Book Summary #34: Seed of Adam, 1936.
As I wrote in my previous post on Thomas Cranmer of Canterbury, Charles Williams wrote many plays during his lifetime, and many of them were commissioned for special occasions and were performed. This is the case with Seed of Adam, which was commissioned by Phyllis Potter, director of the Chelmsford Diocesan Drama Guild and performed there for Christmas in 1936. According to Grevel Lindop, “Seed of Adam became a staple of religious drama for many years, with countless performances around England every winter” (265). This is quite surprising, and may be a testimony to the appetite of the audiences of the time for profound, metaphysical, complicated drama. Also, as I said before, his plays are lively, vivid dramatic works in spite of their complexity; here is 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 bookstore.
So then, what is this play about? Well, it is, as its subtitle says, a Nativity play. it does have Mary and Joseph and the Three Magi in it. But it also has Adam and Eve—they are Mary’s parents, and they marry her off to Joseph, who is a Muslim in the service of Melchior, the Sultan of Bagdad, the second wise man. Adam is also Caesar—okay, let me go back a bit. I think that the best way to introduce this play is to go through the dramatis personae, then discuss each character and what he or she represents and how each one function in the metaphysical drama.
Gaspar, the Tsar of Caucasia, the King of Gold, represents not only wealth and commercial activity, but also all “outer actions”: all the energies and activities of this world. The gift of gold by the first Magi is traditionally associated with Christ’s kingship. Williams tells us—or the character himself tells us, in rather and graphic language—that Gaspar “sprang from our Father Adam’s loins / in a bright emission of coins.” This is the first pun on the title: he is Adam’s literal, sexual “seed,” his semen. He believes that paradise “is hope learning to grope.”
Melchior, the Sultan of Bagdad, the King of Frankincense, represents the world of the imagination and all “inner actions”: introspection, philosophy, geometry, and so on. The gift of frankincense by the second Magi traditionally associated with Christ’s priesthood, because it was burnt in the temple for its fragrance. His story of his origins is less graphic: “Adam my father and Eve my mother / construed me aloof from sister and brother / through a post-paradisal afternoon.” He is also “Adam’s seed”: he is the child of their thought. He believes that paradise “is sensation living in negation.” Together, he and the first king seem to represent the shortcomings of the Two Ways to God: The Via Affirmativa and the Via Negativa—or at least the active vs. the philosophical ways to God. But neither is sufficient on its own.
Adam, the first man, also serves as Mary’s father. This, then, makes Christ also “the seed of Adam”: his literal, biological descendant on the human side. But Adam is also the conqueror of the world, the father of all humanity, Julius Caesar, Octavius Caesar, and Caesar Augustus: all earthly authority. He claims to be
the power in the world, from brow to anus,
in commerce of the bones and bowels of men;
sinews’ pull, blood’s circulation,
Britain and Bagdad. I in brawn and brain
set knot by knot and station by station.
You can see you in these lines the anatomical imagery that he will further develop in the Arthurian poetry.
Eve is the mother of all the living, including Mary. She serves merely as a prompt to Adam’s questions and statements.
Mary is a blithe young girl; we first meet her coming home from the fair, where she was, according to her mother Eve:
Watching mountebanks, laughing at clowns,
applauding jugglers and tightrope walkers,
listening to talkers, admiring lovers,
riding with children on the roundabout,
everywhere in the middle of the rout,
being, by her nature, all things to all men.
Adam wants to marry her off to Joseph, and he doesn’t think this will be a problem, because although she has no particular, special love for Joseph, she loves all things and all people equally, deeply, freshly. She is very much like “My Last Duchess” in the Robert Browning poem of that title, who had
A heart—how shall I say?— too soon made glad,
Too easily impressed; she liked whate’er
She looked on, and her looks went everywhere.
Or she is like the lady who “is as in a field a silken tent” in the Robert Frost sonnet, who is
By countless silken ties of love and thought
To every thing on earth the compass round.
Mary is “a heart of purity” and serves as the Submitted Saint in this tale: the person whose will is fully in tune with God’s will so that she accepts everything that comes to her. She is arguably given the most beautiful poetry of the play; soaring speeches of glory, movement, and power.
Joseph, for his part, is “a mind of justice.” He is “a warlike and dutiful lad,” according to Adam. He is “Lieutenant-general of the Sultan’s horse / an Islamite, a genius in cavalry tactics!” Thus philosophy and strategy, peace and war, thought and action are married in Mary and Joseph.
The conflict of this play is the desire of all of the characters to get back to paradise. They were expelled from Eden and they are consumed by longing to return, or to experience paradise in some other way.
The last two important characters get to the heart of Williams’s oddity and ingenuity in this play. They are as follows.
Balthazar, the Third King, the King of Myrrh, a “Negro” [Williams’s word—although it is traditional to have the Three Kings be varying ethnicities. Conventionally they are from Persia, India, and Babylon; Williams has them hail from Caucasia, Bagdad, and (generally speaking) Africa.] The gift of myrrh by the third Magi is traditionally associated with Christ’s death, His sacrifice, because it is an aromatic embalming resin used in burial. Check out the lyrics to the Christmas carol “We Three Kings” for a poetic use of the gifts and their significance. Yet he is far, far more than this, and he is the locus of CW’s strange genius in this work: the third king is the core of the fruit that Adam and Eve ate. After Adam and Eve ate the fruit, they threw away the core over the wall of Eden.
Presently the sun split the core,
and out grew I, the King of the core.
I have travelled to get back to you ever since
he says. So they are all trying to get back to paradise, while at the same time paradise—or a small seed of it—is trying to get back to them.
But that’s not all. Finally, there is:
Mother Myrrh, Hell, a “Negress” [Williams’s word]. When Adam and Eve threw away the core of the fruit over the wall of Eden, the Third King tells them,
At the heart of that core, in the core of me,
lived a small worm you could not see.
The sun is a generous sun; he set us both free.
She lives by me, and I by her.
I call her my little mother Myrrh.
So she has also sprung from the seed of the apple, the seed of Adam, and she is the Third King’s child and mother at once—and and she is Hell. She and the Third King are like the characters of Sin and Satan in Milton’s Paradise Lost: eternally preying upon one another, sexually and gustatorily, and giving birth to children that then devour them. She comes to eat Adam and Eve and all the human race alive. Like Shelob, she is consumed by an endless hunger—and she particularly wants to eat Mary.
Mary, sweet and submitted and bold and glorious, steps forward and says to Hell:
Dearest, you will find me very indigestible.
The stomach of the everlasting worm
is not omnivorous; it is a poor weak thing.
Hell attacks her, and the most dramatic moments of the play follow, as Hell tries to cut Mary down with a flashing scimitar and they break out into a fight, a dance, together. Mary goes into labor, and sings in ecstasy as the Birth is upon her. Mother Myrrh, Hell, defeated, serves as her midwife. The Third King says: “deliver her and she shall deliver you.”
Mary gives birth to Jesus. Joseph comes forth from the stable, announcing:
Father Adam, come in; here is your child,
here is the Son of Man, here is Paradise.
To-day everything begins again.
Jesus, then, is the true Seed of Adam: The One who fulfills the sin of the original seed—the seed of the fruit, the seed of spilt sexuality—and plants it anew in the garden of God. The Tsar of Caucasia, the first King, sings: “Blessed be he who is the earth’s core” and Eve sings: “Blessed be he who is down in our flesh, grown / among us for our salvation.”
It is a beautiful, powerful, confusing, multi-layered play. I would love to see it performed someday, some Christmas. Meanwhile, please tell me if you have read it, heard it read, or seen it performed—or if you want to mount a production of it!