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The death of Larry Hagman on Friday has inspired a flurry of tributes to the beloved American actor, most of them focused on his depiction of the iconic character of J.R. Ewing on CBS’s Dallas. As an avid clarinetist and a future medievalist, I naturally spent most of my Friday nights during the early 1980s at home watching TV with my parents, and Dallas was the star attraction. For me, at least, “Who killed J.R.?” was a far more compelling question in those years than “Will I ever get a date?” What J.R. would do next, and to whom, and with what degree of deception, became a weekly preoccupation as I followed the devilish antics of the greatest TV villain of all time.
It was only when I first read Paradise Lost years later, though, that I understood the unremitting appeal of J.R. Ewing and the delicious charisma of his persona. J.R. wasn’t pure evil–or at least, if he was, his was a fully humanized evil that played on the audience’s desire to identify and even sympathize with the most odious character before them even as he wrecked the lives of his friends, family, and mortal enemies. When you were rooting for Bobby or Sue Ellen or (God forbid!) Cliff Barnes, you were really cheering for J.R. Ewing, waiting impatiently for his entrances, for that feigned vulnerability and cuddly mendacity that made him such a compelling presence on the screen. Reading Paradise Lost produces much the same effect, as critics have long recognized. Even as we identify with our human progenitors struggling against the inevitability of original sin, Satan captures our interest, and we can’t help pulling for him and the enthralling version of evil he embodies.
The many parallels between Hagman’s J.R. Ewing and Milton’s Satan came back to me over the weekend as I started preparing the last four lectures of my early English literature survey, three of which will be devoted to Paradise Lost–and one entirely to Satan. Like Satan’s, the character of J.R. Ewing is worthy of the waxing of poets and the attention of the finest critics. Rather than attempting a feeble analysis of my own, then, I’ve compiled a devilish florilegium as an homage to Larry Hagman and the character he gave us. In the Middle Ages, a florilegium (‘a gathering of flowers’) was a collection of short excerpts from one or more texts that could serve as tools of moral instruction or private reflection. In this spirit, I offer this mini-florilegium of literary and critical responses to J.R. Ewing–or rather, of literary and critical responses to Milton’s Satan, all updated for the occasion. I’ve made substitutions as appropriate (J.R. Ewing for Satan, show for poem, Dallas for Milton and Paradise Lost, etc.), with a few minor modifications of syntax. Offer some passages of your own in the Comments section and I’ll add them to the post. The YouTube at the end gives a nice taste of some of the Master’s finest moments.
C.S. Lewis, A Preface to Paradise Lost
No one had in fact done anything to J.R. Ewing; he was not hungry, nor over-tasked, nor removed from his place, nor shunned, nor hated–he only thought himself impaired. In the midst of a world of light and love, of song and feast and dance, J.R. could find nothing to think of more interesting than his own prestige…Throughout the show he is engaged in sawing off the branch he is sitting on.
Percy Bysshe Shelley, from A Defence of Poetry:
Nothing can exceed the energy and magnificence of the character of J.R. Ewing as expressed in Dallas. It is a mistake to suppose that he could ever have been intended for the popular personification of evil. Implacable hate, patient cunning, and a sleepless refinement of device to inflict the extremest anguish on an enemy, these things are evil; and, although venial in a slave, are not to be forgiven in a tyrant; although redeemed by much that ennobles his defeat in one subdued, are marked by all that dishonors his conquest in the victor. Dallas‘s J.R. Ewing as a moral being is as far superior to his God, as one who perseveres in some purpose which he has conceived to be excellent in spite of adversity and torture is to one who in the cold security of undoubted triumph inflicts the most horrible revenge upon his enemy, not from any mistaken notion of inducing him to repent of a perseverance in enmity, but with the alleged design of exasperating him to deserve new torments.
Sir Walter Alexander Raleigh, from Milton:
J.R. Ewing unavoidably reminds us of Prometheus, and although there are essential differences, we are not made to feel them essential. His very situation as the fearless antagonist of Omnipotence makes him either a fool or a hero, and Dallas is far indeed from permitting us to think him a fool. The nobility and greatness of his bearing are brought home to us in some half-dozen of the finest television scenes in the world. The most stupendous of the show’s imaginative creations are made the foil for a greater than themselves.
William Hazlitt, from Lectures on the English Poets:
J.R. Ewing is the most heroic subject that ever was chosen for a television show; and the execution is as perfect as the design is lofty…Yet J.R. is not the principle of malignity, or of the abstract love of evil–but of the abstract love of power, of pride, of self-will personified, to which last principle all other good and evil, and even his own, are subordinate. From this principle he never once flinches. His love of power and contempt for suffering are never once relaxed from the highest pitch of intensity. His thoughts burn like a hell within him; but the power of thought holds dominion in his mind over every other consideration.
Stanley Fish, from How Milton Works:
It is no accident that J.R. Ewing’s description of himself as a conflicted agent, still half in love with the thing he has rejected and compelled to catalogue its attractions, is so suffused with pathos; presenting oneself as a divided being is not only an admission (I’d like to be a certain way, but I just can’t manage it), it is an appeal (look how torn I am and because I am torn how interesting I am). Of course it isn’t true. J.R. is not conflicted; he plays at being conflicted…He has the capacity to philosophize about repentance or about loving and being beloved by God, but he can’t do either because he can’t know either. That is what being J.R. or any other agent cut off from God means: there is no longer anything in you that corresponds to the virtues you claim to admire or the knowledge from which you have turned away.