This past Monday evening (St. Patrick’s Day), we made history! For the first time in human existence, Charles Williams’s as-yet-unpublished play The Chapel of the Thorn received a performance: a semi-staged read-aloud by members of my group Ekphrasis: Fellowship of Christians in the Arts. We gathered in the chilly basement of Lehigh Valley Presbyterian Church to bring Williams’s high, ceremonial poetry to life. Everyone read extremely well, bringing the play into sound and action for me.
Here was the cast:
The villagers and monks were taken up variously by members of the cast. I read the stage directions and followed along in the script so I could keep an eye out for typos in my transcription.
The reading went very, very well! I sent out a nicely-formatted .pdf of the text ahead of time and most of the readers read through either the entire play or at least their lines before we met. Most of the attendees have significant theatrical experience; one is director of the Players of the Stage youth theatre, another is assistant-directing Midsummer Night’s Dream this spring, and three have acted with that company for years. Everyone took his or her part seriously and stayed in character most of the time. The poetry is extremely hard to read, as Williams’ sentences go on and on for eight or more lines sometimes. Yet everyone pressed on valiantly, infusing monologues and dialogues with emotion and drama. The tensions among characters were palpable. The narrative arc of the story was clear, and the climax was powerful.
This is not to say we didn’t indulge in lots of our typical Ekphrasian hilarity! On the contrary: there was a liberal sprinkling of our usual teasing, quoting, punning, and general poking-fun. And our evening was made complete by funny English and Scottish accents, an enormous knife grabbed from the kitchen as an impromptu prop, chanting in Latin, a heroic ballad, and a druidic folk-song sung to the tune of “Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star.”
Most importantly, this reading gave me a deeper understanding of the play.
I had not realized, for instance, how central the Abbot Innocent was to the plot: how he is at the center of most of the conflicts, and how his character undergoes a shift during the course of the action.
I had not known just how gorgeous the poetry is: it reads even better in context than it does on the page or as spoken by only one voice (I read some of it out loud to my fellow researcher A Pilgrim in Narnia when we were working at the Marion Wade Center, and I found it extremely beautiful and moving then; it was more so spoken by a variety of trained voices).
I had not seen what the most important theme is: Law vs. Grace. I was so busy looking out for CW’s more common later themes (coinherence, the Two Ways, the City, the Sacred Object, etc.) that I missed this one. It’s right at the heart of the action, and it is the character of Innocent the Abbot who speaks for Law, while Joachim the Priest and keeper of the Crown of Thorns speaks for grace. Each goes too far to the extreme end of his position, with Innocent speaking for the value of law in itself as an external restrain and Joachim permitting immoral actions in the name of freedom.
It also had not struck me how shockingly sexist and racist this play is—or at least, characters in the play are, which is not by any means the same thing.
After the reading, we had a long and thoughtful conversation about the play. My friends helped me think about the historical, theological, and dramaturgical aspects of Chapel. One pointed out that the conflict of law vs. grace between Innocent and Joachim somewhat resembles the Protestant vs. Catholic debates of the 16th century: an anachronism that would have interested someone of Williams’s unifying nature. He wrote the East/West split of the Church out of his later Arthurian poetry, after all, and would have been interested in exploring theological debates in a localized, non-historical setting.
We discussed Universalism, and Andrew MacD asked whether CW knew the writings of George MacDonald by 1912. I believe that he did, but have no evidence that he knew MacDonald’s sermons. Yet a tendency towards Universalism runs through CW’s works all his life, even while he writes such a chilling account of damnation as Descent Into Hell. (On this topic, see Richard Sturch’s essay about “CW as Heretic” in the Charles Williams Quarterly).
There were two big topics we spent most of our time discussing.
First: Who wins? What is the conclusion of the many conflicts—between Joachim and Innocent, Constantine and Innocent, Amael and Innocent, Michael and Joachim, Gregory and Joachim….? And, asking the same thing another way: Which character speaks for the author (if any)? Does anybody in this play speak for Williams?
There are ways in which Joachim seems to win, by choosing defeat and exile rather than being forced into them. Yet he only does so once all material support has been withdrawn. Innocent gets what he wants, but at the end of the play, Theodoric is hatching plans to take down Innocent in future. Gregory is the easiest to sympathize with, and gets what he wants: for himself and his villagers to be left alone. Amael certainly gets what he wants in the most dramatic visual way. He is darkly manipulative, and sees that everyone else is to there be outmatched. He gets some of the most beautiful poetry, and is in a way a forerunner of Taliessin, the hero bard of CW’s later Arthurian poetry.
The play ends (or almost ends) in indeterminacy: with monks chanting a Christian hymn in Latin on one side of the stage, the villagers singing a pagan folk-song on the other, and Amael declaiming a tale of his hero Druhild inside the abandoned chapel. Does this ambiguity speak for Williams?
But a simple village woman gets the last word. And her last line is: “Mary, Mother of God, be pitiful.” Does she speak for Williams?
Or, as was suggested in the course of our conversation, do the questions themselves speak for Williams? I have speculated before that in 1912 Williams may have been going through something like a crisis of faith or a period of deep questioning before he committed himself thoroughly to the Christian religion. (He may have experienced a different kind of questioning while he was in the Fellowship of the Rosy Cross later, from 1917-1927). In this play and in The Silver Stair, published the same year Chapel was written (sorry, folks from last night; I misspoke on that point!), he is asking lots of questions about the right things to believe and the right way to live. Maybe none of the characters speak for Williams, or all of them do, and he is playing with all the philosophies, trying them on.
He was also, of course, figuring out the right way for him to write—which led us into our final question: Is this play performable?
I hadn’t really thought so. I found it a bit dry and boring when I read it on the page. But the conclusion of the group last night was: It is playable! It would work on stage!
Sure, it’s in verse. There is not an enormous amount of external action (although there is a lot of shouting). The sentences are too long. There are too many characters standing around without saying anything while one or two ramble on. The long speeches are hard to listen to. All this makes me think CW never heard this read aloud. There is certainly a great improvement between this play in 1912 and his “Masques of Amen House” from the mid ’20s. Those have shorter lines, shorter sentences, more punchy dialogue, lots more vivid action.
But still, Chapel is playable. It takes the viewer on a roller-coaster ride of character arcs, as it is very plot- and character-driven. The sound of the sea always in the background would add depth to a live performance. The weaving in and out of characters keeps one’s attention and drives the motion forward from one inner motivation to another. It is somewhat similar to Julius Caesar or Oedipus Rex with the small casts of characters fighting internal battles, with betrayals and self-revelation. In this case, the religious debate is the focus of the drama. In the first act, the characters are more static but their motivations are gradually being revealed through monologue and dialogue. In the second act, the elements become more chaotic, building to a tempest of speech and song at the end. Finally, all becomes bright and quiet at the end.
Some said this play would work as a movie: that it is “filmable.” The long speeches could be given more significance and interest through the addition of pan-and-zoom, bringing the audience closer for the most fraught lines, showing background and context when necessary, using light and motion to enhance the meaning of the poetry.
We thought maybe it could work really well on stage if it were staged as a Masque, with gorgeous sets, elaborate costumes, lots of music, choreography, visual interest, royal and ceremonial robes, and symbolic colors. Amael should sing more of his lines, as he is a bard. Its climax, after all, is a religious processional. So the whole action and vision could build up to the majestic glory of that final scene. Then the last conflict between the groups would appear as a clarification, a narrowing of the chaos. At the last moment, cut off the singing before the last lines so that the Woman speaks her prayer to Mary in the sudden silence.
I wish you had been there last night. I think you would have walked away with a happy head full of poetry and lofty ideas. Keep your eyes open for The Chapel of the Thorn in a bookstore and online when it’s finally published!