Mozart’s composed his Requiem Mass in 14 movements. Milton wrote Paradise Lost in 12 Books. The Requiem evokes the The Book of Revelation, while Paradise Lost embellishes the story of Genesis. Not an obvious match, given they effectively bookend the Bible. So, when pairing the poem to the music, my first task was to decide what to include, and how to line things up.
One thing I knew going in: I wanted to keep the Requiem intact, in both comprehensiveness and sequence. This meant – no omissions and no re-ordering of the 14 movements.
What we cut
On the other hand, I felt that abridging and rearranging Milton’s work to adapt it for the stage was acceptable. The Requiem would be the unbreakable spine on which, like tendons and musculature, we’d layer Paradise Lost.
I was at first surprised that there isn’t a significant history of adaptations of Paradise Lost. Neither playwrights nor directors have released anything of substance. In 2012, a big-budget, 3-D action-oriented cinematic adaptation was in the works. Directed by the highly accomplished Alex Proyas (director of Knowing, Dark City, The Crow and I, Robot,) and starring Bradley Cooper as Satan (which frankly, would have been awesome!) the project was ultimately cancelled over budgetary concerns related to effects.
I can appreciate why Proyas would choose to focus on the action in the story – which has the potential to be definitively epic. Similarly, I can also understand how even the budget of over $100M USD was expected to climb as the production was developed.
One of the challenges in adapting Milton’s epic poem to the theatre, is that much of the story is told by Raphael’s account of events that preceded the story’s timeline of events, or in long discussions between characters, and internal debates within Satan’s mind.
I also felt it was necessary to cut Satan’s first (and failed) attempt to corrupt Eve in her dreams and his capture in Eden (Book VI) to keep the running time as close to an hour as possible.
Last, the background story behind the angelic war in heaven: Satan’s revolt upon hearing he would need to answer to the Son of God (as told by Angel Raphael in Book VII), ended up on the cutting room floor. I felt these events would need to precede Book I, but while it might stand as a good preface, it wasn’t easily adapted to the stage.
What we re-arranged
In the end, we matched the two works like this:
As the diagram suggests, Mozart’s Requiem guides events. As the more linear of the two works, I chose to rearrange the structure of Milton’s Paradise Lost to more clearly match the real chronology of the events he illustrates.
One of the earlier decisions we made was to stage Satan’s fall from heaven as an introduction to the play, which was more in line with Milton’s chronology. This became more clear when I realised the story we were telling was not the first few chapters of Genesis, but in fact Paradise Lost. In Paradise Lost, Satan, not Adam and Eve, is the main protagonist. He drives events forward with his actions. This was a critical arc in the work that we didn’t want to ignore – and the rest of the story pretty much follows the books – albeit re-ordered.
A significant example of this, was Domine Jesu. In Paradise Lost, the angelic war in heaven takes place prior to the events in Book I. The events of the war are told to Adam by the Angel Raphael in Book VI. I could have omitted this, but it provided such a great opportunity for epic theatre, I was compelled to keep it.
I decided to place these events after humankind’s fall, as God’s armies punish Satan and his followers for corrupting humankind. In the poem, God casts a spell, the devils turn into snakes and are forced to eat ash. I couldn’t see this alone making great theatre, so I decided to move the battle to Act Three.
In terms of characters, we removed the scenes featuring Archangel Raphael – but are featuring the action from the stories he told Adam. We also brought the expulsion earlier in time, having the Son of God escort the pair out of Paradise, instead of Michael doing it at the end of the story. These were all decisions inspired by plotting, which I’ll get into next.
How we plotted it
I knew I wanted to divide the work into a Three-Act Structure and that we’d play related interval music between Acts. This approach not only gives us a chance to split the score into manageable chunks, but also provides the audience (and us) with the opportunity to take breaks!
In theatre, one aims to end with a big climax before the end of every Act, saving the last and most exciting climax for the beginning of Act Three. This provides exciting closure to the preceding scenes, propels the action forward past points of no return (Eve was created, Adam and Eve were expelled from Eden), and whets anticipation for the next Act in the performance.
It was clear to me, in our rearranged story structure, that the inciting incident was Satan’s fall from heaven (Book I) – which is aligned with Milton’s plotting. The climax in Act One however, is when Eve is born from Adam’s side in Tuba mirum after he demands a companion in Dies irae. Eve’s presence propels the plot forward, her destiny is to become the victim of Satan in Act Two. We’ve now introduced the major characters and the set up for the confrontation is complete.
It’s necessary to have a twist, or reversal of fortune, that sets up the confrontation in Act Two. In this case, it’s Satan’s corruption of Eve. The climax of Act Two, is the fall of man, and the expulsion from Paradise. Things are never more desperate than they are at this point and it’s hard to imagine a come back from this disaster.
Act Three is everything that happens after the rising action, leading to the climax of the work, in this case, the epic angelic war. We learn about the life of Adam and Eve after Eden. Michael visits the couple for the last time, to give Adam a glimpse of what his betrayal has wrought, and gives him hope with a vision that foretells that all is not lost for humankind. The contents of this vision is what makes up the third Act. Finally, we say goodbye to Adam and Eve as they go forth into the unknown world and progenate the human race.