Hugh Richmond is a UC Berkeley professor emeritus of English who runs the Milton Project — an academic effort that aims to teach students the works of John Milton and his most famous work, “Paradise Lost,” using performance. The epic, Richmond argues, is better understood when performed, opening it to first-time readers in a way that would be impossible reading only the written word. For this reason, his website, Milton Revealed, aims to expose teachers and students to methods that require students to engage with the text as actors and audience members, not simply readers. Richmond has taught UC Berkeley students as well as professors in this art of teaching for decades.
The goal, Richmond says, is to increase access to and interest in a text that many students fear and avoid, instead instilling in them a passion for the text that he so clearly embraces himself. The professor, who has been in Berkeley since 1957, also facilitates Shakespeare Staging, a sister program that does the same with Shakespearean plays. Richmond does this work alongside his wife Velma, a former professor from Holy Names College in Oakland, who studies Geoffrey Chaucer and classic literature’s permutations in children’s stories. The couple sat down with the Weekender in their home on Grizzly Peak this week to discuss Milton, teaching and understanding the literary greats.
Daily Californian: So what is the Milton Project, and how is it working today?
Hugh Richmond: It’s about teaching through performance, learning through performance. When you hear or see something performed, it becomes much clearer. When I was first teaching, students found printed Shakespeare quite difficult. So I thought I’d use films as a way of reinforcing. I found students that students responded strongly. I used to drag Velma into class, and we’d do the love scenes from Shakespeare. This was something that I felt strongly about and I thought that it worked so well with Shakespeare, so I decided to see how it worked with Milton. And it really did work extremely well. If you look at something like “Paradise Lost” on the page, it’s really quite intimidating. If you perform something, it’s not just a matter of just having the ideas or the words, it gets into your body physically. So I found this worked extremely well with Milton, and the students became very keen on performance. It’s so revelatory and interesting getting more sense involved than what you do when you’re reading. Mostly what I do now is work to provide materials to use.
DC: When I read “Paradise Lost,” I listened to a recording of it — it was the only way I could feel the rhythm of it.
HR: Yes, I think you have to. The funny thing is that the tradition of the epic originally was oral. Literally, in Milton’s case it had to be, because he was blind. It had to be spoken, so in that sense there’s something authentic about listening to it rather than reading it. That’s why I’m so keen on performance. I think a lot of what’s written was originally much more oral. When you hear something, you get it in your system — the pacing, the tone and so forth. All this gives you an extra level of help understanding it.
DC: As students, was your learning of the classics simply cut and dry? Read the book, then read the book again?
Velma Richmond: Each epic has its own sensibility. I actually just love books, the physical object. It’s quite interesting to think about the technology. We’re so old that there was no copying — Xerox did not exist. When we were doing our research, you read the book and transcribed by hand. I actually found my learning experiences very exciting — with books and lectures. Very much just listening to lecturers. But I just don’t think that’s the way young people learn anymore.
HR: And it also varies by experience. I grew up in England, and my school always took students who were studying Shakespeare to see Shakespeare. I’m writing a paper arguing that the only way to understand Shakespeare is to be a spectator. You can study it and learn a great deal from it, but at some point, it has to be performed. This is part of what teaching has to be — it can’t just be lecturing.
VR: It was always one of the things certain when I started as a professor — I always used visual a great deal. I always felt it was very necessary.
HR: In some ways, Velma’s working with the visuals is another important way of engaging with the other senses.
DC: Especially considering “The Canterbury Tales” and “Paradise Lost,” it seems like you’re never really done with a text. There’s something new every time you look at it. For students, does it matter if they experience these works as performance first and then in written word?
HR: I finished up at Berkeley teaching a Shakespeare course for freshmen. About half of them were very well versed in Shakespeare, and it went well for them. For other students with no experience at all, I noticed that they were very puzzled at first. But when I used a film clip, and when they saw it, they really understood what it was all about. And that’s what Shakespeare was originally — it wasn’t originally a reading experience.
VR: I especially have found it’s much more difficult to respond to plays as written text. I think there is a real difference there. Because in my youth there was not very much performance available. It took me quite a long time before I could read a text and see a performance in my head, which is what I think one has to work to. Which is why Hugh’s work is so important.
DC: For students who watch the movie instead of reading the text, there’s sometimes the sense that it’s cheating. How do you know if watching the movie version of a text is a way out or a way in?
VR: The fundamental thing is that they’re two very different art forms.
HR: They’re so different because the film has photographic qualities. It’s helpful, but it’s not the same experience. In “Henry V,” the Olivier film, the charge of the French cavalry is the high point. In the play, the battle is hardly there. It’s very funny. Even with performance, if you’re performing a script, every performance is different. You can’t rely on a single performance. When teaching “King Lear,” I once used six clips from six different performances. They’re so different, and you have to show, this is one way of looking at it and this is another way. That’s the risk of using film.
DC: For Milton, when you have people perform the epic, you’re going to have to cut it down. How did that process work? How do you edit Milton?
HR: I turned “Paradise Lost” into the play. What I did was take all the direct speech. If you take only those parts, you’ve got a two-hour play. Students could choose a bit of this and perform it. Milton originally had in mind that it was going to be a play, so it’s not altogether unfair.
DC: As a student, it’s hard to conceive of how one’s relationship with a single text might change over many years. How have your experiences with Shakespeare’s works or Milton’s works changed? How do you find new life in them?
HR: Let me take an example. When I was teaching in the ’60s, the Vietnam War was going on, and it was said that you really shouldn’t teach “Henry V,” because it’s all about glorifying war. Well, I said that the point of the whole play is to “make love not war,” which is of course what everyone was saying. So I was able to use that. Each period has its own way of learning things.
DC: I’m always incredibly intimidated by how well-read everyone who writes is. As great readers yourselves, do you foray into your own writing creatively?
HR: To write novels and poetry?
VR: I think that part of it is being a little bit daunted. I quite like story-telling. I suppose I want to spend time reading more and assimilating that. I love finding things. A lot of work I have done is trying to discover things that have not been noticed and trying to talk about why they’re interesting.
HR: There are all kinds of creativity — the physical fact of writing is not the only way. The other thing is performances. A lot of literature is the revising and reconstituting of other works. With Shakespeare, after all, often what that text did was taking previous works and tinkering with them. The other thing is that in a sense, teaching ought to be an art form. It isn’t. It was assumed that you had a subject, and however you talked about it, students were bound to be interested. Teaching is an art form, too. A lecture ought to be like a one-act play with a beginning, a middle and an end. W.H. Auden started by copying other people.
DC: Seems like everyone did.
HR: Well, that’s what literature is. This is why the literary tradition and so-called canon ought to be maintained, because the idea that one sits in a garret and invents something wholly out of one’s mind — that’s almost never the case. Even if you take some of the Beat poets, they look as if they’re highly subjective, but “Howl” is based on Old Testament prophets. The very words one uses, they’re from other people. One doesn’t invent a whole language.
VR: It takes a long time to read a great many things and make connections.
HR: It’s a life-long process. I have this notorious passage on teaching — I say, well I think that some of the things I have to say on “King Lear,” students will only understand on their deathbeds. And that does prevent adequate teaching reviews. It takes a whole lifetime.