Charles Williams Book Summary #26: A Myth of Francis Bacon (1932)
In 1932, CW’s friend Olive Willis commissioned him to write a play for the all-female students of Downe House School to perform. Most unsuitably for a bunch of high-school girls, he chose episodes in the life of Francis Bacon. The entire short play has been published several times in The Charles Williams Quarterly, most recently in the Spring 2007 issue, and is also available as a .pdf on their website.
This play takes place in three Episodes, with two Interludes and an Epilogue, as follows:
First Episode — The Beginning, A Court in the Palace.
Interlude — The Rebellion of Essex.
Second Episode — The Fall of Essex. A Courtyard near the Palace.
Interlude — The Procession of the Lord Chancellor.
Third Episode — The Accusation. A Room in York House.
Epilogue — The Last Experiment. Highgate Hill.
As you may be able to tell from that list (although I would not have known it myself, not being an expert on the life of Bacon), Williams assumes that you know everything about Bacon’s life, the reigns of Elizabeth I and James I, and about Elizabethan politics and society. The episodes are merely snippets from Bacon’s life, with nothing—nothing!—in between to show the transitions from one event to another.
CW has an annoying habit of using “the” in cases in which any ordinary writer would use “a.” Take a look at that list of scenes again: “the procession,” “the accusation,” “the last experiment.” You need to know all about Bacon’s life to know what those refer to, and the content of the play is no better. Lord Burleigh (remind me who he is, again?) talks of “the Dukes” with whom the Queen toyed (which Dukes might those be?); “the Trial” (oh, that’s the trial of Robert Deveraux, Earl of Essex, for treason); and so forth. This is much worse in his biography of Francis Bacon than in the play, but goodness knows that biography was hard enough to read!
As is usual for CW, in this play he dumps his audience right into the middle of something that is already going on, uses a kind of private form of allusive speech, and assumes that his readers know exactly as much as he does about the subject matter. I would not have understood one thing in this whole play had I not read the biography first. It is a kind of highlights (or low lights) of moments from Bacon’s life, and it is very strangely structured.
The play opens and closes with a figure from one of Bacon’s works of fiction: The Father of Salomon’s House from the New Atlantis. This layering of allusions is very difficult for my 21st-century mind to grasp. In a fictional play about an historical character, the first actor who appears is representing a fictional character from a work written by that historical character? What?
And then in the middle of the play, Francis Bacon meets William Shakespeare. About this encounter, Williams writes in his introductory notes that there had just been a
presentation of Richard II by the Chamberlain’s men at that time. Augustine Phillipps, the manager of their company, was examined by the Privy Council upon this performance, and it is not too extreme a fancy that Shakespeare, the writer of the play, was ordered to be in attendance also. The quite possible meeting of Shakespeare and Bacon in 1601 … surrounds the encounter of Bacon and the fallen Essex with the renewed sense of Bacon’s prime duties.
This may be strange, but it is at least a comprehensible piece of imaginative work. Combine it with the fact that CW toyed with the idea that perhaps Bacon wrote all of “Shakespeare’s” plays, and you get an added layer of intrigue!
Some of the most beautiful poetry in the play occurs in this section—as well it might, since CW is putting words into the mouth of Shakespeare. You may recall that CW has done this once before: in his delightful play A Myth of Shakespeare, which consists of scenes made up by Williams alternating with big swathes of Shakespeare’s plays. It’s lovely.
A Myth of Francis Bacon is lovely, too, with some beautiful lines. When Bacon is accused of taking bribes, he protests:
They know me, Hobbes.
I built broad windows all about my mind
to let the light stream in.
When Shakespeare talks about how his life’s work differs from Bacon’s, he does so in this glorious passage of layered poetry:
you judge the waves, you measure currents, plot
the palpitating air in calm or storm:
your exquisite pattern! your strong government. I
build up a cameleopard from the sand
wet from the ebb, blowing soft wind through it
till the small image stretches, rises, talks,
looms terribly leviathan, and therewith
goes crunching from the pebbles such a sound
as is your very pattern come to song
It’s weird, but it’s beautiful.
And Williams also puts to good use one of his greatest strengths: his sweeping insight. It seems to me that whatever subject-matter CW put his mind to, he could go to the heart of it and gather up its totality in a very, very short period of time, leaping from little knowledge to comprehensive understanding in a mere moment. In his two books on Bacon, he does this quite astonishingly. He sees Bacon’s life as falling into neat, tidy episodes. In the introduction to this play, he writes: “That very great mind proposed to itself, it seems, two objects: (1) the service of the State; (2) the organisation of all knowledge and its expansion to the widest possible limits,” and he has Bacon claim: “I have taken all knowledge for my province.”
So this short little play serves to highlight two of CW’s greatest skills: his ability to see something huge and complex as a single gesture, and his craftsmanship of lovely poetic lines. Do read it for yourself.
And while you read it, try to imagine teenage girls tackling it in dramatic performance! They did, and the list of their names at the beginning of the play is both endearing and confusing.