Shakespeare, Meet… Shakespeare? “A Myth of Francis Bacon”

Charles Williams Book Summary #26: A Myth of Francis Bacon (1932)

myth_of_baconIn 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!

BaconAs 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.

About Sørina Higgins

Sørina Higgins is Editor-in-Chief of the Signum University Press. She holds a Ph.D. in English from Baylor University. Dr. Higgins is currently co-editing a volume on the ethical turn in speculative fiction with Dr. Brenton Dickieson and previously edited an academic essay collection entitled The Inklings and King Arthur. She is also the author of the blog The Oddest Inkling, devoted to a systematic study of Charles Williams’ works. As a creative writer, Sørina has a volume of short stories, A Handful of Hazelnuts, forthcoming from Signum’s own press. Outside of academia, Sørina enjoys practicing yoga, playing with her cats, cooking, baking, podcasting, gardening, dancing, and ranting about the state of the world.
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36 Responses to Shakespeare, Meet… Shakespeare? “A Myth of Francis Bacon”

  1. David Llewellyn Dodds says:

    A nicely encouraging taste and analysis! (I will just emphasize, “the list of their names at the beginning of the play” is in the scan of “the Spring 2007 issue” available at the Society website, while being omitted from the handy pdf version there which you link. I wonder if anyone has identified them?)

    “Most unsuitably for a bunch of high-school girls,” makes me wonder what may have been done to counteract this by ‘prep’, for – and/or by – both the actresses and other students: perhaps enough? (Not read his biography, anyway, as it did not appear till the following year – unless he had a draft to pass round.)

    Thomas Hobbes as a character, and Shakespeare talking about an “image” which looms “terribly leviathan” – I’ve got to reread this!


  2. michaelhuggins2591 says:

    Ms. Higgins,, a few comments on your post–these are off the top of my head, so they’re sketchy, but they may clarify a few points you raised:

    >Lord Burleigh (remind me who he is, again?)

    Burleigh, a member of the Cecil family, lived from 1520 to 1598 and was one of Elizabeth’s chief advisors, along with Francis Walsingham. In the 1997 movie “Elizabeth,” with Cate Blanchett in the title role, Burleigh is played by Sir Richard Attenborough and Walsingham by Geoffrey Rush. At the end of the movie, Elizabeth thanks Burleigh for his services and dismisses him in favor of retaining Walsingham, but in fact, Burleigh outlived Walsingham by 9 years, and I’m pretty sure he remained close to the Queen until his own death, which of course preceded Elizabeth’s by only 5 years.

    It has been suggested that Polonius, in Hamlet, may have been based on Burleigh. He was an able and wise counselor. I believe the Earl of Essex had grown up in Burleigh’s house and had been his protegé; Burleigh felt Essex had grown up to be a disgrace and, when Essex would enter Privy Council meetings, Burleigh would fix him with an angry glare and quote one of the imprecatory Psalms.

    Burleigh’s son, Robert, Viscount Cranborne and Earl of Salisbury, became principal secretary to King James I until Cranborne’s death from cancer in 1612.

    The Cecil family became notable in politics–among Burleigh’s descendants was Lord Salisbury, ca. 1828- ca. 1902, one of Queen Victoria’s favorite Prime Ministers. Lord David Cecil was prominent in British life some years ago. Another descendant married Cornelia Vanderbilt, 1900-1976, the only child of George Vanderbilt, who built Biltmore, the fabulous chateau-like mansion in Asheville, NC; that couple’s grandchildren still own and run the estate today as a public attraction.

    >“the Dukes” with whom the Queen toyed (which Dukes might those be?)

    The Dukes of Anjou and Alencon, two French royal princes, to each of whom Elizabeth pretended, at various periods in the 1570s and 1580s, to have pledged herself in marriage, part of her diplomatic game of keeping everyone off balance and in suspense over the question of her possible marriage (she also played the same game with the Archduke of Austria, cousin to Phillip II of Spain). In the movie “Elizabeth,” Anjou is played by Vincent Cassel and is undone when Elizabeth catches him cross-dressing. The question of her marriage to one or both was one of great moment at that time; Sir Philip Sidney was banished from court for a period for writing disapprovingly of the prospect of Elizabeth’s marriage to one of them, and a printer, daring to print an unlicensed pamphlet opposing one of the marriages, was sentenced to have his hand chopped off. The sentence duly carried out, the printer snatched off his cap with his remaining hand and waved it in the air, shouting “God save the Queen!”

    >CW toyed with the idea that perhaps Bacon wrote all of “Shakespeare’s” plays

    You’re probably familiar with the whole Anti-Stratfordian controversy and the alternate candidates for Shakespearean authorship. One, of course, is Bacon, 1561-1626, an almost exact contemporary of Shakespeare’s who mixed with the great and powerful. Of course, one searches in vain for poetic flights in his prose; as C.S. Lewis says of Bacon’s essays, “Everyone has read them, but no one is to be found reading them.” Lewis compared them to a desert with a single artificial plant growing in them, next to Montaigne’s.

    Of course, there’s Marlowe, another exact contemporary (born the same year, I think) but dead way too soon, after the tavern brawl in 1593, and, for all his talent, not considered Shakespeare’s equal. Then there’s Ben Jonson, 8 years younger than Shakespeare and possessing poetic and dramatic talent, but a champion of a much more classical style. The Earl of Oxford was acquainted with courtly life and well traveled in Italy, I believe (which Shakespeare was most certainly not, as far as anyone knows), but again, he died too soon to have written some of the major plays (1599, I think).

    Interestingly, a statistical analysis of Shakespeare’s plays done by computer and based on word choice and frequency turned up yet another interesting candidate: Queen Elizabeth herself.


    • David Llewellyn Dodds says:

      When I was a schoolboy, Antonia Fraser’s Mary Queen of Scots and King James biographies came out and the BBC and PBS broadcast The Six Wives of Henry VIII with Keith Michell and Elizabeth R with Glenda Jackson, and the Hal Wallis production of Mary Queen of Scots came out as well (we even got his permission to use the script for a school play – though not to film it!). So, pop culture would have given us reasonable background preparation for reading A Myth of Bacon – if we’d known it existed. I wonder if anyone has chronicled such pop-cultural props as such thoughout the past century?


      • michaelhuggins2591 says:

        I rented “Elizabeth R” from Netflix a few years ago and enjoyed it very much; Glenda Jackson was great in the title role, and I noted that they had Robin Ellis, star of the old “Poldark” PBS series from the 1970s, as Essex. A telling detail was the scene in which Elizabeth waits in vain for her lover, constantly checking the clock on the church tower; the clock, accurately for that day, has only an hour hand, not a minute hand. I don’t think the minute hand was added until the 17th century.

        I missed “Six Wives of Henry VIII” but did see the broadcast of Shakespeare’s Henry VIII, with John Stride in the title role, Julian Glover as Buckingham, Timothy West as Wolsey, Ronald Pickup as Cranmer, and Robert Hardy as the Bishop of Winchester. You may recall that all of Shakespeare’s plays were filmed around 1978 and presented on TV; I liked Richard Pasco, who played both Brutus in “Julius Caesar” and Jaques in “As You Like It.”

        In 2003, we had a very interesting exhibit here in Memphis of art treasures and other interesting objects from Chatsworth. Among the artifacts on display was an autograph letter of Elizabeth I, in Latin, of course.

        The “Elizabeth” movie from 1997, with Cate Blanchett, was very interesting, though there was one detail they seemed to have gotten very wrong. As Elizabeth’s sister, Queen Mary, lies dying of cancer, and Norfolk is urgently trying to get her to sign Elizabeth’s death warrant, you hear chanting going on in the background. No doubt the director meant it to stand for monks chanting some part of the holy office as they keep vigil outside the room where Mary will soon die, but in fact, what you are hearing is the English setting of part of the Eucharist contained in the Anglican Book of Common Prayer, composed by 16th-century composer Johan Merbecke; the setting was still in use in some Anglican churches even in the 20th century. Of course, Mary would have had anyone burned alive who would have dared celebrate an Anglican Eucharist in English, in her hearing.

        As to forgetting culture, I was reading just last night an article in The New Yorker by novelist Thomas Mallon on the “frenemy” relationship between Norman Mailer and William F. Buckley, Jr. 50 years ago. Mallon said that recently, as he held an advising conference with a promising student in Mallon’s creative writing seminar at some university, the student pulled him up short and asked him who Norman Mailer was. Somebody just shoot me.


        • David Llewellyn Dodds says:

          I love that BBC complete Shakespeare series! I think I saw them all when they came out, but it would be great to see them all again. The Six Wives of Henry VIII is as well done as Elizabeth R: I’d say, watch out for it. I somehow missed the BBC ‘prequel’ about Henry VII, The Shadow of the Tower (1972), until fairly recently. Its approach is different, in the weight it gives to ‘topics’ in comparison to chronology, but it is well worth seeing, too. I haven’t caught up with the Blanchett ones yet: the reviews I read left me chary, so it’s interesting to hear more about them.

          I’ve now gone looking at IMDB for what the Downe House students might have seen by 1932, and the answer there (at least among “Most Popular”) is, not much: a French film from 1912 released in the English-speaking world as Queen Elizabeth (with Sarah Bernhardt as Elizabeth!) , Drake’s Love Story (1913), and The Loves of Mary, Queen of Scots and The Virgin Queen (both 1923).

          The previous post has got me rereading The Greater Trumps, where chapter 3 includes not only a reference to Elizabeth and the Armada by Henry, but one to “when we did Julius Caesar at school” by Nancy! Hmm…


          • Mr. Dodds, thank you for mentioning “The Shadow of the Tower,” which I had never heard of; I will look for it. In Memphis, recently, we had a special exhibit of British painting form the Berger Collection in Denver; among the works were one of only two copies of the Holbein portrait of Edward VI as an infant (the other, I believe, is in the National Gallery in Washington). There was one portrait of Henry VIII as a young man, and he so resembled his father that at first, I thought the picture was mislabeled, but in his youth, he was apparently slender and graceful in his appearance.

            I will have to watch “Six Wives of Henry VIII.” I owned the soundtrack on an LP for years and played it at home. I remember that Keith Michell was in the title role, though I can’t remember who played the various wives. I’m not sure, but I think Michell played Mark Antony in the series of Shakespeare plays that we were referring to.

            I keep forgetting to mention that if anyone has not read Hilary Mantel’s “Wolf Hall” and “Bring Up the Bodies,” about Thomas Cromwell, they are quite well done, though it is controversial as to how much liberty they take with history–i.e., Cromwell as less ruthless than he is generally thought to have been. Simon Schama and David Starkey both said that Mantel’s portrait of Cromwell’s character was pure fabrication and that it contradicts the known evidence. Of course, the two novels were the basis of the recent mini-series “Wolf Hall,” with Mark Rylance and Damian Lewis, on Masterpiece, which I enjoyed very much.

            I read “Greater Trumps” in 2003 or so and found it interesting, though it is not my favorite novel by Williams. Aunt Sybil was a very interesting figure, and the threat of some worldwide catastrophe provided some interest (and I wondered if that would really happen, as at the climax of Vonnegut’s “Cat’s Cradle”), but for me, the whole resolution was a bit too cozy, with the young couple even reconciled and willing to be married once more, only hours, if I recall, after the young man had plotted to kill his future father-in-law. Forgiveness is admirable, but for me, this shaded over into fatuousness.

            All of Williams’s novels (and I think I have read them all by now) certainly have some interest, but my favorites remain “All Hallows Eve,” which I read only once, 25 years ago, and “Shadows of Ecstasy.”


            • David Llewellyn Dodds says:

              Yes, Keith Michell was Mark Antony in the Julius Caesar (though Colin Blakely was Antony in the Antony and Cleopatra a couple years later: very different but also very good, I thought). I’ve now got, but have not yet watched, a dvd of the 1996 BBC Prince and the Pauper with Keith Michell as Henry, again!

              All the kerfuffle has got me chary of Wolf Hall, now, too! But I’d love to see a production of Williams’s Cranmer (I tried to put it on, but never managed to get actors and musicians together at one time) – I wonder if Keith Mitchell would feel too old for it? (Sir Christopher Lee is still going strong at 93.) Perhaps an audio adaptation…

              I’ll have to see if, this time round, I think C.W. ‘pulls off’ the whole Greater Trumps resolution successfully: I do remember that astonishing detail, but not that I was too put off by it…


              • michaelhuggins2591 says:

                I had forgotten that Colin Blakely played Antony in that series’ presentation of “Antony and Cleopatra.” I think Cleopatra was Jane Lapotaire, who, as you may know, did an excellent job as Queen Mary in the 1986 film “Lady Jane,” another excellent film that I highly recommend. If you haven’t seen it, the film starred Helena Bonham-Carter as Lady Jane Grey and Cary Elwes as Lord Guildford Dudley; the top-flight cast also included Patrick Stewart, Michael Hordern, and Joss Ackland.

                As to Blakely, you may recall that he was Thomas More’s servant, of ambiguous fidelity, in “A Man for All Seasons.”

                I don’t know how old Cranmer is in Williams’s play, but I believe he lived until his late 70s, and of course, there are still actors who continue to perform quite late. You may recall that Olivier starred as Lear around 1984, when he would have been 77, and James Cagney made his final film appearance, at the age of about 81, in “Ragtime.”


                • David Llewellyn Dodds says:

                  I’d remembered he was in Man for All Seasons, but forgotten she was in Lady Jane: two more ‘Tudor’ (-background) films indeed worth seeing! Blakely’s Thomas in the film varies The Common Man in the play, who is both like, and unlike, the Skeleton in Cranmer. William Alfred (a playwright as well as a scholar) thought Bolt would not have written the play as he did, without Williams’s Cranmer as a sort of precedent. Williams’s play zips through some 29 years in its stylized course, but then, Keith Michell, when he played him again in 1996, was already older than Henry VIII ever lived to be. The Myths of Shakespeare and Bacon are, in their different ways, something of precedents for that combination of historic sweep and stylization! Keeping in an Inklings vein, I saw Jean Laportaire as Joy Davidman to Nigel Hawthorne’s C.S. Lewis in Shadowlands (it would be wonderful if someone recorded that production in some form, though I never heard of it happening).


              • David Llewellyn Dodds says:

                It is sad to read that, three days after I observed above how Sir Christopher Lee was “still going strong at 93”, he died in hospital.


    • Oh, yes, Michael; I was joking. I know who Lord Burleigh and “the Dukes” are — I was merely commenting that CW *assumes* his readers know who those people were, and I can say for a fact that none of my students at the community college would have ever heard of them…. but then again, none of my students at the community college would be reading CW….

      Yes, I’ve written on the Authorship controversy:


      • David Llewellyn Dodds says:

        Where general knowledge and pop culture are concerned, a lot probably depends on what costume dramas someone’s encountered (and whether or not the response was quickly surfing on, or lingering). It is hair-raising to think of someone with a fairly rasa tabula naively being ‘informed’ by Emmerich’s Anonymous! Or Mantel’s Wolf for All Seasons, for that matter… (Back in the day, I remember someone joking about writing his Oxford Final on the strength of the details of Jarman’s Tempest, not having got round to reading the play himself…) I hope fewer folk are swallowing the job lots dished up for them with a parody of largesse, than one might fear.


  3. michaelhuggins2591 says:

    I’ll start a fresh reply, since this blog software tends to narrow the type to the point where you feel you’re undertaking one of those speed reading lessons. That’s an interesting note on CW’s work as an antecedent to Bolt’s play; I read Bolt’s script years ago but remember the movie version better. I’ve enjoyed Nigel Hawthorne in a variety of roles, including George III in “The Madness of King George” and President Martin Van Buren in “Amistad.” I’ve seen only two versions of “Shadowlands.” The first was the 1986 TV production with Joss Ackland as Lewis and Claire Bloom as Joy. I always like Ackland, but he has too intimidating and sinister a presence to be Lewis; as for Bloom, she did a fine job, but as I watched, I thought “If poor Lewis could know that his wife was being portrayed by the common-law wife of the author of ‘Portnoy’s Complaint,’ he would be spinning in his grave.” One thing I liked about that version was that it faithfully and accurately preserved Joy’s agonized scream with which she woke the household the morning of her death–it was not included in the Debra Winger-Anthony Hopkins version.

    The Hopkins-Winger version was the other one I saw. If you saw it, you may recall that as they play the opening credits, panning over a group of people singing in an Oxford chapel service, the group includes one of Lewis’s actual stepsons who, I believe, acted as a consultant to the film. One of Lewis’s Oxford colleagues was played by actor John Wood, who was Guildford Dudley’s power-grasping father in “Lady Jane,” and the troubled student whom Lewis caught stealing a book was James Frayn, who played the Machiavellian Spanish bishop in Elizabeth; he was among the crop of Elizabeth’s enemies killed in the movie’s Corleone-like climax.

    The Hopkins-Winger version was OK in its way, though by then, I had gotten too used to seeing Hopkins as Hannibal Lecter. I liked Winger’s portrayal of Joy’s brashness, but I didn’t care for what seemed to be the basic premise of the story: “Sassy, emancipated American woman invades the stuffy, repressed world of an Oxford don and teaches him to loosen up and live a little.”

    I also didn’t care for that movie showing Lewis driving a car and taking Joy on an auto trip, which I don’t believe ever happened.

    I wish Kathy Bates had portrayed Joy at some point, since she looks so much like her, but she’s too old now. I also wish Michael Hordern had portrayed Lewis at some point. I don’t know who should play him now, if there were a remake.

    When I went to the theater and asked for a ticket for “Shadowlands,” the heedless clerk sold me a ticket for “Schindler’s List,” and I stood in the lobby for over an hour wondering when “Shadowlands” would finally begin.


    • David Llewellyn Dodds says:

      I enjoyed Amistad and especially The Madness of King George, which I would recommend to anyone! I agree about Joss Ackland and (for different reasons) Anthony Hopkins (who, after I saw the BBC War and Peace, was one of my favourite actors for a good while). You’re quite right: Lewis could not drive! Nell Berners-Price, whom I interviewed for the Wade Oral History Collection, thought Nigel Hawthorne was very like Lewis as she knew him! He had humour and emotional depth – he stood weeping on stage at one point. I don’t have enough of a sense of Kathy Bates: my ideal Joy (after my high-school English teacher, whose wit and delivery are what I imagine Joy’s to have been like, from her writing) would have been the late Anne Bancroft. Michael Hordern (my favourite Gandalf) would have been very good as Lewis, I think. Funnily enough, Lewis was somehow acquainted with Philip Roth and successfully sought his help in finding a good American university for his step-son, David (or so I have reliably heard).


      • Lewis was in touch with *Philip Roth*???

        Holy cow. That seems as likely to me as that he would have been in touch with Joe Esterhasz, the screenwriter of “Basic Instinct.” I can’t dispute what you say, but I find it almost impossible to imagine that Lewis realized who he was talking to. It is certainly a great deal more unlikely even than George MacDonald turning out to be good friends with Mark Twain!

        I’ve listened to audiotapes of Lewis reading from “The Four Loves” and “Mere Christianity,” and I can’t connect the voice with the image I have based on someone’s comment he “looked like a prosperous butcher going to church.” I’m sorry no video footage exists so that one could put the two together. As to Charles Williams, if they dramatized his life, I imagine Bill Nighey in the role.


        • David Llewellyn Dodds says:

          Yes, I was astonished, too! What I don’t remember (and perhaps never heard) was exactly when this was. And I don’t remember whether I heard that Lewis knew Roth’s work: which, by the time Lewis died, would have consisted of things published in periodicals over the course of 11 years, some of which were republished in the Goodbye, Columbus volume (1959), and also, Letting Go (1962) – none of which I have read. Of course, Lewis could have a lively appreciation for work he strongly disagreed with (like David Lindsay’s A Voyage to Arcturus) – though here I can’t speculate even wildly about works I haven’t read myself. But it is gratifying to think of them getting together (long-distance) to help his step-son. The book in which this little history was to be detailed had never appeared, and I have yet to discover why not and what has become of any draft.

          Bill Nighey, interesting! My general sense of him is that he is very versatile. Not so long ago, on Brenton Dickieson’s blog, I joined in a discussion considering Benedict Cumberbatch as a likely interpreter of C.W….


          • michaelhuggins2591 says:

            I’ve only read one of Roth’s late novels, “The Plot Against America,” though I saw the movie version of “Portnoy’s Complaint,” with Richard Benjamin and Karen Black, in 1972; of course, that novel was published after Lewis’s death. I agree that Lewis could appreciate works with whose philosophy he disagreed, such as “Arcturus,” but he didn’t think much of what he considered obsession with sensuality. He was left cold by Winston Smith’s affair with Julia in “1984,” and the only time he ever went to the movies, he came away saying he felt he had been at a “debauch.” Indeed, while watching a certain scene in the movie “9 1/2 Weeks,” I thought of a Lewis quote, something to the effect that “One good roar of coarse laughter would have dispelled the whole atmosphere,” or something to that effect.

            As to Bill Nighy (I see I misspelled his name earlier), to me, he is a dead ringer for Williams physically, and I can hardly imagine any other actor who resembles Williams as much.


            • David Llewellyn Dodds says:

              I’ve only browsed around in The Breast (1972) – long before ever reading Kafka’s Die Verwandlung/Metamorphosis – and, I think, Portnoy’s Complaint. One passage which was in the back of my mind was that in the last chapter of An Experiment in Criticism which includes Lewis’s reference to “the willingness to suspend […] even repugnance while we read the good expression of what, in general, we think bad. One could praise Ovid for keeping his pornography so free from the mawkish and the suffocating, while disapproving pornograhy as such.” (Which, I take it, does not contradict his critique of 1984 or what sounds your very apt recollection of “One good roar of laughter…”)

              I’ve seen Bill Nighy (whose spelling I do not know by heart!) in Longitude, the 2005 Hitchhiker’s Guide, the Pirate movies, Valkyrie, and Harry Potter – an astonishing variety of characters and appearances, with probably only Lord Sandwich and Rufus Scrimgeour to give me hints of the possible Williams – but I see what you mean, and it would probably be fascinating. (Sudden strange idea: a version of Descent into Hell where he plays both Wentworth and Stanhope, with distinct make-up, etc. – ?!)


              • michaelhuggins2591 says:

                >“the willingness to suspend […] even repugnance while we read the good expression of what, in general, we think bad. One could praise Ovid for keeping his pornography so free from the mawkish and the suffocating, while disapproving pornograhy as such.”

                I had forgotten until just now that in his critical essay on Donne’s “To His Mistress, Going to Bed,” Lewis frankly makes the point that the poem is meant to arouse, or at least express, prurient interest, though I can’t recall whether he actually uses the word “pornographic,” but that is what he seems to mean.

                I had forgotten that Bill Nighy was in “Hitchhiker’s Guide” and “Valkyrie.” I first noticed him in “I Capture the Castle” some years ago, where he played Romola Garai’s father. Near that same time, I saw him in a TV movie called “The Lost Prince,” or something like that, about a Son of George V who had Downs Syndrome, I believe; Nighy played the King’s private secretary, and there was a memorable scene between them as George examined his conscience over whether his government could have intervened and prevented the slaughter of the Romanovs.

                As to Joy Lewis, she seems to have been a remarkable individual, though I’m not sure that I, personally, would have enjoyed her company. I recall Lewis’s comment that her mind was “muscular as a leopard” and that it would allow no “cant or slush” in conversation. On the other hand, I recall reading some incident where some young woman whom Lewis knew raised a topic in his and Joy’s presence where the young woman had thought she had some expectation of receiving some kind of legacy after Lewis’s death, and Joy suddenly snapped at her and brusquely affirmed that the assets in question would be reserved for the use of her sons, if I remember correctly.


                • David Llewellyn Dodds says:

                  I imagine I’d get along with her, unless she ‘took agin me’ for some reason… I’ve read Lyle Dorsett’s biography, and Sayer’s Jack, and remember prickly occasions, but not that one.

                  I haven’t seen “Notes on a Scandal” or “I Capture the Castle” (I started the novel, expecting to like it, and was put off: should I try again?). I’ve got “The Lost Prince” but haven’t watched it, yet! Meanwhile, my imagination runs wild with CGI possibilities for a Descent into Hell film, such as, what if, whoever played Lily, when she tried to tempt someone her features would subtly change to resemble those of her intended victim?


              • michaelhuggins2591 says:

                I forgot to add, earlier, that I also remember Bill Nighy as Cate Blanchett’s husband in “Notes on a Scandal,” with Judi Dench. Also, you may recall that Michael Maloney, who plays the headmaster who forces Judi Dench into retirement at the end of that film, played the Dauphin in Kenneth Branagh’s “Henry V.”


      • I just saw the picture of Joy Lewis in Wikipedia, and I can see, now, why you mentioned Anne Bancroft, whom the photo certainly resembles. The only picture I had ever seen of her was the one taken just before her and Lewis’s trip to Greece, when she was walking with a cane, I believe, and had evidently gained weight; both of them look unwell (which they were, I believe), and she looked a great deal, to me, like Kathy Bates.


  4. michaelhuggins2591 says:

    I’m afraid I haven’t read “I Capture the Castle”–only seen the movie. It’s been some years since I saw “The Lost Prince,” but I found it very poignant and moving and imagine you’ll enjoy it.

    I remember the basic concept of “Descent Into Hell,” but I’m afraid I’ve forgotten who Lily was. I remember there was a deeply spiritual playwright, and a professor entrapped by an obsession with a young woman, and I think the novel begins with a Victorian workingman climbing up a ladder and hanging himself, and it ends with the professor slowly and ineluctably descending a rope into Hell, the victim of his obsession.

    BTW, speaking of “The Lost Prince” and George V, you may remember that it was Claire Bloom, once again, who played Queen Mary to Michael Gambon’s George V in “The King’s Speech,” a few years ago. She is clearly mortified when, after George’s death, Guy Pearce, as the future Edward VIII, breaks out sobbing on her shoulder.


    • David Llewellyn Dodds says:

      Interestingly enough, Williams was already working on Descent into Hell the year after The Myth of Bacon, as Anne Ridler quotes a letter about it from August 1933 in her introduction to The Image of the City. In some early surviving drafts there is, among the main characters, a Mr. Sammile, who is in fact a dope pedlar (Shades of Murder Must Advertise (1933)?). (Curiously, ‘sammile’ turns up as the name of an herb in Elizabeth Goudge’s excellent 17th-c. historical novel, The White Witch – in which she acknowledges a debt to The Greater Trumps! – but I have yet to discover more about it!) But, in the novel as published, there is no Mr. Sammile, which leads to a spoiler alert:

      Lily Sammile is (or appears to be) an old woman who is in fact Lilith, wife of Samael, “in one of her shapes.” The young woman with whom the military historian, Wentworth, is obsessed, is Adela. There is a real young woman, Adela, who acts in Stanhope’s play, and also Wentworth’s “true Adela who was apart and his”, a succubus, who is both “drawn from his own recesses” and somehow related to Lily. My CGI-intoxicated imagination, departing from strict fidelity to the novel, leads me to entertain the idea of subtly transforming the features of the actress playing Adela to resemble those of the actor playing Wentworth when we see succubus-Adela.

      I wonder if Claire Bloom discusses playing Joy anywhere? The television Shadowlands dvd does not seem to have an actors’ commentary, alas (at least, the Amazon listing doesn’t mention one). She also appeared in the film of Iris Murdoch’s A Severed Head. Alice P. Kenney has an interesting essay, “The Mythic History of a Severed Head”, in Modern Fiction Studies in 1969, discussing that novel and That Hideous Strength together!


  5. michaelhuggins2591 says:

    >”Alice P. Kenney has an interesting essay, “The Mythic History of a Severed Head”, in Modern Fiction Studies in 1969, discussing that novel and That Hideous Strength together!

    Speaking of that, I often wondered if, when Lewis had Alcasan’s head revived and made the centerpiece of the Macrobes’ dealings with man in “That Hideous Strength,” it was supposed to an allusion to Revelation 13:3, where it says the Anti-Christ had sustained what seemed to be a fatal head wound but had recovered.


    • David Llewellyn Dodds says:

      Wow, yes! That would be fitting!

      Arend Smilde just brought to my attention a (1940s?) Soviet propaganda film, now on YouTube in various versions, some introduced by Professor Haldane (!), purporting to show a dog’s head kept alive artificially (but doing things a detached head could not, unsupported, so, presumably a conjuring trick, in fact).


      • michaelhuggins2591 says:

        Well now that you mention that, it seems to me I read a note somewhere, years ago, whether by Lewis himself or someone else, that mentioned the dog’s head episode as a possible source of the idea for Lewis.


  6. David Llewellyn Dodds says:

    This play and Nancy’s talking about acting in Julius Caesar in school in The Greater Trumps stir vague memories of having read something about a (long) tradition of plays at girls’ schools which mirrored the Elizabethan convention of having all roles played by men (including female characters) in reverse,with all male characters played by the young women – but I cannot immediately find anything about such a tradition.


  7. michaelhuggins2591 says:

    Ms. Higgins, I’ve just read Williams’s play about Shakespeare and Bacon. A few thoughts off the top of my head:

    The prologue does little credit to Williams as a poet, in my opinion. Trochaic tetrameter doesn’t seem the best meter for treating a weighty subject (isn’t it, in fact, the meter of “L’Allegro”?), and the “college/knowledge” rhyme seems rather pedestrian and “evermore as heretofore” even worse; frankly, it reminds me of something one of Shakespeare’s fools might say. Ending that second quatrain with the borrowing of “Let us now praise famous men” really doesn’t impress me much either. (However, upon seeing this repeated at the end of the play, I suspect now that it is meant to be a sort of fatuous hymn of the “masters of knowledge,” who imagine they represent a noble search for truth while not realizing how they fall short, so perhaps Williams has written it this way on purpose.)

    I was a little more impressed when the Father of wisdom bids Bacon “be the new instauration of man’s mind” since, of course, Bacon himself used Latin “instauratio” in one of his essays or books (it’s been a while since I’ve read it). Later in the play, I see Bacon obliquely refers to his own writings once more when he says his mission is to voyage to “some lost Atlantis.”

    A major aspect of the play is Bacon’s worldly ambition and desire for material goods (this seems to be confirmed in Act III, when Bacon remarks to his servant “Magnificence [in material possessions] shall make study applauded by the whole world”). In that regard, I was reminded of a comment Lewis made about Marlowe’s Dr. Faustus: something to the effect that he talked of wisdom but was really after “gold, guns, and girls.”

    I like Bacon’s comment to Shakespeare: “Reason bows man’s mind to things in their own nature.” That could have been the epigraph to the whole absurd episode of the Sokal hoax.

    When Essex enters under guard, I see Williams borrows from Shakespeare when he has Bacon say “My lord, I would not press a falling man.” I think “Press not a falling man too far” was original to Shakespeare’s “Henry VIII.” (I see he also uses the line later when confronted by Shrewsbury and Arundel.)

    Shakespeare’s comment to Bacon “It [incorruption] shall divide you—sharp; flesh from bone” seems to be an interesting paraphrase of Hebrews 4:12.

    I was very startled by Williams suddenly having the action of the play jump ahead by 20 years (from the fall of Essex in 1601 to Bacon’s own disgrace in 1621). When Hobbes entered and I thought it was still 1601, I thought, “Why is Bacon being quizzed by a 13-year-old boy?” Also, it seems a little sloppy for Bacon to be asked “Know you Sir Thomas Egerton?” when Egerton was more prominent in public life than Bacon himself and, I believe, preceded him in the chancellorship (in fact, I think Egerton was John Donne’s father-in-law though of course in his own day, that fact was not what made him prominent!).

    It’s hard not to compare the scene of Bacon reflecting on his fall and taking his leave of Hobbes with the similar scene in “Henry VIII” where Wolsey reflects on his fall and takes his leave of Cromwell. I think Shakespeare’s handling of his more successful, though I am touched by Bacon’s apparent acknowledgement that his supposed thirst for truth was not as pure as he had thought, as in “O love-making to truth/O longing for it—yet not here, not here,/Not in this breast.”

    My impression of Williams’s overall point is that he is examining the love of knowledge and the search for truth. The dialogue with Shakespeare is part of that, with Shakespeare asserting that men like Bacon are in the better position, studying things as they are, while the poet must resort to fanciful images, while Bacon dismisses Shakespeare as a glib talker and a mummer. In the end, Williams, faithful to the historic circumstance, shows Bacon rather pathetically undone by his experiment with packing snow in the dead bird to see how well the snow would preserve it from putrefaction.

    What I can’t tell is whether Williams means all this as a general indictment of any human seeker after deep knowledge—that we may talk all we like about a search for knowledge and thirst for truth, but it is inherently polluted by our own egoistic self-seeking—or whether he merely means to say that the search for truth is so polluted if one’s motives are as polluted by vanity and greed as Bacon’s were.

    If Williams is making the first point—that Bacon stands for all of us—what does he propose as an alternative? Virtue is mentioned several times—e.g., it is correctly imputed to Lord Burleigh—but I can’t tell that either that or anything else is presented as a coherent antidote to seeking for truth for the wrong motives.


    • David Llewellyn Dodds says:

      Mr Huggins,

      Thank you for this! Before I read it, your observations about “perfection and preservation” in a comment at the Bacon biography post made me think of a line – and theme – of Williams’s play about Cranmer, about “change without changing”. Now, I want to read the two again, one after the other. I remember Cranmer better than this Myth, and your closing remarks here make me think it may be a more thorough and varied exploration of much the same ‘matter’ you indicate in the Myth of Bacon. If so (and also in the rapid movement through many years of the subject’s life) it would be interesting to compare the more ambition play in a new verse style with this one, written only a few years earlier.


  8. michaelhuggins2591 says:

    It also occurs to me to wonder why, asked to write a play to be performed by girls, Williams couldn’t simply have written about Lady Mary Sidney and Queen Elizabeth herself.


    • David Llewellyn Dodds says:

      I can imagine he would have done so interestingly, but Bacon is probably easier than either Mary Dudley or her daughter, Mary Sidney, in the ‘dramatic’ aspects of his life and work from which to choose.

      I bet there is an interesting scholarly literature ‘out there’ about who was writing what plays for girls’ schools, but how to get onto it?


    • David Llewellyn Dodds says:

      No, I’ve only ranged around very irregularly – though with much enjoyment – in Macaulay’s History of England. (So, thanks for the reference!) Dom Gregory Dix has a vivid, and controversial, account of Cranmer in his study, The Shape of the Liturgy (1945). I haven’t gone properly into the ‘Cranmer literature’, but think Williams’s depiction interestingly ‘warts and all’ (to some extent, anyway), while not being ‘all warts’. I thought R.H. Benson’s novel, The Queen’s Tragedy (1906), interesting from a very different perspective. (We know Williams read some Benson, it would be interesting to know just how much and what, exactly. Some of his fiction is certainly ‘in the background’ of, and comparable to, Williams’s, and his books went on being reprinted till the sort of time Williams wrote and published his.)


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