What dark horror lurks beyond this vale of wrath and tears? Is it the undiscovered country, from whose bourne no traveller returns? Is darkness the mere nothing at the end of the world, as Byron imagined in his poem “Darkness”? Is it where the monsters hide in your bedroom? Or is darkness that which we carry within us, the “palpable obscure” of Hell that Satan laments in Paradise Lost:

Which way I fly is Hell; myself am Hell;
And, in the lowest deep, a lower deep
Still threatening to devour me opens wide,
To which the Hell I suffer seems a Heaven.

Darkness was one side of the symbolic coin of ancient Gnosticism. The obverse was light, and gnostic mystics thought the two were inextricably intertwined. No despair is complete without some hope creeping in, just as no triumph is total. That is also why pre-modern people gave a tenth of their earnings to the gods or to God. The tithe is an insurance policy against hubris. It was an offering to darkness in order to preserve the light.

Darkness and light: each needs the other, but when they get out of balance they will drive us mad. To understand this all-too-human madness, Bill Connington represents three iconic princes of darkness and one Satanic MC in his new play “Princes of Darkness” at Theater for the New City.

The first character under examination is Hamlet. His darkness resides in the hollow recesses of poor Yorick’s eyeless sockets. With the exception of Lucifer’s lines, the text is direct quotation in voice over of Shakespeare’s play as Connington strikes suitably melancholy poses. Much of his original work is visual and not textual. The action is periodically interrupted when an antique-y telephone on stage rings, and Lucifer is forced to break out of character to answer it.

The second Prince of Darkness is Oedipus the King. Connington again uses the voice over as an auditory backdrop for his physical theater. The segment climaxes when Connington as Lucifer as Oedipus puts on red gloves and “tears” his eyes out, leaving long, red streaks down his face. The last Prince is Dracula, and Connington clearly relishes this role as much for the chance to vamp (pun clearly intended) as for the thematic contribution it makes to the overall show.

Though Connington takes classic texts very seriously, and has probably lucubrated in some verily dark attic garrets to master the literature, he surprisingly doesn’t make use of Milton’s epic for his rendition of Lucifer. Maybe this is because he only wanted to appropriate lines from works of drama (at any rate, Dracula was a movie too), or maybe he isn’t familiar with Paradise Lost. Either way, his interpretation of Satan and of the particularly political nature of our contemporary hubris is thoroughly Miltonic. Almost all of the playwright’s political message is conveyed by Lucifer’s direct address to us, the audience. The world is bankrupt, he tells us. War, injustice, corruption, bad faith, malaise, disease, are everywhere. “What are you going to do about it?” he (Connington the playwright and Lucifer the MC) taunts us. It’s a true Miltonic dilemma: if we try to change the world — really, fundamentally change it — we are little Lucifers, revolutionaries, and disturbers of the peace; but the world is so bad right now, if we don’t try to change it, haven’t we failed in our moral duty?

Unfortunately the play doesn’t offer any solutions. In the final two minutes Lucifer has been reduced to a neurotic hysteric, running from one side of the stage to the other screaming, appearing not only powerless, but silly and ridiculous. (This is another touch that Milton would have approved.) Just like in Gnostic philosophy the exalted (pleroma) and the depth (bythos) meet, and the lights go down on Lucifer’s screaming, frenetic cacophony. Connington offers us no resolution, only darkness and silence at the end of the performance.