Predominantly still: John Milton and the sacred persuasions of performance
Though John Milton does not generally make an appearance in books about performance, it is time we considered Milton’s little acknowledged desire to write for the theatre. Even if that desire was thwarted by the political conditions governing the theatre of the time, it was a desire that influenced much of Milton’s writing. A Maske is the only text Milton wrote and had performed. In it Milton creates a remarkable figure, the Lady, whose very power comes from a combination of stillness and motion. By staging her most persuasive addresses from a static, seated position, Milton manipulates not only the audience’s perspective, focusing it on a third throne in the masquing hall, but also the audience’s expectations by combining a still female body and an active female voice. Like Jonson, Milton works in a form already established as one displaying the aesthetic power of stillness and motion. But unlike Jonson, Milton uses the form to present theatrically the show of Christian struggle and triumph by comparing false illusion in the person of Comus to powerful representation in the person of the Lady. In Milton’s dramatic writing, his characters often seem to take on actions even their author had not planned for the script. The Lady, while cleansing theatricality of its more sordid feminine history of inducing self-delusion, finds herself implicated physically by her engaged conversing with the villain Comus. Her mixed associations, the fixedness of print and printed rhetoric, the sensuous persuasion of corporeal performance and its consequences, combine to form a parable. It is for the spectator to draw from this parable the example of right actions and humble surrender.