Office Drama: The Masques of Amen House part 1
The Masque of the Manuscript
In the 1920s, CW wrote several plays for performance at his workplace, the London offices of Oxford University Press, located at Amen House. Before reading this post, please go back and read my intro to Amen House.
These plays might be some of the funniest stuff Charles Williams ever wrote. He’s not one to get his readers rolling on the floor laughing, usually, but this is pretty hilarious. These plays capture the daily jokes, love, laughter, quarrels, stresses, and victories of work-a-day life in a publishing company. As I wrote before in my Readers’ Guide for Beginners, these masques are to the publishing house what Dorothy Sayers’ Murder Must Advertise is to an advertizing firm. They are early works, written at the peak of his love for Phyllis Jones, during the Once and Shining Moment of coinherence at Amen House, the London office of the Oxford University Press where CW created, inspired, and enacted a workplace mythology.
The Masques of Amen House is a lovely little collection published by The Mythopoetic Press in 2000. It contains both previously published and previously unpublished material. There is a wealth of information about CW’s happiest years. It contains:
* An excellent introduction by Bernadette Lynn Bosky discussing the genre of the plays, CW’s work life, and his love for Phyllis Jones.
* Three plays:
The Masque of the Manuscript
The Masque of Perusal
The Masque of the Termination of Copyright
* a generous selection of poems written at this time, including:
poems that go with the plays
“An Urbanity” (a long poem to Phyllis Jones)
excerpts from A Century of Poems to Celia—100 love poems to Phyllis
* selections from the music Hubert Foss composed to be performed as part of the Masques
Today’s post is about the first play, The Masque of the Manuscript.
The story is fairly simple: A shabby Manuscript comes to the Press, asking to be published. The first conflict of the drama then unfolds: will the Publisher accept the Manuscript? He does, and the second conflict begins: in order to be reborn as a Book, the Manuscript must first die. Will she survive the ordeal and be resurrected?
There are three types of humor in this play: first, jokes at the expense of persons; second, jokes about publishing; third, jokes by means of literary style.
First, then: jokes at the expense of persons. I mentioned that CW created an “office mythology.” What in the world is that? Well, throughout his life, in spite of how loveable he was, CW seems to have had a hard time loving people for who they were: instead, he tried to make them into something more. He tried to transform them into his own idea of what they would have been in their unfallen state, or what they would be as their glorified, heavenly selves. He did this by making up names for them, along with lofty roles and personalities to go along with the names. The names were literary or mythic. Later on in his life, he would choose names from the King Arthur legends. In the 1920s, his choices were less systematic, taken from pastoral poetry. At Oxford University Press, his closest friends, and the main actors in the Masques, were:
Phillida = Phyllis Jones (the librarian)
Dorinda = Helen Peacock (head of Production)
Alexis = Gerard Hopkins (the poet’s nephew, in charge of publicity, and CW’s rival for Phyllis’ love; see my post about his novel Nor Fish Nor Flesh)
Colin = Frederick Page (editor and CW’s office mate)
Hubert Foss, head of OUP’s music department, was also involved in the play, as The Master of the Music. Sir Humphrey Milford, The Publisher, was called “Caesar”; he does not have a role in the play except to signify assent when the MS asks permission to be published.
Throughout the play, then, the interactions of the characters are spoofs of the ways these coworkers actually interacted in real life: the jealousies, rivalries, and petty power-plays. Alexis and Dorinda are the funniest; they have a duet together that ends:
Alexis: Ah, Dorinda!
Dorinda: Ah, Alexis!
Alexis: O how sad to think that you
Dorinda: Are supposing—
Alexis: Are assuming—
Dorinda: That you are not number two.
Alexis: All the day you spoil my themes,
Dorinda: All the day you break my schemes,
Alexis: And ’tis you that cloud the glory in the end.
Dorinda: You are death and utter night,
Alexis: You are madness in its might,
Dorinda: And ’tis you that flaw the kingdom in the end.
But Phyllida has a gentle power to bring harmony among everyone again. And clearly, CW himself had the power to poke fun without hurting feelings, because he wrote these parts for his friends, who then learned and performed them! Indeed, this was the phase of greatest companionship in CW’s life (at least until he met the Inklings), of mutual love, respect, and amusement.
Second, there are jokes about the publishing business. There are lots of these, but I’ll just share one. Phyllida has asked for more copies of the newly published Book, and Dorinda replies:
No more, child: none. How many would you have?
We print few copies of a book so grave—
A score or so; some fifteen for reviews
Which the instructed Magians shall peruse;
For Caesar one; one for your Library,
Six for the others; one for the Author (free);
And one in case—such things have been before—
A customer should want one. What needs more?
As an author who has never yet made money off of book sales, I get this one!
Third, there are jokes by means of literary style, primarily achieved by means of sudden shifts from “high” to “low” verse, combined with strong meter and rhyme. My favorite example is the introduction of the Manuscript, who has come begging for publication. After high and lofty moments, such as this one:
Phyllida [making the sign of the magical pentagram]:
Art thou purged as by fire and by water made clean?
the book’s title is announced:
I am called A Short Treatise on Syrian Nouns
As used in the Northern and Sub-Northern Towns
In Five Hundred B.C., with two maps and three charts:
by Walter Lackpenny, poor Master of Arts.
And that’s about as funny as Charles Williams gets.
Along the way, the Librarian (played by Phyllis Jones) is the sacred center of the spiritual action: she is the guardian of the published book, protector of occult knowledge, a kind of keeper of the holy grail. Rosicrucian imagery is more common in this work than in most of CW’s early works: he tended to keep his occult associations secret (as befitting a secret society), but in this play he mentions occult lore, magic, incantations, a magic wand, a postulant, sacrifice, cycle myths, and the Lodge and the Master. Phyllida has a ceremonial sword and makes the sign of the pentagram. There are hints of the beginnings of CW’s later Grail mythology, and these grow stronger in the next two plays.
So come back tomorrow and tomorrow and tomorrow (well, really next week and next week and next week) to hear about the rest of The Masques of Amen House.