Last Saturday, I was privileged to be invited to attend a preview performance of the Basilique Performing Arts Company‘s new dramatic adaptation of John Milton’s epic poem, Paradise Lost in Second Life.
As what follows may seem tl;dr to some, I’ll begin by cutting to the chase, and providing up-front the essential and obligatory information expected of a reviewer of these sorts of things.
You should attend this event. The brainchild of Canary Beck and Harvey Crabsticks, and featuring a cast of, if not thousands, at least dozens, it is unquestionably the most interesting, engaging, and impressive performances I’ve ever attended in Second Life. It treats a fascinating text respectfully and intelligently, but more importantly, it seeks to push the envelope for live performances in virtual worlds through its experimental play with multimedia, 3D performance space, and audience engagement. It is the product of what must have been many hundreds of hours of planning, scripting, creation, and rehearsal, and the care that was taken to produce a really superb sensory experience clearly shows.
This is not, it needs to be noted, a poetry recital. It is a kinetic, dramatic adaptation of one of the most important poems in the English language, and a largely successful attempt to remediate the grandeur, power, and complexity of an epic poem into real-time virtual experience. Employing music (Mozart’s Requiem Mass in D minor), dance, visual imagery, and some spoken word, it achieves a kind of synthesis of these elements together in a show that is not merely entertaining, but also thought-provoking.
In other words, you need to go to this.
And now, the details.
Visually, the production was stunning. The avatars are all beautifully rendered, and the animations are high quality. The most impressive visual elements, however, are undoubtedly the sets. What is more, the production uses theatrical space very cleverly: scenes to the left of the main stage area are employed to depict Eden, to the right, Hell, and in the centre, the postlapsarian world to which Adam and Eve are exiled, and which serves as the site of the condensed Biblical history to which we are treated through most of the last movement of the production. This imaginative use of the performance space foregrounds the very different nature of these places; the appearance of our fallen world in the middle is a nice visual representation of our own existence as lying between the divine realms, and those of the damned.
Allowing the dramatic action to overflow the stage in this manner does much to draw us deeper into the action, a representation in theatrical space of the very themes being enacted in the play. After all, this is our story. Breaking the “fourth wall” that notionally separates us from the stage draws us into the action in a way that is ultimately thought-provoking and, on occasion, even a little threatening. (I will freely confess that I felt mildly nervous when, at one point, “Satan” drew very near to my dancing avatar!)
That point is emphasized even more pointedly through a particularly clever trick employed in this production. All audience members are provided with “angel” avatars to wear during the production. At various points through the play, guests are animated into dances that accompany the action of the play. Even more significantly, their avatars are transformed into devils on occasion, a tactic that underlines our own complicity in the moral tale that is unfolding before us.
The drawing of the audience into the ethical action of the story has its counterpart, perhaps, in Milton’s poem; some decades ago, a very influential (and controversial) reading of the epic by literary critic Stanley Fish argued that Milton’s Satan was such an apparently attractive figure precisely because Milton wanted readers to “fall” for him, only to discover, as the poem unfolded, that they had too had been “seduced” and fooled by his rhetoric. The dramatic verson of the poem in this way follows its original source closely, not merely by replicating its narrative structure, but also by employing something like its rhetorical strategy.
In other ways, however, Paradise Lost in Second Life is not afraid to stray from its source texts. The most substantial revision to the original sources (both Milton and Genesis) is in the depiction of Lucifer / Satan as a female. For the duration of much of the performance, this is a relatively unimportant detail: Satan, in the form that she assumes in Hell, is represented as buff no-necked demon in red, and there is little or no indication of gender in the avatar itself. It is when Satan gets to work “seducing” Eve in the Garden that the re-gendering begins to seem particularly significant.
Satan in the Garden assumes the shape of a lithe, very sexy, and very naked woman. The effect, of course, is to foreground the sexual subtext of the notion of the “seduction.” That subtext has always been present, even in Genesis, but it is somewhat underplayed by Milton. The fall of Milton’s Eve is very much a rhetorical seduction rather than a sexual one, a play of language, false rhetoric, and false logic that, arguably, mitigates Eve’s transgression a little. Eve, in Milton’s poem, is simply not equipped intellectually to deal with Satan; in the long run, then, it is Adam who is ultimately to blame, for not “protecting” Eve when he agreed to work apart from her.
Sexualizing the seduction – and it needs to be said that this sexualization in the production is relatively subtle — tends to place the blame more squarely on Eve’s shoulders (or other body parts). What is more, the fact that she is being seduced by another woman underlines the idea that sexuality is not merely the Achilles’ heel of the female of the species, but pretty much integral to her identity as a woman. Adam, it is true, has sex with Eve earlier in the play (and seems, from what I could see, to be enjoying it), but for none of the males in this story is sexuality depicted as this essential to the core of their nature.
Arguably, too, the re-imagining of Satan as a woman introduces a new gendered ethical binary into the understanding of the Fall. After all, Eve receives special “punishment” for her transgression: not only does she suffer exile from Paradise with Adam, but she will additionally experience the pangs of childbirth, a reminder of her “special” role in the Fall. The appearance of her seducer as a female as well suggests a pretty clear dichotomy: “male” (i.e., God, the Son, the Archangel Michael) represents lawful Power; “female” (i.e., Satan and Eve), by way of contrast, seems to signify transgressive and ethically challenged losers.
It would be misleading, perhaps, too make too much of the impact of this change. There is no reason to believe that a deliberately misogynist re-reading of the story was intended. Indeed, if anything, Satan’s formulation as a female may make her seem somewhat more sympathatic (a shift that is, in some ways, in line with Romantic readings that argued that Satan was the “real” hero of the poem). And it’s also true that sexuality is not treated in a heavy-handed or obtrusive fashion in this production. But you can’t make as big a change to the mythos as this production has without their being some potentially very important implications for its meaning. (Of course, Milton’s own text is misogynist enough in its own, somewhat different, way, in any case!)
There are number of other changes to Milton’s source text in this production, but perhaps the other one most worth noting is to the conclusion of the story. In Milton’s epic, the poem ends, after Adam has had revealed to him the future fate of humankind (rather nicely done, as noted, in an abbreviated form in this production), with Adam and Eve walking together out of Paradise:
The World was all before them, where to choose
Thir place of rest, and Providence thir guide:
They hand in hand with wandring steps and slow,
Through Eden took thir solitarie way.
There are a number of things happening in this passage, but perhaps the most important is the element of choice. Adam and Eve are free to “chooose / Thir place of rest,” a vitally important element of a poem that is, really, very much about the existence, nature, and validity of Free Will in a universe ruled by an omnipotent deity. It is through the “proper” deployment of choice, Adam is told, that he and his mate will ultimately achieve, even in their newly fallen state, “A Paradise within thee, happier farr.”
Free Will, as a theme, gets somewhat short shrift in this production, but that’s possibly an inevitable side effect of a form that is mostly non-verbal. “Showing” choice is difficult. At the same time, however, the particular way in which this production ends arguably actually highlights the themes of Predestination and Fate: Adam and Eve are in old age, their two sons (Cain and Abel) in arms, as they walk together into the sun. Our First Parents, so depicted, are already “us”: the production ends with their essential choices already made, and the focus is upon, not the possibility of free will, the opportunity to “choose a place of rest,” but rather the inevitability of death. Hither are we all speeding ourselves: the emphasis upon determinism here, and upon the degree to which we ourselves are products of Adam and Eve’s choices, does shift the thematic emphasis in fairly important ways.
None of what I’ve said above should be taken as a “criticism” of the production’s adaptation of Milton’s poem; Paradise Lost in Second Life is, indeed, an adaptation, rather than a simple or uncomplicated “staging” of the original. As such, changes in both narrative and theme to the source material are not merely inevitable: they are probably also absolutely necessary, and even desireable. Ultimately, these changes enrich the production, making it more interesting and suggestive, particularly when read in the context of the epic poem from which it is derived.
Paradise Lost in Second Life opens for the general public on 5 April, and will be playing most Saturdays and Sundays until 21 June (all showtimes are at 1300hrs SLT). Tickets can be purchased through the SL Marketplace site. Half of all proceeds from ticket sales will be going to the World Wildlife Foundation. Some performances are already sold out, so don’t wait too long!