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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 ...

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