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Philip Jenkins

Charles Williams, Playwright

A neglected aspect of the "other Inkling."

Can you imagine suddenly discovering a trove of major new works by one of the greatest Christian authors of the last century, a worthy companion of C. S Lewis and T. S. Eliot? In a sense, we actually can do this, and we don't even need to go excavating for manuscripts lost in an attic or mis-catalogued in a university archive. The author in question is Charles Williams (1886-1945), well-known to many readers as an integral member of Oxford's Inklings group, and a writer venerated by Lewis himself. (Tolkien was more dubious.) T. S. Eliot offered high praise to both the work and the man. Among other admirers, W. H. Auden saw Williams as a modern-day Anglican saint, to whom he gave much of the credit for his own conversion, while Rowan Williams has termed that earlier Williams "a deeply serious critic, a poet unafraid of major risks, and a theologian of rare creativity." Some thoroughly secular critics have joined the chorus as well.

Williams exercised his influence through his seven great novels, his criticism, and his overtly theological writings—although theology to some degree informed everything he ever wrote. Some, including myself, care passionately about his poetry (I said "care about," not "understand"). Amazingly, though, given his enduring reputation, Williams' plays remain all but unknown and uncited, even by those who cherish his other work. Now, these plays are not "lost" in any Dead Sea Scroll sense: as recently as 2006, Regent College Publishing reissued his Collected Plays. But I have still heard erudite scholars who themselves advocate a Williams revival ask, seriously, "He wrote plays?" Indeed he did, and they amply repay reading, for their spiritual content as much as for their innovative dramatic qualities. Two at least—Thomas Cranmer of Canterbury and The House of the Octopus—demand recognition as modern Christian classics, and others are plausible candidates.

As a dramatist, Williams was a late bloomer. Although he was writing plays from his thirties, most were forgettable ephemera, and his most ambitious work suffered from his desire to reproduce Jacobean styles. In 1936, though, 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.

Williams' play is a superb retelling of the history of the English Reformation, but most of the interest focuses on Cranmer himself. Williams studies the journey of a soul en route to salvation despite every effort it can make to resist that outcome—what he calls "the hounding of a man into salvation." This powerfully reflects the belief in the working of Grace, of the Holy Spirit, that is such a keystone of Williams' theological framework.

We follow Cranmer along his way through the acerbic commentary of the Skeleton, Figura Rerum, one of the mysterious characters Williams repeatedly used to reveal the inner spiritual aspects of the drama. Although they appear on stage, they normally remain unseen by most or all of the human characters. But the Skeleton is much more than a chorus or commentary: rather, he represents both God's plan and Cranmer's destiny, "the delator of all things to their truth." He is also a Christ-figure, who speaks in mordant and troubling adaptations of Jesus' words from the Gospel of John: "You believe in God; believe also in me; I am the Judas who betrays men to God." He is "Christ's back," and anything but a Comforter. The Skeleton, moreover, is given some of Williams' finest poetry, lines that stir a vague recognition until you realize the intimate parallels to Eliot's yet-unwritten Four Quartets.

Despite Cranmer's timid and bookish nature, he is led to a courage that will mean both martyrdom and salvation, and will moreover advance God's purpose in history. Ultimately, having lost everything and all hope, he throws himself on God's will (in one of Williams' many echoes of Kierkegaard). "Where is my God?" asks a despairing Cranmer. The Skeleton replies,

Where is your God?
When you have lost him at last you shall come into God.
When time and space withdraw, there is nothing left
But yourself and I; lose yourself, there is only I.

But even at this moment of total surrender, the play offers no easy solutions, and no simple hagiography. In the last moments, with death imminent, Cranmer even agrees to the Skeleton's comment that "If the Pope had bid you live, you should have served him." If he is to be a martyr, that decision is wholly in God's hands: "Heaven is gracious / but few can draw safe deductions on its method."

The success of Thomas Cranmer marked a shift in Williams' interests to drama. Over the next nine years, up to his death in 1945, he would publish only two novels, as against eight other dramas that, together with Cranmer, would make up his Collected Plays. Like his friend Christopher Fry and other English dramatists of the age, Williams sought to revive older forms, including mystery plays and pageants, and some of these works are among his most accessible. Seed of Adam and The House by the Stable are Nativity plays, but as far removed from any standard church productions as we might expect given the author. In Seed, Adam also becomes Augustus, and the Three Kings represent different temptations to which fallen humanity has succumbed. In the pageant Judgement at Chelmsford, episodes from the span of Christian history provide a context for one very new and thoroughly modern diocese largely composed of suburban and industrial regions, and already (in 1939) facing the prospect of destruction by bombing. Yet Williams unites ancient and modern, placing Chelmsford firmly in the Christian story alongside Jerusalem and Antioch: all times are one before the Cross.

But if all the plays are worth rediscovering, it is his very last—The House of the Octopus (1945), a theologically daring story of an encounter with absolute evil—that best makes the case for his stature as a first-class Christian writer. Remarkably too, this play gains enormously in hindsight because of its exploration of ideas that seemed marginal to Christian thought at the time, but which have become pressing in an age of global church expansion.

The House of the Octopus offers a highly developed statement of Williams' elaborate theological system, which we can trace especially through the earlier novels. His key beliefs involved what he termed substitution and exchange, in a sense that went well beyond the customary interpretation of Christ's atonement. For Williams, human lives are so intertwined that one person can and must bear the burdens of others. We must, he thought, share mystically in one another's lives in a way that reflects the different persons of the Trinity: they participate in what Williams called Co-inherence. Moreover, this mutual sharing and participation extends across Time—to which God is not subject—and after death. In his novel Descent Into Hell (1937), a woman agrees to bear the sufferings and terrors of a 16th-century ancestor as he faced martyrdom in the Protestant cause; he in turn perceives that loving aid as the voice of a divine messenger—and he might well be right in his understanding.

Stricter Protestants found Williams' vision of the overlapping worlds of living and dead unacceptably Catholic, if not medieval, and accused him of heresy. Wasn't he teaching a doctrine of Purgatory? Williams was perhaps taking to extremes the Catholic/Anglican doctrine of the communion of saints, but he was guided above all by one scriptural principle, expounded in Romans 8: the denial that anything in time and space can separate us from God's love.

If some of Williams' visionary ideas fitted poorly in the England of his day, they could still resonate in newer churches not grounded in Western traditions. House of the Octopus, for example, used a non-European setting to suggest how familiar dogmas might be reimagined in other cultures. The play is set on a Pacific island during an invasion by the Satanic empire of P'o-l'u. Although the situation strongly recalls the Japanese invasion of Western-ruled territories in World War II, and the resulting mass slaughter of Christian missionaries, Williams never intended to identify P'o-l'u with any earthly state. This is a spiritual drama, and the leading character is Lingua Coeli, "Heaven's Tongue," or the Flame, a representation of the Holy Spirit, who remains invisible to most of the characters throughout the play.

When alien forces occupy the island, they immediately demand the submission of the native people, who have recently become Christian converts. Terrified, one young woman, Alayu, denies her Christian faith and agrees to serve instead as "the lowest slave of P'ol'u," but even that apostasy does not save her life. And this is where the theological issue becomes acute. The Western missionary priest, Anthony, is convinced that Alayu's last-minute denial has damned her eternally. The local people, however, realize that salvation absolutely has to be communal as well as individual:

We in these isles
Live in our people—no man's life his own—
From birth and initiation. When our salvation
Came to us, it showed us no new mode—
Sir, dare you say so—of living to ourselves.
The Church is not many but the life of many
In ways of relation.

Wiser than Fr. Anthony, they also know that death itself is a permeable barrier, and so is the seemingly rigid structure of Time itself. As a native deacon asks, could not Alayu's original baptism have swallowed up her later sin?

If God is outside Time, is it so certain
That we know which moments of time count with him,
And how?

Alayu is saved after her death, through the support of her people and the direct intervention of the Flame. Formerly an apostate, the dead Alayu becomes a saint interceding for the living. As the native believers tell the horrified missionary, "Her blood has mothered us in the Faith, as yours fathered." When Anthony in turn faces his own torment and martyrdom—and the danger of apostasy—it is Alayu who will give him strength: "He will die your death and you fear his fright." Fr. Anthony learns that the Spirit's power is far larger than he has ever dared believe. And he also realizes how deceived he was to think he could have kept his status as paternalistic ruler of his native church indefinitely, among believers who had at least as much direct access to the Spirit as he did himself.

Although Williams was claiming no special knowledge of newer churches and missions, recent developments have given his work a strongly contemporary feel. The ideas he was exploring in 1945 have become influential in those rising churches, especially the emphasis on the power of ancestors and the utterly communal nature of belief. In such settings, the ancient doctrine of the communion of saints, the chain binding living and dead, acquires a whole new relevance, and a new set of challenges for churches that thought these issues settled long since.

Like his other writings, Charles Williams' plays offer plenty to debate and to argue with—but his ideas are not lightly dismissed. Some of us have been wrestling with them for the better part of a lifetime.

Philip Jenkins is Distinguished Professor of History at Baylor University's Institute for Studies of Religion. He is the author most recently of Laying Down the Sword: Why We Can't Ignore the Bible's Violent Verses (HarperOne).

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