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95 FOUR Theatrical Spectacle in Samson Agonistes IMPLICATIONS FOR THE TERRORISM CONTROVERSY AND OTHER INTERPRETIVE DISPUTES Commentators have never reached consensus about the meaning of one of Milton’s declarations in the prefatory epistle to Samson Agonistes, where he notes, “Division into Act and Scene referring chiefly to the Stage (to which this work never was intended) is here omitted.” Some scholars feel that by removing these divisions, Milton wished to render the work intrinsically unstageable. Such an intention might seem to be confirmed by the dearth of stichomythia and physical action in the tragedy, and by the lengthiness of its speeches. One problem with this line of argument, however, is the abundance of “stage” cues implicit in the tragedy’s dialogue. Others argue that “never intended” applied only to the Restoration stage, not to all theaters. Nonetheless, while Milton certainly would have disapproved of Restoration comedies such as William Wycherly’s Love in a Wood (1671), Robert Hume has recently pointed out that “the ‘libertinism’ universally ascribed to ‘Restoration comedy’ . . . is found only in a minority of the comedies of the time, and more often than not the libertine is punished 96 Milton the Dramatist (or reformed and married off) at the end of the play.”1 Furthermore, Milton’s attitude toward the Restoration theater seems not to have been completely negative, for in 1674 he granted John Dryden permission to “tag,” that is, to put into rhyming couplets, Paradise Lost, for an opera called The State of Innocence, registered (though never acted) in 1677. I wish to offer a third possibility, namely, that the tragedy was “never intended” for the stage, not from any fundamental antipathy on Milton’s part toward the theater, but because his exposure to the public stage almost certainly ended in 1642 (the year the theaters closed), nearly thirty years before the 1671 publication of Samson. Milton went completely blind in 1652, and after the Act of Oblivion (1660) lived a secluded life. None of his early biographers , including John Aubrey, Cyriak Skinner, Anthony à Wood, or Edward Phillips, records any visits by the poet to the Restoration playhouses, nor does Samuel Pepys mention him in his diaries, which frequently describe Pepys’s own theater-going. True, the poet does evince skepticism about theater production earlier in his career. For instance, in an entry in his commonplace book, probably set down about 1637, Milton commends the power of tragedy to evoke virtue, while adding that this effect is possible only from plays that are “rightly produced” (YP 1:491). And, as we saw, the structure of Comus was altered for performance by Henry Lawes, who converted part of the original epilogue to a prologue. Milton restored the lines to their original location when he revised the masque in the 1640s, thus indicating his disapproval of the change. The whole experience might have made him wary of stage production. Nonetheless, that distrust was not absolute, as is evident from his granting of permission to Dryden to mount Paradise Lost. Hence, I believe that Milton’s unwillingness to put Samson on stage stemmed principally from his lack of significant personal contact with the theater of his day, and from the fact that he would have had little control over production details. That he conceived the tragedy in terms of the stage is especially clear from its abundance of implicit stage directions embedded in the dialogue. These directions tell us much about the characters’ physical appearances, gestures, movements, facial expressions, setting, and scenery. Even so, scholars have been divided over the importance of spectacle in Samson. A significant number tend to downplay or dismiss it. For instance, Radzinowicz claims that the drama is stripped of spectacle. The only visual effects from movement available to the mind’s eye lies in the approach of the Chorus, their advance toward Samson, and their accompaniment of the other limited characters a short distance away from him. . . . The impression which the overall disposition of the fable gives [is] of having been devised to draw attention to an intellectual conflict within the mind of the protagonist. Similarly, F. T. Prince argues that “When Milton wants us to visualize a setting, a character, or a movement, he [provides] just as much indication as we need.” Anne Ferry declares that Milton “chose a dramatic form which yet avoids . . . the visual effects that a play performed must inevitably have.” In like manner, John Shawcross states that “visual image [in Samson Agonistes] is not significant,” and John...


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