Charles 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.
I 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.
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.
The 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:
CRANMER: 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.
I 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?