We are back to book summaries today; it’s another of CW’s plays. But first, please go vote for your favorite Charles Williams work in this week’s poll!
Grab and Grace or It’s the Second Step
This is another straight-forward play in simple language that’s easy to understand! Go, CW! It’s really delightful. It’s surprisingly obvious allegory, even if it weren’t written by the master of the obscure. Yet it is also sophisticated, clever, and profound. Hooray!
Grab and Grace is the sequel to The House by the Stable. CW wrote it in August of 1941, and it was performed many times and in various places. It is eminently playable; I think I’ll try to do a reading of it sometime. As a matter of fact, here’s a performance of it you can listen to; the audio recording quality is poor, but the performance sounds compelling.
Grab and Grace takes place either 100 or 1000 years after The House by the Stable. Hell and Pride have been wandering beggars. They happen upon Man’s house again, and Pride thinks she can beguile him into taking her back. She dresses up in dark, sober clothing, acts humble and penitent, and takes the new name Self-Respect. Things seem to be going well for her: Man remembers how much he loved her and missed her, she persuades him that a little Self-Respect is necessary for religion (“Perfection comes slowly; / and we must not be too holy all at once”), and he’s kind of sick of listening to Faith talk about Immanuel all the time.
But there’s one problem for Pride. Not only has Man become a follower of Immanuel after that baby he harbored grew up and died; Gabriel is still hanging around, and Man has also taken Faith and Grace into his household. Faith is a sharp, witty, sophisticated woman dressed in the latest style; Grace is a mischievous little boy who is much older than he looks.
And Faith and Self-Respect cannot co-exist.
Thus enters the conflict of the play: essentially a glorified cat-fight between the two women, Pride and Faith. Each tells Man that she will leave if he keeps the other around. Pride throws her superior sexual appeal in Faith’s face. It eventually comes to a physical conflict, when Hell throws Grace in a lake to try to drown him, then he and Pride wrestle with Faith, tie her up, and stuff her into a sack.
Around this central conflict, we can find all the most important idea of the play, and by digging in, we can see some of CW’s distinctive concepts at work until the simple surface.
First, let’s talk about genre. While this is a play, it’s also an allegory; and while it’s an allegory, it’s also a domestic drama. The dialogue is very realistic. The character are well-developed people with their own psychological depths and motivations, even while they’re single-bladed symbols for abstract qualities. The pacing is lively, the interactions both humorous and poignant.
Next, there’s CW’s common theme about the misuse of sacred relics. That bag they tied Faith up in? Well, Hell and Pride have been carrying that bag around for ages, collecting in it precious items such as a flask of Abel’s blood—“A drop of that in a drink gives a man heartburn”—Adam’s tooth that he chipped eating the forbidden fruit, Jezebel’s jeweled belt, the rope with which Judas hanged himself, and so forth. They desire to use these items from church history for their own devices: to entrap Man and bring him to Hell’s home.
As I’ve written about a lot before, particularly in the introduction to The Chapel of the Thorn, CW used people’s responses to sacred objects as catalysts to reveal their spiritual state. Not that we need much more clue than the characters’ names “Hell” and “Pride” to reveal their spiritual state! —but we are meant to shudder at these biblical horror-shop objects as they are displayed and abused.
Church history, did I say? Yes. CW packs quite a lot of clever views on Christianity’s past into this little drama. No, he doesn’t get into heresies and church councils, but he does have it that Pride has been so sick for the intervening years that she hasn’t noticed what Jesus did, and Hell has been so ill he’s forgotten to tell her. When he mentions Judas, she asks who that is. Hell tells her, then replies:
“Neither you nor I have ever been the same / since the great earthquake and the talking flame.”
I think that could be the tagline for The Descent of the Dove: A Short History of the Holy Spirit in the Church. Our ecclesiastical narrative was set in motion by those two events: the great earthquake at Christ’s death and the flames on the heads of the glossolalian apostles at Pentecost.
Now to come back to the dramatic climax of Grab and Grace, when Hell throws Grace into the lake. Man panics and runs to save the little boy. This action propels him in the right direction: without stopping to think, he puts himself on the side of the angels. Gabriel moves as if to stop him, saying:
Sir, Grace can swim;
indeed, there is very little Grace cannot do—
for example—get out of a bottomless pit.
Well, it is proper that Man should run fast
when heaven seems in danger; heaven has done
as much for him.
I think this little speech is at the heart of the play. It’s really, really funny: “Sir, Grace can swim”? Seriously? That’s great. But then there’s the serious theology: God does not need our help. There is nothing we can do to add to His great work. And yet… and yet… if we think God or one of His ministers is in danger, should we not run to help, even if our help is useless? It’s a touching moment, funny and light and thoughtful all at once. I’d say that’s what this play is.
And what about the titles? “Grab and Grace” is clever; it’s really about Pride and Grace, or Pride and Faith—but Man’s test is whether he will grab self-respect or let it go. And the second title, “It’s the Second Step?” Well, the play ends with Man realizing he has taken the second step; he has passed the second test. The first was when he sheltered Mary and Joseph in his stable, then let Gabriel drive out Pride and Hell. The second was this one, when he realized: “It seems to me that when I say I / or when I think myself someone I am always wrong.” He had to send Self-Respect away, too. And the play ends with him wondering: “What, o almighty Christ, what of the third?”
What will the next test be?
Before I close, here’s an odd thing. What’s this about? Were these two plays made into TV shows at some point? Were they aired? Any ideas?