP include Bike Snob: Systematically & Mericlessly Realigning the World of Cycling, Talking to Girls About Duran Duran and The Ninth: Beethoven and the World in 1824. He lives, thinks, and writes in Bed-Stuy, Brooklyn.


2 Responses to "Puppetry and Paradise Lost"

Is there any way this show can go on tour? I would love to see it, but I’m living outside of Seoul, Korea. I’m sure there are theaters in every major city in the world who would leap at the opportunity to showcase this production.


We’d love to produce the show in other cities it’s really just a matter of expenses like travel and place to place to stay.

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