Tiny Intro to the Canterbury Plays

logoA dear friend and fellow scholar asked me to give a little explanation of what the “Canterbury Plays” were. I’m delighted to do so, especially in their Charles Williams connection.

In 1928, the Canterbury Cathedral revived the tradition of liturgical drama by commissioning a play to be performed in their Chapter House. They continued this tradition until the start of World War II, and then tried again with two more plays after the war. They hired some of the greatest living playwrights to compose news work specifically for their space and occasion. The results include a few enduring masterpieces, and the Festival as a whole is in important cultural occurrence. I hope to study these plays in my PhD program, looking at the theology they presented; the dialogues the plays were engaged in about politics, war, peace, theatre, and public and private religion; the material conditions in which they were performed; their reception (who attended? what did they think?); their poetry; their subsequent performances; or anything else that needs studying. The Festival has been revived since; please check out its website.

I also hope to have all 9 performed somewhere, in some capacity or other, during my 5 or so years at Baylor.

The nine plays were:

John Masefield & Gustav Holst, The Coming of Christ, 1928
Laurence Binyon, The Young King, 1934
T. S. Eliot, Murder in the Cathedral, 1935
Charles Williams, Thomas Cranmer of Canterbury, 1936
Dorothy L. Sayers, The Zeal of Thy House, 1937
Christopher Hassall, Christ’s Comet, 1938
Dorothy L. Sayers, The Devil to Pay, 1939
Laurie Lee, Peasants’ Priest, 1947
Christopher Fry, Thor, With Angels, 1948

They also performed Everyman and plays by Marlowe and Tennyson during the course of the Festival. That’s all I know so far! Please read this post on Williams’s contribution, and stay tuned for more discussions of these fascinating plays as time goes on.

About Sørina Higgins

Sørina Higgins is a PhD student in English and Presidential Scholar at Baylor University. She also serves as Chair of the Language and Literature Department at Signum University, online. Her latest publication is an academic essay collection on "The Inklings and King Arthur" (Apocryphile Press, December 2017). Her interests include British Modernism, the Inklings, Arthuriana, theatre, and magic. She holds an M.A. from Middlebury College’s Bread Loaf School of English. Sørina blogs about British poet Charles Williams at The Oddest Inkling, wrote the introduction to a new edition of Williams’s "Taliessin through Logres" (Apocryphile, 2016), and edited Williams’s "The Chapel of the Thorn" (Apocryphile, 2014). As a creative writer, Sørina has published two books of poetry, "The Significance of Swans" (2007) and "Caduceus" (2012).
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14 Responses to Tiny Intro to the Canterbury Plays

  1. David Llewellyn Dodds says:

    I thoroughly enjoyed Kenneth Pickering’s Drama in the Cathedral: The Canterbury Festival Plays, 1928-48 (Churchman Publishing Ltd; 1st ed. 24 Jun. 1985), but have only heard of but never seen the second, revised edition – Drama in the Cathedral: A Twentieth Century Encounter of Church and Stage (Colwell, Malvern: J. Garnet Miller Ltd; 2nd Revised ed. 22 Oct. 2001).

    It would be great to put them on in some form or another! (Binyon as well as Williams is out of copyright, so you could even do a LibriVox audiobook version of them.)


  2. David Llewellyn Dodds says:

    Something earnestly enjoyable about Canterbury between the Festival periods:


    made by George Hoellering, who went on to make the 1951 film adaptation of Murder in the Cathedral. (There’s also a fine Caedmon audio version of Murder in the Cathedral with Paul Scofield as Thomas Becket.)


  3. Charles Huttar says:

    Thanks, David, for these informative comments — and of course thanks to Sorina for bringing all this to our attention. I look forward to reading your thesis! (or will it be just a paper for one course?
    I got (somewhat) acquainted with Martin and Henzie Browne when they visited Hope College, in the early 1970s it must have been, and we hosted them in our house.
    Distantly related to this: Some of you may be interested in the new dramatic piece on Julian of Norwich and Margery Kempe – http://www.radiusdrama.org.uk/ – which I just stumbled across; hadn’t known about.
    I agree with David that performances are called for!


    • David Llewellyn Dodds says:

      How delightful to have gotten the chance to become acquainted with the E. Martin Brownes!

      I see his Wikipedia article lists two books of possible interest:

      E. Martin Browne & Henzie Browne, Two in One (Cambridge University Press, 1981)

      and (I suppose for Williams and the Spaldings especially): Henzie Browne & E. Martin Browne, Pilgrim Story; The Pilgrim Players 1939–1943 (London: Frederick Muller, 1945).

      Robert Speaight, whom Browne directed as Thomas Becket in the original Festival production of Murder in the Cathedral, was also a prolific author, whose works include his autobiography: The Property Basket. Recollections of a Divided Life (1970).

      His Wikipedia article informs us we can hear his voice in another wartime film:


      It would be interesting to see how the meeting of the Lady Julian and Margery Kempe has been brought to the stage. I vividly remember Dame Helen Gardner recounting how people were fascinated by reference to that meeting of visionaries, and astonished in a different sense when The Book of Margery Kempe was rediscovered in 1934. The handy link at the Williams Society to transcriptions from his New Christian Year includes one excerpt from it – as well as many from the Lady Julian.


      • David Llewellyn Dodds says:

        And, what a varied lot of recordings of Robert Speaight there are on YouTube, too – including as the reciter in post-war recording of Ralph Vaughan Williams: A Song of Thanksgiving (1944)!


  4. Joe R. Christopher says:

    Sorina– I trust you will advertise the productions of any of the plays here ahead of time. I’m close enough I might be able to drive over to see one or more (or hear them, if you end up doing readers’ theater). Eliot and Williams I’d like to see/hear, and the two by Sayers (from reading them, I think the first is by far the better of the two, but sometimes productions change one’s mind). I read a number of Christopher Fry’s plays back in the 1950s, but not _Thor, with Angels_. The others I don’t know from any reading of their plays–Laurie Lee I don’t know at all. Anyway, it’s a fascinating topic, and with Eliot you have a magnificent play to discuss–and at least two others that are very good within their genre.


    • David Llewellyn Dodds says:

      I have no idea what the rights situation is, and how it ‘works’, for those still in copyright – but it would be fine if you could get permission to make some kind of audio- and or video-recording for archival purposes, as seems to have been done with the production in Oxford not so long ago of Donald Swann’s Perelandra opera, to which one can listen in a library setting, as I understand. Perhaps somebody at the Wade has that sort of information at their fingertips.


    • David Llewellyn Dodds says:

      I only read Thor, with Angels this past year, but can commend it as interesting in many ways – among others for its Arthurian element, as an old Merlin (it is A.D. 596) is one of the most important characters, who says, “I lost my trumpet of zeal when Arthur died”, but remembers his manhood “in a Christian land: in Arthur’s land” with “old Joseph’s faithful staff / Breaking into scarlet but in the falling snow” – remembers better than the young Briton, Hoel, whose grandfather once told “my hip-high self’ “How I’d been given in water to the One god” when both had been enslaved by the Saxons.

      Some things Merlin says invite comparison with Tolkien’s poem ‘Mythopoeia’ – lots of scope and food for thinking about True Myth, here! – and the whole play reminds me in various ways of The Chapel of the Thorn – not only the Christian song at the end, but the competing (visionary) experiences and expressions of Germanic paganism, Christianity (the pagans, from their well-established perspective, call the Christian’s “heathens”), and Merlin’s apparent mixture or memories of pre-Christian Celtic paganism with the best-informed and most thoughtful expression of Christian Faith, all invite comparison (not to mention the theme of human sacrifice).

      If The Chapel is (as I think) pre-Arthurian, it and Thor, with Angels could be interestingly considered as bracketing Williams’s Arthuriad, with Fry providing a kind of sequel to what happened after “that which was once Taliessin” rode “to the barrows of Wales”. The young Jutish woman, Martina, reporting of Merlin, “I dug him up. He was rather buried. […] His beard was twisted like mist in the roots of an oak-tree”, reminds me a bit of That Hideous Strength – and I suppose the open end of Merlin’s presence in the play might even be taken as allowing him to turn up again centuries later in Bragdon Wood!


      • David Llewellyn Dodds says:

        By the way, one of the few bits of Fry I can find on YouTube at the moment is a wonderful reading by Richard Burton of a speech from his play,The Boy With a Cart, in the course of an interview with Kenneth Tynan.


  5. David Llewellyn Dodds says:

    A quick check, sadly, did not discover The Young King among the works of Binyon (including Attila: a Tragedy in Four Acts from 1907) scanned in the Internet Archive or transcribed at Project Gutenberg.

    It did lead to something else curious and interesting to which he (among some other important and Williams-related authors) contributed, and which one can imagine the young C.W. might have encountered at the Press: The Oxford Historical Pageant | June 27-July 3, 1907 | Book of Words, the contents of which the Internet Archives notes as: “Prefatory note.–List of illustrations.–Invitation to the pageant; and ode by Robert Bridges.–Episodes: St. Frideswide, ca. A. D. 727, by Laurence Housman. Coronation of Harold Harefoot, A. D. 1036. Theobaldus Stampensis, ca. A. D. 1110, by R. Bridges. Henry II and fair Rosamund, by Laurence Binyon. Friar Bacon, ca. A. D. 1271, by C. Oman. St. Scholastica’s day, A. D. 1354, by A. D. Godley.–Interlude: Masque of the mediaeval curriculum, by Walter Raleigh.–[Episodes]: Henry VIII and Wolsey, A. D. 1518, by J. B Fagan. Funeral procession of Amy Robsart, A. D. 1560. State progress of Queen Elizabeth, A. D. 1566. James I, A. D. 1605, by Elizabeth Wodsworth. Charles I at Oxford. Magdalen college and James II, A. D. 1687, by Stanley Weyman. Scene in the XVIIIth century.–The secret of Oxford, by A. T. Quiller Couch”.

    Such things as Attila and the Pageant form at least part of the chronological context of The Chapel of the Thorn – if no more (which might be worth a look someday!). What I take to be Binyon’s Arthurian works listed in his Wikipedia article are later: Arthur: A Tragedy (1923) and The Madness of Merlin (1947).


  6. David Llewellyn Dodds says:

    Having just started on a fascinating essay by Johan Huizinga published in 1933, 400 years after the birth of William the Silent, about the world of that time and the changes during his lifetime (in which he, like Williams in The Descent of the Dove, accents both St. Ignatius Loyola and John Calvin, and their mid-1530s activities), I suddenly got to wondering if there is any conscious ‘anniversary’ dimension to Williams choosing Cranmer for the subject of his 1936 play (1536 being no insignificant year in Cranmer’s life)?


  7. David Llewellyn Dodds says:

    Meanwhile, taking place between the performances of Murder in the Cathedral and Thomas Cranmer, Pathé noted this:

    And Gregory DiPippo at New Liturgical Movement brought it to my attention. A bit of Pathé online browsing would probably be variously C.W. (and other Inklings)-context rewarding!


  8. David Llewellyn Dodds says:

    A Clerk of Oxford has an interesting post on Masefield – and Holst’s – Canterbury play, The Coming of Christ, enriched with various links, including to two contemporary reviews:


    I did not remember that one of the characters was named The Mercy!


  9. David Llewellyn Dodds says:

    Had I ever encountered these before? If so, the memory of them didn’t sink in deep enough! Two plays which, at least in retrospect, might be considered as forerunners of the Canterbury Festival revivals, which C.W. could have read around the time he was reading the author’s serious supernatural ‘thriller’, The Necromancers – and was writing The Chapel of the Thorn!

    Robert Hugh Bensons’s A Mystery Play in Honour of the Nativity of Our Lord (1908):


    and The Cost of a Crown, a Story of Douay & Durham; A Sacred Drama in Three Acts (1910):



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