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151 FIVE Intended for the Stage? SAMSON AGONISTES IN PERFORMANCE The year 2000 marked the centenary of an important but overlooked milestone in Milton studies, namely, the first staging of Samson Agonistes by William Poel. While many scholars may be aware of isolated productions of the tragedy, the extent and variety of its stage history is perhaps less well known. The work was successful as a dramatic reading throughout the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries , yet it had never been attempted on the boards until Poel’s landmark production. That event ushered in a range of performances throughout the twentieth century, with nearly every decade offering several dramatizations. At least 15 of these were full-dress affairs mounted in theaters or theatrical settings; others included partially staged dramatic readings, a radio version, and a one-man rendition of the play.1 It is important now to assess what light, if any, a century of production has shed on our understanding of Samson. For instance, do the various performances tend to confirm or refute Milton’s statement in the tragedy’s prefatory epistle that it was “never intended” for the stage? Moreover, such deliberation may show that these productions secured a position for Samson in the theater canon. 152 Milton the Dramatist I. Pre-1900 Stagings First, however, a word on the prehistory of the tragedy’s productions . In 1671, Milton published Samson, along with the prefatory epistle; with several exceptions, for the next 225 years readers took seriously his remark that the drama was not meant for the stage. The few pre-1900 stagings have been ably surveyed by Alwin Thaler and his succinct account of them can be summarized briefly. Luigi Riccoboni, an Italian playwright and stage historian, visited England and seems to have been familiar with Milton’s work. In 1717 he composed a French version of Samson that was presented in Paris. In 1739 his compatriot Jean-Antoine Romagnesi followed suit, mounting a rhymed adaptation of Samson for the same venue. Meanwhile, approximately seven editions of the tragedy had appeared in England by 1722. In that year, Bishop Atterbury approached Alexander Pope about dividing it into acts and scenes for the stage, and expressed the hope that Samson could be acted by the King’s Scholars at Westminster.2 Atterbury’s subsequent confinement to the Tower apparently scuttled this idea; Pope himself never mentions it. I would add that David Erskine Baker lists Samson in his Companion to the Playhouse (published in 1764), and observes that he had met a certain (unnamed) gentleman who had altered the work “so as to render it fit for the stage,” and who planned to mount it in or around 1741–42. If this intention was ever realized, no record of the performance is extant. By contrast, A Masque at Ludlow Castle was not only staged in 1634 but also frequently adapted for the boards throughout the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. Moreover, theatrical versions of Paradise Lost, Lycidas, L’Allegro, and Il Penseroso were also produced often during this period.3 How are we to account for the near-total lack of staging of the tragedy for over two centuries, an interval in which Milton’s other works were performed regularly? Some would-be producers may have been put off by the drama’s long speeches and relative lack of physical action, although as we have seen, some were not. Another obstacle to staging Samson may have been the popularity of George F. Handel’s oratorio Samson, which is substantially based on Milton’s tragedy. Handel and his librettist Newburgh Hamilton tagged Milton’s blank verse to provide airs for the singers. For instance, Samson’s great lines “O dark, dark, dark, amid the blaze of noon, / Irrecoverably dark, total eclipse / Without all hope of day” (80–82) were rewritten as follows: Total eclipse! No sun, no Moon! All dark amidst the blaze of Noon! O glorious light! No chearing Ray To glad my Eyes with welcome Day! In addition, Hamilton eliminated the Public Officer and invented a new character, namely, Micah, a Jewish woman. Nonetheless, he and Handel retained the original’s basic plot structure. The oratorio was composed in the early 1740s; it premiered on February 18, 1743, and was performed seven more times that year, twice in 1744, twice in 1820, three times in 1853, and seven times in 1869. Single performances were offered in 1754, 1755, 1772, 1777, 1825, and 1829, and it continued to be mounted throughout...


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