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Last week I wrote about Williams’s earliest work, an unfinished gallimaufry of juvenilia set in his imaginary word of Silvania. There are a few dramatic elements in that work, including an actual ritual of initiation. Today we turn to other early experiments in drama, where he was trying out various theatrical tales and techniques that would later develop into his office dramas, the Masques of Amen House, and eventually his last great plays, such as Terror of Light and House of the Octopus. These early works are all fragmentary, and all are housed in the Marion E. Wade Center. Here is the identification information for interested scholars:
CW / MS-161: Play about The Three Kings. 8 pp. pc. TMs. in 8 lvs. with revisions.
CW / MS-82: Fragment of an unidentified play between a young man/ knight and a maiden. 14 pp. TMs. in 14 lvs. with revisions.
CW / MS-399, pp. 57–65: The Meeting. (n.d.) 78 pp. in 73 lvs.: 65 pp. AMs. in 60 lvs., 11 pp. cc. TMs. in 11 lvs., 2 pp. TMs. in 1 ff.
CW / MS-51: fragment of A Crowd Bringing the King of the North. 13 pp. cc. TMs. in 13 lvs. with revisions; 4 pp. AMs. in 4 lvs. See also CW/MS-394: another fragment A Crowd Bringing the King of the North. 6 pp. cc. TMs. in 6 lvs. with revisions.
Although perhaps a little dry in itself, that catalog information does allow us some insights into his early ideas and methods. These four works are Biblical or faux-medieval in content; quite short, ranging from eight to fourteen pages, mostly with revisions. These facts reveal that Williams was no slap-dash writer: he tried out ideas multiple times, sometimes starting a piece over again, returning to manuscripts to revise them, sometimes more than once.
While none of these works are finished, I think they should nevertheless appear in a Complete Plays of Charles Williams—which, BTW, really super seriously needs to exist. Somebody should get on that right away. Ahem.
So let’s get into what these bits and pieces of plays are about.
The Three Kings fragment is, as that cataloger’s note suggests, a Christmas play. In Scene 1, “In the Desert,” Gaspar, Melchior, and Balthazar gather to talk about what they have achieved so far. A year ago, they promised that they would each follow one thing and try to find the meaning of life. Gaspar asks them: “What solace hath the year[’]s course brought to thee?” Melchior says that he fought great battles and saved his country from oppression—but now all he gets is grief from widows who lost their husbands and parents who lost their sons in the wars. So he hasn’t achieved anything. Balthazar says that he chased after beauty and found it (I think he was a sculptor and composer?). But beauty proves that it is never enough. So he has failed, too. Gaspar, however, has realized that there is only one thing worth seeking: God.
The converted Gaspar calls on the others to join him in prayer. As they pray, the angel Gabriel pulls back a curtain so that they can peep at Mary as he brings her the Annunciation. The three magi speak of their visions, and each has see something different. (As a side note: compare the three differing “grail” visions in Barfield’s Night Operation). At first, the discontinuity of their visions discourages the Magi, but then Gaspar tells them that all three visions gave various perspectives of the truth, and that one truth is “Power! The Truth of God! A Maiden’s son! / If God be born as man, He is Emmanuel – / God with us.” (p. 3 ll. 36–38). Just then an attendant rushes in and tells them about the Star. Without even going to look at it, they take it as a sign, and give orders to pack up camp and head out to follow it.
In Scene 2, “The Hills Above Bethlehem,” three shepherds talk about how many travelers are going past on their way to Bethlehem. They curse Rome, and one makes a beautiful speech in praise of their pastoral existence. Enter the Innkeeper, who wants to buy some lamb from them to feed his many guests. They quarrel and bargain until Joseph and Mary come by looking for somewhere to stay. The Innkeeper tells them he has no room, but the shepherds persuade him to let them stay in “the cave, used as a cattle fold” (p. 6 l. 39). Joseph is concerned about letting the baby be born in a cattle “lair,” but Mary says:
It matters not! the Lord God’s everywhere;(p. 6. ll. 46-48).
He made us all, the lowly and the high;
He will not shrink with his own kine to lie.
They leave with the innkeeper, who is still grumbling, and the shepherds marvel at Mary’s beauty, her voice, and the peace they feel. She’s like a mother and/or daughter to them. They lie down to sleep, and a boy among them sings Psalm 23.
The angels come and sing to them. (stage directions indicate voices only for the choir of angels—but then Gabriel appears). They rush to see the Baby, bringing him gifts, and leave the boy behind to watch the sheep. He is very sad to be left behind, but Gabriel tells him it was a test of whether he would choose duty or passion. Apparently he passes the test, for Gabriel tells him: “with thy spirits [sic] eye thou now shalt see / The adorable eternal mystery / Of God made Man. Eastward then turn, / And see in Manhood’s flesh the Godhead burn.” (p. 8 ll. 38-41). The curtains open, and there’s a tableaux of the Shepherds at the manger. The boy kneels in worship.
I am not sure whether this fragment is completed, but I think not. It feels like there should be a third scene as the Wise Men come to see the Baby Jesus. In any case, there’s some bad poetry and some beautiful poetry in this manuscript, and I hope it gets published some day.
The next bit of manuscript is about a young knight and a maiden. It starts in medias res—whether by design or incompletion, I know not. Apparently the young knight is singing, because when the girl speaks, she talks about his song. (It would be interesting to compare Taliessin’s song, which a slave girl overhears and falls in love with him). The poetry is quite modern, without much plot so far. Really all that happens is a young man sings and a Chorus speaks modern verse. The chorus seems to be just one actor (there is a reference to his “stretching an arm out” on p. 7), maybe like the Skeleton in Thomas Cranmer. addressed to three figures—not sure who they are? There’s a great wheel casting shadows across the stage (p. 8), and there is a dumbshow of the knight and the maiden on page 3, which I do not understand. It enacts a maiden weeping by the bed of a wounded knight, but it ends: “And by that bed there standeth a stone, / Corpus Christi written thereon.” (p. 3 ll. 13-14).
There is more going on here than initially appears in this scrap of verse drama, and now that I’m going through my notes, I suspect this is quite a late work and not an early one, after all. Here are the hints that it’s a later piece:
The poetry is in CW’s later, more modern style, its rhythms influence by his editing of Hopkins and its diction and imagery influenced by Yeats and Eliot. For instance, the Chorus chants:
This is the blow that is the world’s pain,(p. 3, ll 15-18; p. 4 ll 1-6)
and by the bed the world weeps for it.
Here statements are the story and the show
of what perpetually is; is no solution
unless you so decide. And further,
in your lives’ idiom interpret the decision.
But here might angry wishes find their quietus,
and might bodies, riven at birth, find ease;
here as this pain was known as peace, learn to be peaceful,
here as this grief relentless, illusion of pain forgive.
A little later, these lines appears (again spoken by the Chorus):(p. 5 ll. 14-17)
And while this Catherine wheel of poetry
firing its dark-defying sparks, whirls,
allow its impetus, not for a beacon
this would-be Morality, but a mind’s show.
I don’t think CW could have written these lines until the 1930s. furthermore, there’s quite a modern dialogue between young man and maiden, full of Christmas trees, machines, and so forth, more in the style of Judgment at Chelmsford (1939) than of Chapel of the Thorn (1912). I think the young woman is arguing for the permeance of modern machinery, perhaps as against myth, while the young man is trying to talk about eternity. There is lofty hieratic language about choosing what myth to make of one’s life—which I don’t think CW would have composed until a good several years into his occult explorations (beginning in 1917, although his high-ranking initiation came later).
In any case, there is more evidence for a later date. In an interesting contemporary reference, the singer refers to “the periscope of poetry. / (useless enough against torpedoes)” (p. 2 ll. 7-8); torpedoes were used in both world wars, which suggests 1914 as the earliest possible date. There is also some honesty in the poetry about the difference between the image of the girl and the girl herself (p. 6); could this suggest he drafted these lines after Lois Lang-Sims confronted him on that subject? I think that is likely. So now I’ve written myself into thinking this is a late work and should have appeared in a different blog post. Ah, well; hopefully you found my speculations interesting.
The tiny fragment labeled The Meeting tells of an encounter between the Devil and Five Princes. Each prince gives a monologue, then Death responds to each in turn, saying “Fool, till [some particular trait] fail thou hast not entered death.” They are relying, respectively, on memory, courage, hope, and irony. Prince #5 doesn’t give a monologue, and he is the one who gets to know Death’s true nature.
A Crowd Bringing the King of the North exists in two versions with some variations. I think it’s early (the handwriting looks early to me; it occasionally has that distinctive loop in the final “d” of some words). There is no dramatis personae and no cover page.
When the action begins, a king is brought in, bound. The Fool begins speaking in trimeter quatrains, mocking the king. Members of the crowd speak in tetrameter quatrains, invoking Earth to ask her for justice (in what situation, we don’t know). They move from antiphonal lines into a unison invocation with a sing-song rhythm, first couplets, then quatrains. They cry out to Earth, declaring: “O mother Earth, our hope lives but in thee” (p. 4). And she answers!! She replies: “Children, what seek ye?” (p. 5 l. 9). And they say: “Justice!” She doesn’t know that word, so they have to explain it to her. All she knows about are death and birth – / birth and death intermingling” (5). Sadly, she believes “there is no such thing as justice found in me” (5).
The next character to whom they turn is Chaos, who comes to talk after the men of the crowd mention him. He claims to be the lord of all (6). The Fool tries to remind the crowd of moments of justice, joy, etc., in their past, but they contradict each one with some memory of lies, war, death, and hell—in short, of Chaos. He tries to sow dissention among the people, but—mysteriously—former enemies become friends and agree to help one another.
This is because, on the heels of Chaos, “Love comes swiftly and silently in.” In the midst of a dance, Chaos is defeated and chained up. At the end, Earth asks: “Shall there be found an end to all the sobbing / since I went forth upon my path, alone?” (13). And Love replies: “Depart, O Mother, all shall yet be well, / but by what means, ye cannot know…. / this is still a darker mystery” (13).
Classic CW stuff. We’ve got so many of his signature themes: the victory of Love, personified; the power of ritual; highly symbolic or archetypal characters; unity out of Chaos; and more. Do you see any others I’ve overlooked? Do tell!
Thanks for this, in all its fascinating particulars! Wow! The ‘unknown plays’! (Well, some of them…)
It makes me think I ought to reread the Masques and Three Plays to freshen up my sense of what dramatic works we already knew that he wrote between The Chapel of the Thorn and Thomas Cranmer of Canterbury. With the third of the Three Plays in mind, The Rite of the Passion, I wonder if the Three Kings and A Crowd Bringing the King of the North could have been written, as it was, for use in – or in connection with – a church, and as Advent or Christmas plays? At least, A Crowd Bringing the King of the North sound to me like it’s preparing for the Incarnation (including the Passion): “Depart, O Mother, all shall yet be well, / but by what means, ye cannot know…. / this is still a darker mystery”. But my only immediate reference for “the King of the North” is Daniel, chapter 11, and how would that fit in? Is Chaos the King of the North, here, with Love arriving on his own rather than being ‘brought in’ by a crowd (cf. Daniel, chapter 12)?
The five Princes of the Meeting reminds me of the playing with Pentagram imagery related to the personages in the Masques and related verses, but that doesn’t seem to get us further.
The wounded knight reminds me of some imagery of Galahad in the later Arthurian poetry (and perhaps of the Wounded Pelles, the grandfather whom Galahad comes to heal). And there is wheel imagery in Thomas Cranmer of Canterbury. It’s tantalizing to wonder just how it fits in with that change to modern style which Anne Ridler described as taking place in the context of writing Cranmer.
Speaking of verse style, another reason to reread Masques, etc., but also great poems Williams knew, is wondering about the Three Kings quotations – my mind jumps to Dryden and Pope, but is that ranging broadly enough in the fields of couplets, and so on?
Dear Ms. Higgins,
Where and how in the world did/do you dig up this material on Charles Williams? I’m sure you know well the degree to which he is a cult figure among the educated and the uneducated (like myself, someone without a degree). I have just re-read for the 2nd time All Hallows Eve. I cannot say how many times I have read Descent into Hell or how many times I have read the novels. The novels for me are his poetry as legacy goes; but in spite of the madness our world seems to find itself in, I would read any of his poetry from any of his periods, early or late, because that’s what he was. I don’t know if you know this but there is even a book involving Lewis, Tolkien and Williams AND A. Crowley that is a comic book graphic novel (someone should put into movie) and it is fantastic. Williams is the main character, ultimately. Your sincerely (a Charles Williams fan),Barry Curtis
If you will pardon my butting in, I wanted to mention, for the sake of thoroughness – in case you had not encountered them – that:
fadedpage.com has transcriptions of a number of his works, including (verse) plays;
two of his early books of poetry, Poems of Conformity (1917) and Divorce (1920) are scanned in the Internet Archive (as well as other books by him);
The Charles Williams Society website has a link to the St. Silas Church website where there are transcriptions of other early poems published in the parish magazine; and the issues of the Charles Williams Society Quarterly scanned there sometimes reprint poems or other short works, and, once, a little play of his about Francis Bacon, though sadly there is no index of what is in which issue, so it will take some browsing.
Hello, Barry; it’s nice to ‘meet’ you. I’m delighted to get to know another CW fan and especially someone who loves the novels.
I dug up this material at the Marion E. Wade Center at Wheaton College in Illinois. It’s an amazing place.
Yes, I know about “Heaven’s War”; it’s very impressive! Thanks for connecting here, and I look forward to more of your comments in the future.
This is fascinating information about CW’s verse plays. I’ve been working on Tolkien’s verse play, “The Homecoming of Beorhtnoth” (begun possibly around the early 1930s or earlier and finally published in 1953) and I didn’t realize that CW also wrote plays (clearly, I know almost nothing about Williams). Is there any evidence of Williams discussing his plays with other Inklings? Or Tolkien’s comments on them? I’m wondering if there is some context or inspiration for play-writing among the Inklings for Tolkien’s work.
Sørina may have made some discoveries about this at the Wade (I hope so!), but, if I may be once again pardoned for butting in, the one example I can clearly think of is a reference in one or two drafts of part of Tolkien’s unfinished futuristic book, The Notion Club Papers, published in Sauron Defeated, edited by Christopher Tolkien, and apparently written in the 1940s but supposedly written in around “1980 to 1990” and discovered in 2012! A footnote by the “Club reporter”, Nicholas Guildford, (p. 219) includes “few even of the Twentieth Century experts could have named any work of Williams, except perhaps The Octopus. That was still occasionally played, because of the great revival of missionary interest after the Far Eastern martyrdoms in the sixties.” This suggests that Tolkien knew about Williams’s play, The House of the Octopus, and (I would think) had possibly heard all or part of it read out to the Inklings. I would further speculate that these Notion Club drafts were intended to be read out to the Inklings so that Williams would hear this playful reference. (The reference is cut from a later draft (p. 200), which leads me to speculate that this later draft was written after Williams died, when the playfulness might seem less appropriate.)
My guess is that there is a probably a broader context for writing and discussing such original plays among the Inklings – there might even be evidence of it in unpublished letters and notes by Williams’s friends Margaret Douglas and Raymond Hunt, and in unpublished parts of Warren Lewis’s diary (for a couple possible sources).
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Thank you for these leads! I hadn’t paid much attention to that reference in Notion Club to Williams, but this opens up some interesting possibilities.
Something that’s kind of ‘Inklings and plays’ related was Lewis and Tolkien reading Wagner’s text for his Ring operas together – before Williams came on the scene:
The late Professor Karl Leyser told us at the Oxford Lewis Society about a play Lewis had written in the Magdalen College Vice-President’s Book, which Professor Leyser got a chance to read when he became Vice-President there – whether there is any way to arrange for the rest of us to ever get a chance to read it, I don’t know.
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I’m so glad you’re working on Beorhtnoth! I don’t know of any discussion among the Inklings about plays, alas.
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