Chesterton is not remembered today as a playwright, but he did, from time to time, try his hand at writing for the stage. Readers of his Autobiography will remember that he had, throughout his life, a fascination with the theatre, and especially with toy theatres and puppets. Apparently his friend, the redoubtable Mr. G.B. Shaw, continually admonished him to leave off his political and social controversy and devote himself to the stage, for which Shaw thought he had a serious talent. Chesterton, for whatever reason, did not agree.
Even so, he did leave us about ten plays, of variable length and ambition. They have been gathered together in Volume XI of the Collected Works issued by Ignatius Press. During the past few weeks I have been reading several of them.
The Wild Knight (1900)
15 p. First reading.
The Wild Knight is a short verse drama that was included in — appended to, really — Chesterton’s second published volume of poetry. It’s a curious piece, being far too short to justify a night at the theatre and rather inconsistent in tone — an awkward mixture of ecstasy and gloom. I’m not sure if it is supposed to be an allegory, but there is enough Speaking in Abstractions to justify that interpretation. The characters float above the stage — not literally, of course. The drama concerns a young woman who is being forced to marry a man she does not love. He holds forth like a Nietzschean Superman. The eponymous Knight makes a belated entrance to confront him, but to little effect. There is an unexpected streak of anti-clericalism in the play as well. In other words, this is not to be counted among Chesterton’s great works. Perhaps it is more effective on an actual stage than on my imagined one.
47 p. First reading.
As a young man Chesterton experimented, as did many of his fellow Victorians, with spiritualism and séances. He later rejected such things, not because he thought them stupid but because he thought them dangerous, as springing from unsound spiritual instincts. Magic is a full-length play that pits modern secular progressivism against hard-headed pragmatism against high-church latitudinarianism against occult spiritualism. Despite his reservations, in this company it is the spiritualist who has the firmest grasp of the truth, and the most to teach. The play is far superior to The Wild Knight, with more natural and better delineated characters, engaging dialogue, and some interesting stage effects, but perhaps the final act resolves the drama too abruptly. It enjoyed a respectable six-month run of performances when it was first staged, but has been rarely revived. Ingmar Bergman’s film The Magician ( 1958 ) is a screen adaptation; I have not seen it.
The Temptation of St. Anthony (1925)
9 p. First reading.
This is a minor piece in which Chesterton, in the person of St. Anthony the Hermit, sallies forth against a conglobulation of familiar Chestertonian antagonists. Set at a time “sometime after Flaubert”, frankly allegorical characters named Life-Force (a jab at G.B. Shaw’s philosophical forays) and Time-Spirit (the Anglo-Saxon Zeitgeist) introduce St. Anthony to a group of competing “new religions”, “religions of the future”, etc. St. Anthony simply observes that these religions are not new, but very old. His final speech is reminiscent of the closing pages of The Everlasting Man, which was written at about the same time – to wit: since the coming of Christianity, there has been nothing truly new under the sun.
The Judgement of Dr. Johnson (1927)
65 p. First reading.
This play is a delightful discovery. I have often thought that Our Lexicographer would make a good dramatic character for stage or screen, but this is the first time I have seen it done. Chesterton dramatizes the milieu of late eighteenth-century British politics, peopling his stage with notable real-life figures like Edmund Burke, John Wilkes, James Boswell, and, of course, the good Doctor. Few could match Dr. Johnson’s capacity for combining wit and wisdom, but Chesterton was certainly a contender, and he brings Johnson wonderfully to life, with plenty of affectionate touches. (Johnson’s first line conveys his endearing disdain for Scotland: “No, Sir, I do not think it has a sublime desolation. I observe the desolation but not the sublimity.”) The play addresses itself to the relationship between hearth and throne, between the private virtue of citizens and the public affairs of a people, and could be seen as a dramatic elaboration of Johnson’s famous couplet: “How small, of all that human hearts endure / That part which Laws or Kings can cause or cure.” The theme is fleshed out by Chesterton in quite a rich, witty, and thought-provoking way. In some sections the political incorrectness is delicious.
The Surprise (1932)
45 p. First reading.
Here is a neatly conceived exploration of moral evil and the freedom of the will. It achieves something that the other plays I have discussed do not: it deals with big and serious questions, but not directly. The drama is in the foreground – and even in the foreground of the foreground (a wink to those who know the play) – and the ideas emerge from the action of the drama, rather than directly through the dialogue. The structure is ingenious: a dramatic diptyque in which each panel is itself layered with multiple levels of action and interpretation. The play has theological implications, but they are understated and wittily presented. It is a very enjoyable play, though regrettably never performed during Chesterton’s lifetime. A recent revival was filmed and is available on DVD, but I have not seen it.