The Chaste Wanton is the second drama contained in the volume Three Plays: The Early Metaphysical Plays of Charles Williams, published in 2009 by Wipf & Stock. It is a reprint of an edition published by Oxford University Press in 1931. In addition to The Chaste Wanton, it contains two other plays—The Witch and The Rite of the Passion—as well as five random Arthurian poems and an admirable foreword to the 2009 edition by Arthur Livingston.
This is a very strange play. I suppose that goes without saying by now, but the oddness of it strikes me again as I look through it again now. Yet it is also a beautiful, powerful play. The poetry is masterful, and I am reminded again and again of how much CW has been overlooked and how little his works deserve to be relegated to the literary ash heap. The characters are complex and believable, if living on a higher plane than our ordinary human acquaintances. I do hope you read it, and I hope that I get to see (perhaps participate in) a performance of it someday (hint, hint, Players of the Stage).
The title The Chaste Wanton is a bit misleading. The main character is an Italian Duchess who has thus far in her life refused marriage, although she is beset by suitors. On this anniversary of her coronation, she has decided to hold a rhetorical competition, “court of oratory on love.”
Much of the body of the play is taking up with the various characters’ definitions of Love. The Duchess believes Love = War; she says
Love is the change
in the weariness of womanhood, the breach
’twixt slender arms, smooth cheeks, tones too like mine,
where the spark glows, the fire of the mine, the rush
of the inviting and repelling battle
within the narrow climax of two hearts
disposed to chivalrous challenge.
The Bishop believes Love = Surrender: “a compete / passionless evacuation of the will.” The Duchess’s secretary, Andria, believes that Love = Delight, “only delight, marvelling delight.” Her captain, Raoul, believes that Love = Survival: “Love is but the care life has / for its own prolongation.” Her court poet, Adrian, claims that Love = the Via Negativa: “Love is denial / of all our manners and modes of habitation. / Unless it be rejected it is naught.” One of the courtiers, Donatello, seems to think that Love = Competition.
A visiting alchemist, Vincenzo, comes to the court in time to hear the oratory, and the audience learns about the Duchess’s nature through how all the gentlemen of the court praise her to Vincenzo. She is reputed to be the fairest and wisest lady: “she hath tempted all,” as if flirting with wantonness, yet none has caught her own heart, and so she remains chaste. Adrian emphasizes her purity, while Donatello laughs and says that each man of the court has enjoyed her smiles, the touch of her hand or lips, and some time in a corner with her. And thus her reputation is a motley one.
This alchemist, Vincenzo, who is said to be second only to the great Nicholas Flamel in his mystical art, has his turn too to speak about love. He knows that Love = ecstasy = transmutation = God. About his science, he says:
All is significant that undergoes
process and transmutation; all that flies,
obedient or rebellious, into change,
whether in the unknowledgeable salt of earth
or the knowledgeable spirit of a man.
This is fascinating. One of the most important scholarly books I’ve read in the past few years was Modern Alchemy by Mark Morrisson. I’ll write more about it on here someday, d.v. One of its main topics of exploration was the difference at the beginning of the 20th century between practical alchemists—those who thought they could literally change other metals into gold and spiritual alchemists—those who believed that transmutation occurred in the soul, not on the physical level. Vincenzo is clearly more of the metaphorical type. Indeed, the Duchess agrees. She says: “We have somewhat here that is in need of change / if you looked deep.”
And so the alchemist stays at the Duchess’s court, and a deep love grows between them as he teaches her to transmute her soul. In a powerful combination of Romantic Theology and an occult worldview, these two practice love as a hermetic ritual that catalyst of spiritual change. She tells him: “You have / made all my life one revolution; now / I move to a new orbit.” He says about her: “She is already / become the Way; she is high up the mountain / and I a stumbler.”
This play is a startlingly clear piece of Rosicrucian writing. I’d put it up there with CW’s most occult writings ever. And its ending is even more startling than its beginning—spoiler alert. The alchemist gets in an argument with the Bishop and knocks him down. Then he’s arrested for assault and condemned to death. In a moving, confusing scene, the Duchess decides that although—or because— “I was blind: you touched me, and I saw,” she will sign his death warrant. She does, and the play ends with Vincenzo being lead off to death and the Duchess saying: “Before life comes again, farewell.”
Sometimes I read books by CW and they are just more of the same: more of his signature profound spirituality and distinctive themes. But then sometimes I read one and it opens out my knowledge of his ideas. It shows how enormous his ideas were, how wide-ranging this thoughts. He was not just a man of a small collection of idiosyncratic thoughts. He could inhabit other ideas, other people, other times and places, in his imagination. This play is one of those, which is yet another reason it should be more widely read and appreciated. I hope it will be.