An actor hones his skills

John Basinger
John Basinger. Photo by Ralph Stewart

By Nis Kildegaard - June 28, 2007

John Basinger's copy of Paradise Lost is so dog-eared, so completely falling from its binding, it looks as if someone had thoroughly chewed and swallowed it.

In fact, that's a pretty fair description of what Mr. Basinger has done.

Over eight years, beginning on a January day in 1993, Mr. Basinger has committed the entire epic poem by John Milton - all 10,565 lines of iambic pentameter - to memory. The story of the fall of Adam and Eve, revered by many scholars as the greatest work of literature ever written in the English language, is all inside Mr. Basinger's head.

Mr. Basinger is on the Island this month playing the role of Ephriam Skiffe, a Chilmark fisherman in the Vineyard Playhouse production of "This Island Alone." As a gift to the community, and because he needs the discipline of performance to keep his grasp of the great poem strong, he will present a book from "Paradise Lost" in a free program at the Edgartown Public Library on Saturday, June 30, at 4 pm.

Mr. Basinger, who is 73, is a retired college professor and an actor with a long history of collaboration with the National Theatre of the Deaf (he now serves on its board of directors). He developed his love of the storyteller's craft in performances with the National Theatre of the Deaf, often working in tandem with a deaf storyteller.

There came a time, with his retirement impending and the prospect of time for new projects, when Mr. Basinger began thinking about working up a new performance piece - something really ambitious. He recalls the day he made the leap the way a husband might recall the day of his marriage.

"It was Jan. 30, 1993. I was walking by the library in Middletown, Conn., on my way to the health club to work out, and I thought, 'Why not today?'" He went inside and checked out the Norton Critical Edition of Paradise Lost, and later that day, he began.

"That first day was actually one of the biggest days I ever had," he recalls, "because I memorized 26 lines, the whole first section of book one."

Mr. Basinger, who insists his powers of memory are merely normal, describes the work of the next eight years as a steady slog, a discipline of working each day with a few new lines of Milton's poem.

The figure he uses to describe his project is the mountain-climber. "You have people who can hang by one finger on a rock face, a thousand feet above the ground. That's not me: I can walk up a mountain, but I can't climb it that way. I'm not one of these memory savants. I plod, and I pound.

"And if you keep doing that as I did, seven to ten lines every day, and then revisit what you did the day before and carry that forward, eventually like a snowball, it builds. Pretty soon, you're up pretty high - you can look down and say hey, I've come quite a long ways."

Each of the 12 books of Paradise Lost was, for Mr. Basinger, a kind of mountaineer's plateau, or base camp. "I would get to the end of book one, and I'd begin memorizing book two, but I'd really be reworking book one to get it up to performance level, which is another whole dimension - being able to perform it, to make the story come to life."

This distinction - between merely knowing the words and owning the story - is important to Mr. Basinger. "And I really own Paradise Lost," he says. "I make decisions about the meaning of the text as I perform it - how does God speak here? How does Satan speak?"

It has been, he says, like a marriage. "It's with me all the time, in my thoughts - sometimes more intense, sometimes more distant, but it's never gone." Since that January day in 1993, he's never been away from the discipline of working with Paradise Lost for more than a few days at a stretch. "I can use it to put myself to sleep at night. If I'm driving someplace or standing in line somewhere, I automatically recite it to myself."

Mr. Basinger expresses no regrets about having made his commitment to Milton's great story of the Biblical Fall. Rather than Paradise Lost, he realizes that he could have memorized 750 sonnets. "Would that have been better? The answer is no.

"I've always been aiming at the idea of presenting Paradise Lost as a story - not as an object for academic study. I want it to be received as a story. I am a performer of stories, and that touches on the tradition of the great bards, the minstrels. I like that."

"Paradise Lost" recitation, Saturday, June 30, 4 pm, Edgartown library, 58 N. Water St. Free admission.

Nis Kildegaard is a contributing writer to The Times.