The Back Side of Christ: “Thomas Cranmer of Canterbury”

Book Summary #33: Thomas Cranmer of Canterbury, 1935

thomascranmerCharles Williams wrote many plays during his lifetime, and many of them were commissioned for special occasions and were performed. They are lively, vivid dramatic works that (I’ve heard) play well on the stage. I have yet to see one performed—but I have participated in the reading of The Chapel of the Thorn, and that held up well. I have also heard an audio recording of Seed of Adam as performed in Loren Wilkinson’s excellent course on CW, which you can purchase from the Regent College audio bookstore. That one was also lively and dramatic. And when I read his plays on the page, I try to hear and visualize them in my mind.

collected playsI get the idea, then, that his plays do well on the stage. They don’t do quite as well on the page—at least for me. (Tune in on Monday for a rant about how I’m getting sick of CW). When I’m reading on the page, I have an urge to reread and reread a line until I “get” it. I remember one night not too long ago: I was lying in bed, getting ready for sleep, and thought I’d read a little CW before nodding off. I picked up Taliessin through Logres and told myself: “You must make sure you understand each line before you move on to the next.” I think I got about two or three lines in, and even then I was fudging. It’s tough stuff.

If I were watching Thomas Cranmer of Canterbury on the stage (or listening to an audio version; my preferred method of consuming books these days), I wouldn’t have the luxury of stopping to figure it out—or the drawback. Because obviously if a play is written for the stage, it isn’t meant to be lingered over in that fashion. The lines are meant to have an immediate, aesthetic, auditory, physical impact—and then the next one comes along, and the next. It is perhaps more like listening to music than reading poetry.

(Here is a “slightly adapted” script someone put online.)

What, then, are some of the main impacts an audience could expect to get from a performance of Thomas Cranmer, or that an imaginative reader can get if picturing the piece and listening to it inside his or her head?

First, let’s get the context. I reproduce here a paragraph from an excellent article about CW by Philip Jenkins, on Baylor’s Institute for Studies of Religion website:

In 1936…as Williams turned fifty, his play Thomas Cranmer of Canterbury was produced at the Canterbury Festival. This setting might have daunted a lesser artist, as the previous year’s main piece was Eliot’s Murder in the Cathedral, which raised astronomically high expectations. Thomas Cranmer, though, did not disappoint. Cranmer was after all a fascinating and complex figure, the guiding force in the Tudor Reformation of the English church and a founding father of Anglicanism. Yet when the Catholic Queen Mary came to the throne in 1553, Cranmer repeatedly showed himself willing to compromise with the new order. He signed multiple denials of Protestant doctrine before reasserting his principles, recanting the recantations, on the very day of his martyrdom. Famously, he thrust his hand into the fire moments before he was executed, condemning the instrument by which he had betrayed his beliefs.

cranmerThe play is written in dense, complex, sometimes beautiful verse. It covers a wide period of Cranmer’s life, from 1528 until his martyrdom in 1556. Scripture passages and quotations from Cranmer’s own Book of Common Prayer are skillfully and smoothly woven into the poetry. Cranmer is a lofty and complex figure who has to fall to his lowest point before he can be right with God, and that redemption comes at the moment of—and apparently by means of—his death by fire. I found that the writing was better when characters were in dialogue: the long monologues got very dense and alienating. There are some very compelling moments, such as Anne Boleyn’s plea to Henry to marry her, and the death of Edward VI, when Cranmer is tempted to flee for his life.

By far the most interesting and confusing element of this play is the character of the Skeleton. He dances around, in and out of the play, sometimes apparently invisible and inaudible to the characters, sometimes having conversations with Cranmer. What is he? Is he Death? Is he Fate? Is he God, or the devil? Here are some of the things he says about himself:

skeletonCRANMER: I am blind; I am afraid; what are you?
THE SKELETON: A moment’s geometrical formation of
a functioning spectrum of analysed eternity;

CRANMER: What are you called?
THE SKELETON: Anything, everything;
fellow, friend, cheat, traitor.

My name, after today’s fashion, is latinized
into Figura Rerum.

You believe in God; believe also in me;
I am the Judas who betrays men to God.

When time and space withdraw, there
is nothing left
but yourself and I: lose yourself there is only I.

Mine is the diagram; I twirl it to a point,
the point of conformity, of Christ. You shall see Christ,
see his back first — I am his back.

I am Christ’s back; I without face or
life in death, death in life

CRANMER: They will burn me then?
THE SKELETON: Friend, it is necessary.
they will tell you; love necessity: I am he,
I am coming, run — run hastily to meet me.
You shall find that in rue is no more necessity. Run.

I am the only thing that outruns necessity,
I am necessary Love where necessity is not.

MortI don’t know if those quotes help to figure out what The Skeleton is. His name, figura rerum, means “the shape of things,” “substantive figure,” “the shower-forth of things, or “phenomenal prophecy, as a prefiguration of Christ.” Members of Coinherence – The Charles Williams list have debated over whether he is the devil, the Messiah, or the Holy Spirit.

If you have read the play, please tell me: Who or What do YOU think The Skeleton is?

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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9 Responses to The Back Side of Christ: “Thomas Cranmer of Canterbury”

  1. Dmitry Medvedev says:

    This play is in my top three or four CW’s books…

    I think the Skeleton is to Cranmer almost the same thing as Beatrice is to Dante (CW’s Beatrice to CW’s Dante, of course). He is the figure, “the only way by which the other Power can be known”. Only for Cranmer the way is actually different and much less pleasant… It is possible, that the Skeleton represents the negative way, and he is the last image that remains after all other images have been rejected.

    There is an interesting explanation in George Every’s essay (Theology March 1948 vol. 51 no. 333 pp. 95-100), which I found the most satisfactory of all that I have read so far. He also draws parallels with other characters from CW’s plays and poetry (Satan, the Accuser, the Third King… and, quite unexpectedly, the questing beast).

    “The witches see him as the Prince of Darkness, but that is their illusion. He is the truth that they ignorantly worship, not understanding that rejection and destruction, as well as affirmation and
    creation, are instruments of the Supreme Wisdom, Power, and Love. In another light he can be seen as the angel of the negative way, whereby men and women ascend to the love of God by turning from all earthly things. He comes between the things themselves and our high dreams about them, teaching us to distinguish the sign from the thing signified, the way from the end, the beloved from love. In Taliessin through Logres he is the questing beast whom Palomides heard
    when he suddenly saw that Iseult was not perfect,

    division stretched between
    the queen’s identity and the queen.
    Relation vanished, though beauty stayed;
    too long my dangerous eyes delayed
    at the shape on the board, but voice was mute;
    the queen’s arm lay there destitute,
    empty of glory; and while the king
    tossed the Saracen lord a ring,
    and the queen’s pleasure, smiling still,
    turned to Tristram’s plausible skill,
    three lines in a golden distance shone,
    three points pricked golden and were gone.
    Tristram murmured by Iseult’s head.
    And aloof in the roof, beyond the feast,
    I heard the squeak of the questing beast,
    where it scratched itself in the blank between
    the queen’s substance and the queen.”

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thank you! That makes a lot of sense. I can see The Skeleton as a Beatrician progress along the Via Negativa. There is language that suggests the Questing Beast, too.


    • David Llewellyn Dodds says:

      Lois Glenn gives the title of George Every’s article as “Charles Williams-I. The Accuser” (with “II. The City and the Substitutions” following in the April issue).


    • David Llewellyn Dodds says:

      In rereading Anne Ridler’s Introduction in Seed of Adam and Other Plays (1948) I see (what I had forgotten) that she discusses the matter there to a certain extent (pp. vi-vii), speaking of “the use of symbolic instead of naturalistic characters”, saying “The figure of Satan in The Rite of the Passion perhaps foreshadows these later figures”, noting the Skeleton “was originally conceived as two figures” and suggesting his eventual “difficult poise” of being “detached from the action, yet influencing it” was “perhaps, even more successfully kept in the Flame [in The House of the Octopus…] which is used as a symbol of the Holy Spirit working in the world.” Discussing Hell in Seed of Adam, she says in a footnote that “in Judgement at Chelmsford the Accuser is really the Saviour, while Satan in the earlier Rite of the Passion played a similar part” (p. viii).


  2. pennkenobi says:

    Firstly, I think Medvedev’s take is quite solid and on point! I would like to add a few things.

    Earlier I managed to read about 60% of Thomas Cranmer of Canterbury and I have to say I was a bit captivated, more so than I was when I read Eliot’s Murder in the Cathedral, which whether better written or not is certainly not more potent.

    The role of the skeleton with Cranmer reminds me somewhat of the way Christ handled, managed the carnal expectations of the disciples. Sometimes rather than refuting them he would agree with them using a kind of “dark speech” that left them puzzled. “Elijah is coming and will restore all things but…”, or “You will indeed drink from my cup but…” They had an image, a ‘figure of things’ about the coming kingdom and their role in it that would eventually break like a seed husk revealing not something categorically different but something truer, more pure. But here I’m speaking only of what the skeleton reminds me of. I’m still not exactly sure what to make of him.

    And just now I’m remembering a passage from T.S. Eliot’s “Little Gidding”:

    It would be the same, when you leave the rough road
    And turn behind the pig-sty to the dull facade
    And the tombstone. And what you thought you came for
    Is only a shell, a husk of meaning
    From which the purpose breaks only when it is fulfilled
    If at all. Either you had no purpose
    Or the purpose is beyond the end you FIGURED [my bolding]
    And is altered in fulfilment.

    Notice here Eliot’s use of the word ‘figured.’ Perhaps Eliot has something of Williams’s specifically in mind in the Little Gidding. Cranmer was written in ’36 and Little Gidding in ’42. I think this passage from Little Gidding could be quite useful towards a better understanding of Williams’s play. I think it is fantastic and at least as good or better than Murder in the Cathedral. I can’t wait to finish it tomorrow.


  3. David Llewellyn Dodds says:

    What a lot of interesting links you’ve added to your lively discussion – thank you! But, to your question.

    I think Figura Rerum is a ‘Figure’ of the Creation, which is a Creation which included ‘Man’, and which is Fallen – hence a human skeleton (underlying structure of the human form, which you would presumably not see bare in a world without sin and death) – but which is also intimately related to its Providential Creator and Sustainer in Whom “we live, and move, and have our being” (Acts 17:28) by the Incarnation of the Son.

    A comparison which just struck me today is the rejoicing “Nature or Arch-nature” which sings the adaptation of Psalm 110 in chapter 11 of Lewis’s The Great Divorce.

    I think it is in line with such other figurae rerum as the Graal and Prester John taken together in War in Heaven, the Stone in Many Dimensions, the Angelicals in The Place of the Lion, and the Tarot cards and moving figures taken together in The Greater Trumps.


  4. Pingback: King and Priest and Sacrifice: “Seed of Adam” | The Oddest Inkling

  5. Pingback: Tiny Intro to the Canterbury Plays | The Oddest Inkling

  6. David Llewellyn Dodds says:

    I just ran into someone’s post of a 78 recording of Robert Speaight, who played both Thomas Becket in Murder in the Cathedral and the Skeleton in Cranmer, reading Becket’s Christmas sermon from the former:


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