October 14, 2012

Jonathan Rosen on Milton’s Love, Loss, and Paradise Lost

In researching my latest show, I’ve read a lot about Galileo. His astronomical findings were key in demonstrating that the sun didn’t move around the earth, as had been thought for the past 1500 years. It took over 200 years to finally prove Galileo was right, but the shift from a geocentric to a heliocentric universe started with him.

I was surprised and please to discover that Galileo met John Milton, author of Paradise Lost, an epic poem in which Milton attempts to explain the cosmos via literature (and is the source for one of my favorite series, the His Dark Materials trilogy, by Phillip Pullman, the title of which is a reference to the poem.) Even better, this 2008 article about their meeting by Jonathan Rosen for the New Yorker, touches on all 3 of my show topics: cosmology, love, and disaster.

First, some background on their meeting:

Sometime in 1638, John Milton visited Galileo Galilei in Florence. The great astronomer was old and blind and under house arrest, confined by order of the Inquisition, which had forced him to recant his belief that the earth revolves around the sun, as formulated in his “Dialogue Concerning the Two Chief World Systems.” Milton was thirty years old—his own blindness, his own arrest, and his own cosmological epic, “Paradise Lost,” all lay before him…

Beyond the sheer pleasure of picturing the encounter—it’s like those comic-book specials in which Superman meets Batman—there’s something strange about imagining these two figures inhabiting the same age. Though Milton was the much younger man, in some ways his world system seems curiously older than the astronomer’s empirical universe.

What struck me most was how much the article, and perhaps Paradise Lost,  touch on areas relevant to my show which focuses on models of the universe, both historical and personal, and how the latter, more individual cosmology is affected by love and disaster. Rosen suggests that Paradise Lost came out of Milton’s burning desire to address, “how things could have gone so wrong in human affairs”. These problems were both personal and national.
Through the preceding years [up to writing the poem], Milton had suffered a number of personal disasters: in 1652, his wife Mary died in childbirth, and a son died the following month. In 1658, his second wife, whom he had married two years before, died as well, followed a month after that by their daughter. Furthermore, in the year of Mary’s death Milton’s blindness became total, a fact that informs the tone and texture of “Paradise Lost,” as does the total collapse of his political-theological hopes. [Milton wrote in defense of the killing of King Charles I, was a key member of Cromwell’s interregnum government, and lived to see his political world crumble when Charles II returned the country to monarchy.]
Milton is, Rosen infers, attempting to create a cosmology in his poem to help him explain the problems he saw in his time, a creative impetus which gives the poem relevance to America and contemporary disasters:

In America, where God and the Devil live alongside Western rationalism, Milton seems right at home. After the attacks of September 11th, it was possible to find Milton invoked to remind us of the nature of absolute evil—his Satan really is a model terrorist, who, having abandoned hope of a happy home, devotes his energy to destroying the lives of others—and at the same time quoted to uphold the rights of individuals whose distasteful views might be curtailed during a time of war.

But the human element, particularly love, is also a central part of the poem. Rosen talk about his first introduction to Milton in a high school English class.
The teacher—a reserved young man who had been born in China—suddenly read aloud to us Adam’s words to Eve after he has made the decision to eat the apple and fall with her… Adam decides that he would rather die with her than live alone: “To lose thee were to lose myself.”… [The] teacher told us, in a voice thick with emotion, that he had just recited these words to his own bride:

How can I live without you, how forgo
Thy sweet converse and love so dearly joined,
To live again in these wild woods forlorn?
Should God create another Eve, and I
Another rib afford, yet loss of thee
Would never from my heart.’

Adam is rescued from despair after the fall by his love for Eve and by her fortitude and love for him. In a sense, they rescue each other.

Galileo’s discovery of craters on the moon, sunspots, and the phases of Venus called into question geocentrism, for which he was censured by he church. But his discoveries began a slow yet inevitable shift to a cosmological model where earth was decentered, calling into question humankind’s place in the scheme of the universe . I find it compelling that at a time when the European scientific and religious community was debating the position of earth in the cosmos, and whether the earth was literally shifting underneath their feet, that Milton, in a personal yet epic way, was trying to reconcile his own changing universe. As Rosen says:

“Paradise Lost” is simultaneously personal, national, and universal, a poem that claims divine inspiration but is clearly made up, a poem with ancient origins and contemporary interpolations that confuses the very notion of old and new. A number of recent scholars who have focussed on Milton’s knowledge of Hebrew see echoes in his literary strategy of rabbinic Midrash, human stories that helped embody divine meaning and in the process became divine themselves.
Humankind has always used stories to understand it’s role in the universe, whether tribal people and their myths or our own personal narratives that we use to define our selves in relation to the world around us. Paradise Lost. born from disaster, grounded by love, and informed by Milton’s complicated Christian faith, seems to be a particularly epic example of this impulse. I look forward to reading it and to see how it relates to my show, in which I look at how people make sense of the world, especially in relationship to love and disaster.

[All quotes via Return to Paradise : The New Yorker.]

October 13, 2012

BBC News – The tsunami debris washed from Japan to Oregon

“A 66ft (20m) concrete dock, kept buoyant by polystyrene, arrived intact in June.”

BBC News - The tsunami debris washed from Japan to Oregon


“Many of them just walked up and touched it – without saying a word they were making contact with it… and after we confirmed it was from Japan the attitudes deepened. People were making this emotional connection with this horrible tragedy.

BBC News – The tsunami debris washed from Japan to Oregon.

September 23, 2012

September 11th from space – Rebecca J. Rosen – The Atlantic

“When astronauts describe the feeling of sailing around space, looking at our planet from hundreds of miles above, they often invoke the phrase “orbital perspective,” a shorthand for the emotional, psychological, and intellectual effects of seeing “the Earth hanging in the blackness of space.”

Over the course of [Sept 11th] and into the following few days, Culbertson wrote a letter to those at home, and his words echo that orbital perspective…”It’s horrible to see smoke pouring from wounds in your own country from such a fantastic vantage point,” he wrote. “The dichotomy of being on a spacecraft dedicated to improving life on the earth and watching life being destroyed by such willful, terrible acts is jolting to the psyche.”

The Story of the Only American Not on Earth on September 11th – Rebecca J. Rosen – The Atlantic.

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September 23, 2012

The Meaning of Life (according to Annie Dillard)

We are here to witness the creation and abet it...Otherwise, creation would be playing to an empty house”

“We are here to witness the creation and abet it. We are here to notice each thing so each thing gets noticed. Together we notice not only each mountain shadow and each stone on the beach but, especially, we notice the beautiful faces and complex natures of each other. We are here to bring to consciousness the beauty and power that are around us and to praise the people who are here with us. We witness our generation and our times. We watch the weather. Otherwise, creation would be playing to an empty house.

According to the second law of thermodynamics, things fall apart. Structures disintegrate. Buckminster Fuller hinted at a reason we are here: By creating things, by thinking up new combinations, we counteract this flow of entropy. We make new structures, new wholeness, so the universe comes out even. A shepherd on a hilltop who looks at a mess of stars and thinks, ‘There’s a hunter, a plow, a fish,’ is making mental connections that have as much real force in the universe as the very fires in those stars themselves.”

Annie Dillard via BrainPickings

September 16, 2012

VS Ramachandran: The neurons that shaped civilization | Video on TED.com

“There is no real independent self, aloof from other human beings, inspecting the world, inspecting other people. You are, in fact, connected not just via Facebook and Internet, you’re actually quite literally connected by your neurons.”

via VS Ramachandran: The neurons that shaped civilization | Video on TED.com.

September 11, 2012

StoryCorps Shorts: September 11 Stories | POV | PBS

Always A Family — On the morning of September 11th, Michael Trinidad called his ex-wife, Monique Ferrer, from the 103rd floor of the World Trade Center’s North Tower to say goodbye. In the wake of his death, Monique tells the story of Michael’s lasting legacy — the family they built together.

She Was the One — When Richie Pecorella met Karen Juday, she captured his heart and changed his life. They were engaged and living together in Brooklyn when Karen was killed in the terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center, where she worked as an administrative assistant. Here, Richie remembers Karen, his love and inspiration.

John and Joe — John Vigiano Sr. is a retired New York City firefighter whose two sons followed him into service — John Jr. was a firefighter, too, and Joe was a police detective. On September 11, 2001, both Vigiano brothers responded to the call from the World Trade Center, and both were killed while saving others. John Sr. remembers his sons and reflects on coping with his tremendous loss.

StoryCorps Shorts: September 11 Stories | POV | PBS.

September 11, 2012

A new generation for 9-11 – The Deming Headlight

“There is a new generation that is just now learning about what happened back on Sept. 11, 2001. History books, media attention and our schools have been tasked with bringing the tragic events of this day into focus and how it has reshaped our society as a whole. It is important for this young generation to absorb the events of that day and to try and make sense of it all.


We are the curators of American History and each and every parent should take time to talk to their children and let them know why today is a special day in the hearts and minds of each and every American.”

via A new generation for 9-11 – The Deming Headlight.

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September 11, 2012

Are Today’s Millennials The ‘Screwed Generation’? : NPR

Kotkin says one of the reasons millennials are in this situation is the push for a college degree, which in earlier generations led to a better job.

“In my parents’ generation, the sort of World War II/Depression generation, if you got a college degree you were pretty guaranteed of a decent job because there weren’t that many people with BAs,” he says. “There was a huge growth in the number of jobs that needed these skills, and a relative paucity [of people to fill them]. Now the BA has become a commodity — there are so many of them.

Are Today’s Millennials The ‘Screwed Generation’? : NPR.

September 11, 2012

Are All Young Artists ‘Post-9/11’ Artists? : NPR

[Bell’] felt that each of them could be classified as “post 9/11” artists.

“Their worldview is defined by the angst, the unease, the trepidation of the difficulties of the 21st century,” he says.

Bell, who’s only 32 himself, admires how these artists unite new technology with centuries-old crafts. They’re using everything from silversmithing to ceramics to explore post-Sept. 11 concerns: globalism, privacy, sustainable living, war.


Mazza, 34, intended [her piece, Knit for Defense] to recall national efforts to knit for soldiers during World War II, when knitting connected civilians to the frontlines. Nowadays, people connect to the wars abroad through Youtube videos. Hence, the knit pixels. Mazza says even though she’s exploring explicitly post-Sept. 11 themes, she’s not really comfortable with the label: “post 9/11 artist.” She doesn’t like the idea of artists being framed by just one thing.

Source: Are All Young Artists ‘Post-9/11’ Artists? : NPR.

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September 1, 2012

Playing to Two Audiences (what Pixar and digital theater-makers have in common)

Woke up thinking about #scratchr and this question:

How can theater-makers create work for 2 audiences: in-house and online?

I was reminded of Pixar’s “Toy Story”.


Well, I went to the Battersea Art Center’s Hack and Scratch event last night not knowing what to expect.

[Side note: go to the BAC and get involved. It’s amazeballs. Seriously, go now. Go. GO I SAY!]

[Did you go? What’s wrong with you? Maybe you should consider taking part in their immersive theatrical event “The Good Neighbor” (deadline this Monday.) You will? Good.]

Much to my surprise, the night was perfect for me (a solo performer) and my companion (a digital director for non-profits.)

Richard and his producing team were unveiling scratchr.net, the online version of BAC’s famous Scratch events, where artists share works-in-development with audiences for feedback. The site is early beta (it’s the scratch version of scratchr.net!) and needs your input. Go sign in and poke around.

After watching the site presentation, we broke into three group discussions. I chose the conversation led by the lovely Katherine Jewkes on digital theater. A lot of interesting questions were raised and ideas batted about.


The next day, the question that sticks with me is this: How can theater-makers develop work for the audience that comes to the performance space and the one that attends via their web browser?

How can we create performance that isn’t simply broadcast via the internet, but has two unique iterations? That is at home on-stage and online, playing to the strengths and possibilities of both contexts?


I’m reminded of Pixar, and why they make such appealing movies. Pixar’s movie-making mantra is “story, story, story” and every scene they write must play to two audiences: 5-year-olds and 35-years. Because 35-year olds take their kids to the cinema. So Pixar thought, “Why not make a movie that the parents will enjoy, too?”

For example, when Mr Potato Head’s face is knocked off and then reassembled in the wrong order, the kids laugh because his face is funny. The parents laugh when he says, “Look, I’m Picasso!” The scene speaks to both groups.

Analogously, in order to make successful digital theater, performance practitioners should think about their two audiences — the groundlings and the gamers — from the beginning. How can each moment play to both? How can we engage the person looking back at us from the front row and the one watching online, and create a unique, theatrical experience for both?

Pixar shows us that your work can take multiple, very different audiences into consideration, and make work that engages them simultaneously. The line between a movie for kids or adults is false. How can we learn from this example and make theater that work onstage and online?