Tom Dulack’s new stage adaptation of John Milton’s Paradise Lost begins with an arresting projection of Michelangelo’s Creation of Adam. As you enter the theater, the image dominates the stage. When the action starts, the projection morphs into images based on the poem (such as Gustave Doré’s Falling Lucifer), providing a thrilling backdrop for the drama about to unfold.
During my student days, I was less interested in how Milton’s poem justifies “the ways of God to man” and more in how it justifies—or doesn’t justify—Eve’s behavior. Milton’s blank verse epic on the Fall of Man does Eve little credit. Adam is formed “for contemplation” and “valor,” Eve for “softness” and “sweet attractive grace”; Adam “for God only,” and Eve “for God in him.” Attempts to explain why she ate the forbidden fruit always seemed to me to yield unsatisfying half-answers. For example, Aquinas neatly lists Eve’s five sins (pride, curiosity, gluttony, infidelity, and disobedience) and explains that “the sin came to man through the woman’s blandishments.” It is a systematic explanation of Eve’s culpability, yet questions—of her intentions, her motivations, even her very innocence in being led astray—remain. Dulack’s play, now playing in New York, is marketed as an attempt to understand Eve’s motivations. But does it deliver on this promise?
Yes and no. The play is more faithful to the original poem (as faithful as one can be in a 100-minute stage adaptation) than I expected. The main elements of the story are all there: After Adam and Eve separate to go about their day’s work, Satan (dashingly arrayed in a snake-skin blazer) approaches and seduces Eve. They are banished from Eden, but not before they learn of the Second Adam, who will be raised “in a harsh life which will end in a still harsher sacrifice” to atone for their sins.
In many ways, the play puts Eve on equal footing with Adam. Unlike in the poem, Eve is present at everything Gabriel—who also takes on the role of Raphael—says, actively listening and desiring knowledge: “Still . . . it would be nice to know what Death is. And Evil. That’s all I’m saying.” She is involved in naming the animals, thus participating in Adam’s role as steward of the earth and its creatures. She is a more rounded and active (one might say modern) woman than in Milton’s epic.
The play’s climax, when Eve eats the fruit of the tree of knowledge, marks Dulack’s most memorable departure from Milton’s text. Almost in unholy ecstasy, Eve exclaims: “The stars are changing color and falling like rain from the sky, the sky is raining jewels, golden and amber, silver and pearl! Can this be death? Oh, then they have deceived us about death. . . . this is worth everything. It is worth going to Hell itself to experience! Give me more death!” The language and imagery of this beautiful chaos gets at the heart of the tale: the desire for knowledge and the price we have to pay for it.
But ultimately the play falls short of really diving into Eve’s psyche and examining what led to this moment. Milton’s account remains a more compelling assessment. Disguised as a serpent, Satan tells Eve that he has received the gift of speech and reason after eating the forbidden fruit. Eve wonders, “How dies the serpent? He hath eat’n and lives / And knows, and speaks, and reasons and discerns, / Irrational till then.” The evidence of the tree’s effects are seemingly before her: An irrational creature is now rational. To what, then, will the rational creature be elevated? The play, on the other hand, does away with Satan’s disguise; Eve knows to whom she is speaking. If anything, this renders Eve more culpable—and her motivations all the more incomprehensible—than in Milton’s epic: In the play, Eve, in full knowledge of what she is doing, somehow trusts the words of a fallen angel condemned to Hell.
It is fitting that Paradise Lost should be taken to the stage. Milton’s epic drew on the traditions of Homeric poetry, which would have been performed aloud. It is in the theater where we moderns come closest to the oral tradition, which was communal in nature. It works particularly well for a story concerned with all mankind. When Satan points at the darkened auditorium, invoking his “four hundred hundred million rebel angels,” we are drawn into the primordial battle between good and evil and must ask where we stand.
The play’s eclectic range of costumes and props also reminds us of the story’s timelessness and universality. Satan wears a World War I British uniform, while Beelzebub is dressed in the armor of a Roman Legionnaire; Sin enters stage left and right on an electric scooter; Satan (“Chief”) and Beelzebub make telephone calls.
There are some instances when flashes of humor distract from the severity of the narrative matter, such as when Eve asks, after being banished from Eden, if they can “come back for a visit from time to time.” While this produced a laugh from the audience, there is something touchingly pathetic in humanity’s incessant need to make light of a bad situation.
As a Christian, I found this a refreshing but faithful take on a familiar story. As a reader of Milton, I was nevertheless left wanting a little bit more. Still, the play succeeds in pointing us forward with the solemn promise “that Providence will never abandon you.”
Tom Dulack’s Paradise Lost plays through February 23 at Theatre Row.
Veronica Clarke is a junior fellow at First Things.
Photo by Jeremy Daniel.