In Drought, Eve, astonished the first time she sees the Serpent, asks, What are you?
Christian tradition identifies the Serpent with Satan. In Paradise Lost, Milton imagines Satan selecting the serpent for his regal appearance and entering the serpent’s body. Shatan is the also the cause of Adam and Eve’s undoing in the Quran, but the Serpent does not appear.
Yet in my source, the Book of Genesis, the Serpent acts on his own. The Old Testament says only that the Serpent was the subtlest of all beasts. Satan gets no mention. How evil is the Serpent? A miscreant? A felon?
Our serpent, who leads Adam and Eve astray in Genesis, may well be inherited from widely distributed and widely varied folktales in the ancient Middle East. But both Asian and North American indigenous lore regard snakes with favor and respect. The serpent is wise. Many years ago, I attended a Chi Kung workshop lead by Kenneth Cohen,* an authority on world medical traditions. He pointed out traces of Serpent’s ancient and honorable lineage in Genesis. When God confronts Adam with his disobedience, Adam blames Eve. Eve blames the Serpent. In his wisdom, the Serpent keeps mum.
A beauty of the story is that blame is not firmly established, not in Genesis nor, as far as I can tell, in the Quran, where Adam wins a full pardon. At one super corny moment, one that I must hope will be gripping because of its musical incarnation, God breaks the ‘fourth wall’ of the stage and sings directly to the audience: “No, we can’t lay it all on Serpent; no-one here is innocent.”
In operas and a lot of shows, too, the evilest men are often basses. My Serpent is a tenor. I never envisioned my wise-guy Serpent, as purely evil, but he sure is tricky. That links him by another route to the devil, for in many folk tales, the devil is a trickster. (consider also, North American ‘shape changer’; in Africa, Anansi, the spider, who is not evil.) The devil may appear in disguise; he offers deceptive bargains. My serpent doesn’t bargain; he does wear disguises. We link him with the Hell’s Angels through his first costume and his Harley Davidson, and in the end, he looses the motorcycle, not his legs.
What might all this suggest in the way of character? I don’t want to say ‘personality’ because Serpent is not a person.
With Serpent I did have, more than the other three characters, a sense of making a quilt from a weaving of traditional figures. His first temptation of Eve is a Broadway ballad, a promise-o-love song. The folk tradition that often gives the devil a violin to play shows up in the polka-like tag that marks Serpent’s entrances and exits. When the Serpent entraps Adam and Eve with bad accounting advice, their trio starts with a sort of drinking song rooted, I believe, in Italian opera, for in operas, the devil likes to take his victims to party. My variant has no alcohol and it’s in five’s instead of three’s or sixes; yet the waltz feel is there. Serpent’s soliloquy, his one moment of sad, inner feeling, takes a cue from late, introspective German lieder.
For sure, my tricky serpent is not consistent. With his costume and style changes, he is a player inside the play. Yet, there I am, creating a character, and like Gabe Arenshtam, who is preparing the role, I am obliged to hunt for a core. How might Serpent see himself? I came to think of him as a creature fully convinced he is the smartest guy in the room and who believes he has a mission—not to spread sin and destruction. Not to collect souls. His “truth”, his mission, is to confront Adam, Eve, and God, with their self-delusions, the weaknesses that they are hiding from themselves. (In God’s case, I got the idea from Carl Jung, but never mind for now.) Does that show up through all his disguises? If so, primarily in the first Interlude, which is spoken, not sung or rapped, and again in that soliloquy, Serpent’s solo song just before the Intermission. But I tell you, whether it shows through or not, when you work on this kind of project, you have to keep after the back stories because they keep coming back after you.