Intended for the Stage?: Samson Agonistes in Performance

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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, in 1900. 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, and nearly every decade saw several dramatizations. At least fifteen 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. What light, if any, has a century of production shed on our understanding of Samson? Does it tend to confirm or refute Milton’s statement in the tragedy’s prefatory epistle that it was never intended for the stage? Have these productions secured a position for Samson in the theater canon, or not? To answer these questions I shall survey the work’s performance history, concentrating primarily on full stagings rather than dramatic readings. The latter are popular with teachers of Milton and, not surprisingly, tend to confirm the work’s status as a poem, albeit a dramatic one. Full-dress enactments, by contrast, implicitly claim that Samson is a stageworthy play as well as a poem. My main purpose here is to evaluate that claim.


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