Editor’s note: This article was initially published in The Daily Gazette, Swarthmore’s online, daily newspaper founded in Fall 1996. As of Fall 2018, the DG has merged with The Phoenix. See the about page to read more about the DG.
This past weekend saw showings of Patrick Ross ‘15’s honors playwriting thesis, Daughters of God and Man, at Swarthmore and in Philadelphia. Through funding from the Deborah A. DeMott ‘70 Student Research and Internship grant, the play had a staged reading with both professional actors and a professional director. Ross got the idea to intertwine his original story with adaptations from John Milton’s Paradise Lost from one of Swarthmore’s English literature classes, Tolkien and Pullman.
“[In that class] we read the Pullman books, His Dark Materials, which are loosely based on Paradise Lost. We read those books and then we also read Paradise Lost alongside it and compared them. [And] because we were reading it alongside the Pullman books, I was seeing how the story can be twisted and modernized and so it was in my brain that way,” Ross said.
Ross learned that Milton was blind and that he had three daughters. To his fascination, very few sources mentioned Milton’s daughters. “I read a few biographies of him and, interestingly, the daughters are hardly mentioned. In one biography they are mentioned only to say they are born,” he said. Ross eventually landed on the final concept in which his script explores Anne, Mary, and Deborah’s relationship with their demanding father as he wrote Paradise Lost.
Ross wrote the play with only a single fact about each daughter as a jumping off point. He said, “Anne is the oldest one and she had some sort of mental disability […] she didn’t speak, so my Anne doesn’t speak […] All that was said about Mary was that she was like her mother. And I knew that Milton hated that mother, his first wife […] What I knew about Deborah was that she was the only one who forgave him, eventually.”
“I must be milked!” roared the blind Milton, played by Darin J. Dunston. A relieved audience learned quickly that ‘milking’ referred to taking dictation of Paradise Lost.
This eccentric method of writing, a necessity borne from the author’s blindness, reflected an unusual power dynamic between father and daughters. Though Milton ostensibly controlled the girls’ lives, he failed to see their potential and their worth as human beings.
“It’s definitely about father-daughter relationships to an extent. It’s their historical story, but it’s intercut with scenes from Paradise Lost,” Ross said.
Themes of good and evil, of sin and virtue, of temptation and loss, all present in Paradise Lost, permeate Daughters of God and Man, and make it rich. Ross chose to have each actor play two characters to emphasize this duality. “The actor playing John Milton will also play God. All three sisters at some point play Eve in different versions of the scenes. And eventually Eve is tempted and falls and that is also true of the three girls,” Ross said.
Daughters of God and Man is a compelling play that gives life and character to women long past and forgotten. Ross has woven a tale that transforms the story of Eve’s fall from grace into a story of discovering freedom and passion after a lifetime of being stifled. The play is at times heartbreaking and at times hilarious, but always clever and full of heart.