Office Drama: The Masques of Amen House part 3
The Masque of the Termination of Copyright
Over the last two weeks, I wrote about the first play in this collection, The Masque of the Manuscript, and the second play, The Masque of Perusal. Today’s post is about the final play, The Masque of the Termination of Copyright. Follow this link to find other posts on this topic.
Charles Williams wrote The Masque of the Termination of Copyright in 1930, but it was never performed, “owing to various hindrances.” 1930 was one of the most difficult years of CW’s life. As you know if you are a regular reader of this blog, CW had loved Phyllis Jones for six years or so, and the high shining time of their love and spiritual companionship at Oxford University Press had passed by. He had struggled to remain physically faithful to his wife and had never sought a divorce. He had kept Phyllis for his muse, his inspiration, but never his mistress. And though she had returned his love at first, she soon lost interest in keeping up an eternal, unconsummated, literary passion. Who can blame her? ——it must have been exhausting. Then in the summer of 1930, Phyllis suffered from a very bad broken leg and was quite ill for a time. While she was in the hospital, Gerard Hopkins revealed to CW that he and Phyllis were carrying on a romance. This was devastating news. All the objections Phyllis could have put forward against CW himself should have told against Hopkins: he and CW were the same age, some 16 years older than Phyllis, Hopkins was married, and so forth. Yet Phyllis had turned from CW to this other coworker. You can read about Hopkins’s novel on the subject here. And then Fred Page told CW’s wife about all these shenanigans. It was not a happy time. I look forward to getting out of the 1920s soon and into the happier, more productive 1930s!
The Masque of the Termination of Copyright was written at some point during this terrible time. The exact chronology of its writing in relation to these personal events is at yet unknown. At any rate, CW was still deeply, hopelessly in love with Phyllis when he wrote this play, but as Hadfield writes, she “had begun to slip from him.” The high spiritual companionship he had created at the Press could not maintain its intensity. And yet he finished this three-play cycle, completing the dramatic statement of his Theology of Work. But the time had passed: his relationships no longer uphold the emotional fervor needed to perform the piece.
What’s more, his portraits of coworkers in The Masque of the Termination are no longer fun parodies. They are downright nasty. But more of that anon.
The same characters appear in this play as the first, played by the same people. Each is given a second role, and there is one new character added.
Tityrus/The Author = Charles Williams
Phillida/shop girl = Phyllis Jones
Dorinda/shop keeper = Helen Peacock
Alexis/shop worker = Gerard Hopkins
Colin/crossword writer = Frederick Page
Thyrsis/The Master of the Music = Hubert Foss
Perigot, the messenger of the gods [casting unknown]
Caesar = Sir Humphrey Milford (again, referred to, but never appearing on stage)
Nina Condron had left the Press, so the Book is no longer a character, although it is talked about and represented by a book-prop on the stage.
The plot of this third play is even more confusing and metaphysical than The Masque of Perusal. It is complicated by the fact that there is a frame-narrative and an internal dream-narrative: in these two stories, the persons of the play bear the same names but act different characters.
The frame-narrative takes place at the Press, and the characters play glorified versions of themselves. In fact, they are called “gods,” and the ending of the play reveals that the Press is a land
Between the worlds of godhead and of man
Another, less and more than either…
The way from exile into Paradise
where they speak high diction and live royal lives worthy of their Edenic selves. It is a kind of Platonic projection of what each person was created to be and what he or she will be in Heaven one day.
The plot of the frame-narrative is the story from which the title derives. The Book—the Treatise on Syrian Nouns—is now so old that its copyright has run out, and the conflict revolves around whether or not to renew the copyright and reprint the Book. But there is a secondary conflict: does any copy of the Book still exist? Perigot, the messenger-god, is commissioned to take on human form and go down to earth, out and about in the streets and shops, on a quest to find the one remaining copy.
The dream-narrative then opens. This part of the play takes place in a dirty, dingy bookshop reminiscent of something out of Dickens. The characters play low, poor, rude, crude versions of themselves. Dorinda is a greedy, harsh shopkeeper. Alexis works in the shop, but thinks only about betting on horse-races. Phillida’s transformation is the most startling. From being “Guard and image of the Grail” (line 74), she becomes a downright slut. She is ignorant, nearly illiterate, and only interested in an astonishingly long list of men. Even when the god descends and enters her shop, she is mostly fascinated by him because he is “a fine boy.” Yet she is the only one to take up his offer of transformation and eternal ecstasy.
The plot of the dream-narrative is the consummation of Perigot’s quest for a copy of the Book, which he finds in the dirty shop: a perfect example of the staff work of the Omnipotence. He buys the book and takes it—and Phillida—back to the earthly paradise of the Press.
With this return to the frame-narrative, the two plots converge, as do the characters. Phillida remembers her other existence as if it were a dream. The Book receives Caesar’s blessing for copyright renewal, Phillida sits down to the arduous but blessed task of copying out the Book, and the play ends in a paean to Love.
And that is the end of the Masques CW wrote for Amen House. It is, in a way, the end of his workplace paradise. He continued to work for the Press for the rest of his life, but it was never quite the same. These visions of perfect unity can never last; human communities always break down. He would go on to be a member of two other communities that were nearly as important to him: the Companions of the Coinherence, and the Inklings. But more of those in their proper place.