By Erin Shields
Playwrights Canada Press
147 pages, $17.95
Erin Shields’s five-act play (a re-imagining or re-configuring of John Milton’s epical poem) is nothing if not audacious. It does not contest the prevailing critical view that Milton’s poem is magnificent because (in the words of Harold Bloom) “it is persuasively tragic as well as epic it is the tragedy of the fall of Lucifer into Satan, though it declines to show us Lucifer, light-bearer and son of the morning, chief of the stars that will fall. We see only the fallen Satan, though we behold Adam and Eve before, at the very moment of, and after the fall.” It recognizes that its Miltonic source is (along with the Bible, the Iliad, and Shakespeare’s plays) one of “the building blocks of our Western literary inheritance.” Shields takes the Miltonic source seriously, for her script is preceded by Paul Stevens’s essay “Freedom and the Fall,” that begins by calling Milton’s poem “the greatest single poem in the English language” and which has a massive influence that can be felt from old novels (Frankenstein and Moby Dick) to modern movies (Blade Runner and The Fall). (Stevens was once Shields’s professor at the University of Toronto, and she acknowledges his inspiration and encouragement.)
Where Milton used 12 massive books, all ranging from about 600-1,000 lines apiece, to engage readers who wanted to understand the complexity of evil, Shields’s play is less massive and less epical than that poem (also less Shakespearean and Biblical), though its five-act structure incorporates a deliciously satiric and parodic play-within-a-play and its action occurs in Hell, Heaven, and on Earth, and “everywhere in between,” with Time encompassing Biblical time, the seventeenth century, and the present. Shields nods to medieval passion plays by using allegorical figures of Sin and Death, but most of her dramatis personae play dual roles. For instance, Gabriel is also Beelzebub; Urania is a Stage Manager in the play-within-a-play; Zephon is also Satan; Ithuriel is God the Son; and Raphael serves as Narrator and God the Father.
Perhaps the most striking aspect of Shields’s play is its own transgressive literary audacity. I am not referring to the sinewy modern diction and turns of phrase, streaked at times with brief quotations directly from Milton. Nor am I referencing contemporary imagery (waterboarding, the Internet, subway bombs, gas chambers). Nor am I referring to her very amusing parody of actors and theatre (though if her representation is a parody of the proto-typical amateur production, it can’t help being the first professional production as well). Her audacity does include characterization of God the Father that cancels omniscience, replacing it with some incertitude—indeed several instances of a theology that is inconsistent with scholastic philosophy. It also extends to a depiction of God the Son as a figure of reasonable compassion, a figure who acknowledges the need for punishing transgression while also espousing forgiveness. There are striking larger-than-life sketches: Moloch as war-monger, Belial as his antithesis; Raphael as a self-recriminating sort of 17th century Horace who seeks to inform and delight as playwright of the play-within-a-play. Adam and Eve are, at best, the embodiment of a modern relationship. They always speak in the third person, and this diminishes their credibility as human creatures, though their duologue has appeal for its poetic braiding. It is only after the Fall that they throb (pun intended) with ardour and yearning. What I do appreciate is Shields’s focus on sexual arousal and lust as results of eating the forbidden fruit. I have always read that fable as an allegory of both invidious epistemological and sexual temptation, and Adam’s new sexual charge rises to a parody of orgasm.
But all these characters pale beside her greatest character—Satan. Her play exploits the fact (again articulated by Bloom) that “the most Shakespearean of all literary characters, after Shakespeare’s own creations is Milton’s Satan, who is the heir of the great hero-villains—Iago, Edmund, Macbeth—and of the darker aspects of Hamlet.” Shields’s Satan is female, one who is inherently and radically dramatic, light-heartedly irreverent, sly, witty (some of her wisecracks are priceless), flamboyant to the nth degree, self-consecrated as a heroine in a struggle to defeat God and his heavenly creatures, and distinguished by a cold-eyed, cold-hearted clarity about 21st century greed and corruption.
Satan opens and closes the play, and her “bookend” monologues are stunning. She emerges out of pandemonium (darkness, screams of pain and horror) and speaks in vivid terms and with vivid imagery: “I woke up in a lake of fire. /Darkness visible was all I could see/as I writhed in the stench of burning sulfur,/charred flesh, singed hair, and melted wings.” Her arrogance is splendid: “I liberated you from the banality of bliss./I released you from the beigeness of contentment./I freed you from blind obedience/to a psychopathic dictator,/to a deranged monarch,/to a bloodthirsty general,/a bully,/a thug:/you’re welcome.” She boasts, she exults, she demands human gratitude. Her ego is as monstrous as her evil, as she proclaims herself “a freedom fighter,/a champion of the underdog,/liberator of the persecuted,” topping off this self-promotion by personifying herself as a combination of Moses, Gandhi, Mandela, Malala, and Dr. King. Her final monologue is even more demonic, not simply because it represents her defeat as victory but because it represents the ultimate in nihilism. She rebukes mankind, concluding with a prediction of horror and terror for future mankind.
However, she also represents a major problem with the play. Her language, while not consistently grand, offsets that of the other characters who often sound flat or disappointingly rudimentary in speech, as in this example from Eve: “I love you, fruit./I love you, tree./I love that I found you and set your taste free/in my mouth, on my tongue that wants more,/and I feel the knowledge bulging in my head.” This is not the flattest example but it does indicate how the language of the script often fails to match the dramatic energy and power inherent in the characters and action. Imagine what a Tom Stoppard or Joe Orton would have done with the language, but, perhaps, this is being unfair to Erin Shields, who feminist retelling remains wickedly smart as it (as the back-cover blurb phrases it) “questions the reasons of the universe, the slow process of evolution and the freedom of knowledge.” Substantial enough achievement, especially in a Canadian landscape dominated by illustrated academic lectures, half-assed parodies, pop documentaries and ethnically-defined or gender-bent revelations of social and political relevance passed off as finished plays.