Samson Agonistes

Iain Glen

Iain Glen

“I never thought I would spend two hours by the radio, listening to Samson Agonistes. On Sunday night, I did. What did I get out of it, apart from the occasional quiver when I recognised the gobbets I learned for long-ago exams? The strong impression that Milton would never have been strong box office. This was his only play and, within its Greek tragedy conventions, the story is familiar, all the action has either already happened or takes place off stage. Like Oedipus or Agamemnon, it’s about truth and consequences but all we have to grasp their workings-out are voices, words.

On the page, they unroll, often slowly. On the air, they cascaded. The performances were superb: Iain Glen as the blinded Samson, bound by chains to the mill he must turn to grind corn for his deadly enemies; David De Keyser as his aged father; Philip Madoc as Harpaha, champion of Gath, who comes to taunt him; Samantha Bond as Dalila; Michael Maloney as the Messenger and, most remarkable of all, a three-man chorus, Tim Bentinck, Simon Treves and Sean Barrett, whose dialogue with Samson actually sounded like speech. (The thought that here was David Archer talking to Samson, I admit, crossed my mind but only twice.) John Tydeman directed. He and his cast shook off every speck of dust. That blind author who died four centuries ago shone in the air.”

– Gillian Reynolds – Daily Telegraph

“At one level, John Milton’s dramatic poem Samson Agonistes depicts the struggle of Samson (Iain Glen) to overcome the Philistines. As in Greek drama, a three-person Chorus (Tim Bentinck, Simon Treves, Sean Barrett) comments on the action, both guiding listeners as to how they should read the poem and introducing what will happen next. On another level, Samson Agonistes depicts the struggles of the poet trying to write while virtually blind. The Biblical story functions as an allegory of artistic creation. Samson’s physical strength corresponds to the poet’s verbal strength; if either of them lose their faculties, they will be reduced to nothing. They try to show off their powers at every opportunity – as, for example, in the poem’s lengthy speeches, where the poet makes inventive use of the iambic pentameter form.

With Dalila’s (Samantha Bond’s) entrance, however, the poem’s tone alters. Rather than relying on his own strength, Samson blames her for his failings; she tempted him into becoming “ungodly” – i.e. weak. Although Dalila protests her innocence, Samson cannot acknowledge that his failings are entirely self-created. At this point Samson Agonistes comes dangerously close to misogynist fantasy, which seems rather at odds with the poem’s stated purpose.

However, once Herapha (Philip Madoc) comes on the scene, casting aspersions on Samson’s strength – both mental and physical – the protagonist recovers himself. Despite overwhelming odds, Samson not only escapes from the Philistines, but knocks down the walls of Gaza and thereby frees the Israelites. He acquires an inner determination that resists criticism and at the same time inspires him to make the ultimate sacrifice on behalf of his people. As reported in the third person by the Chorus, his struggles only acquired a quasi-journalistic immediacy, with the actors delivering their lines breathlessly, as if they had come straight from the scene of Samson’s struggles. The last half-hour of John Tydeman’s production was particularly gripping, with the Chorus’s narrative conjuring up a scene similar to the climax of Ridley Scott’s film Gladiator (2000), as one man vanquishes the forces of destruction ranged against him. However Samson Agonistes assumes an extra dimension of meaning, as we recall that Samson’s triumph is also the poet’s triumph, as he finds sufficient mental and physical resources to complete his last major work.

Tydeman celebrated the power of the imagination – not only of Milton himself, but also of his cast, whose dramatic delivery transformed the poem from a dry-as-ditchwater account of Biblical events (as I remember from my undergraduate days) into a vivid, compelling narrative.”