Wednesday, December 08, 2010


GKC - Gilbert Keith Chesterton - was a contemporary of GB Shaw and HG Wells, a robust follower of the risen Christ, a wit, a wordsmith, a theologian, a mystery writer, and a man with a heart as big as his prodigious body. If you haven't read him, please get ahold of some of his poems (like The Donkey) and follow that up with The Everlasting Man and Heretics. If you're a mystery lover, by all means get a hold of a "best of" collection of the Father Brown stories.

Below is a work-in-progress. It is a play on Chesterton's life. I drew largely on his own writings and talks to create his dialogue. Whether the finished play will ever see the light of day as an actual performance, I can't say. I have some friends involved in theatre production and they may give it a chance, who knows? However, even in its present state, due to the large use of GKC's own material, there is some wit and wisdom here that everyone can enjoy. It may even serve as an introduction to GKC for you, if you haven't looked into his work before, and give you a taste for the way he thinks and the way he uses words and ideas and spins them around like a top.

For above all, GKC is playful. And above all, GKC is profound. And above all, GKC embraces, wholeheartedly, both God and the human race.

Even his worthy opponents - like Shaw - loved him.


(All is dark. Chesterton’s voice comes to us out of that darkness.)

I am an elf. My first and last Philosophy, that which I believe in with an unbroken certainty, I learned in the Nursery. The things I believed most then, the things I believe most now, are the things called Fairy Tales. They seem to me to be the entirely reasonable things. They are not fantasies. Compared with them Religion and Rationalism are both abnormal, though Religion is abnormally right and Rationalism abnormally wrong. Fairyland is nothing but the sunny country of common sense. It is not Earth that judges Heaven but Heaven that judges Earth. So for me at least it was not Earth that criticized Elfland but Elfland that criticized the Earth. I knew the magic beanstalk before I had tasted beans. I was sure of the Man in the Moon before I was certain of the moon.

There is the lesson of Cinderella which is the same as that of the Magnificat - exaltavit humiles - the humble will be exalted.

There is the great lesson of Beauty and the Beast, that a thing must be loved before it is loveable.

There is the terrible allegory of the Sleeping Beauty which tells how the human creature was blessed with all birthday gifts, yet cursed with death, and how death also may perhaps be softened to a sleep.

These tales say that apples were golden only to refresh the forgotten moment when we found that they were green. They make rivers run with wine only to make us remember, for one wild moment, that they run with water.

We have all read in scientific books and, indeed, in all romances, the story of the man who has forgotten his name. This man walks about the streets and can see and appreciate everything; only he cannot remember who he is. Everyman is that man in the story. Everyman has forgotten who he is. One may understand the cosmos but never who you are. The self is more distant than any star. Thou shalt love the Lord thy God; but thou shalt not know thyself.

We are all under the same mental calamity. We have all forgotten our names.We have all forgotten what we really are. All that we call Common Sense and Rationality and Practicality only means that for certain dead levels of our life we forget that we have forgotten. All that we call Spirit and Art and Ecstasy only means that for one awful instant we remember that we forget.

But though, like the man without memory in the novel, we walk the streets with a sort of half-witted admiration, still it is admiration. It is admiration in English and not only admiration in Latin. The wonder has a positive element of praise.

I am only trying to describe the enormous emotions which cannot be desribed. And the strongest emotion was that life was as precious as it was puzzling. It was an ecstasy because it was an adventure. It was an adventure because it was an opportunity. The goodness of the Fairy Tale was not affected by the fact that there might be more dragons than princesses; it was good to be in a Fairy Tale.

The test of all happiness is gratitude, and I felt grateful, though I hardly knew to whom. We thank people for birthday presents of cigars and slippers. Can I thank no one for the birthday present of birth?
(There are sudden peals of childlike laughter. Half-light comes up on three elves - children in forest green outfits that are hooded and the hoods are up. They are playing amongst themselves, leapfrogging, tumbling, spinning and falling and still laughing. A light slowly comes up on Chesterton. He is full-blown, cloak, waistcoat, slouch hat, pince-nez, enormous in size and girth, totally in black. He leans on a beautifully carved sword cane, though, of course, no one knows it is a sword cane yet because the blade is hidden within the cane itself. He is watching the elves and is highly amused and delghted at their antics. Just as the elves slip away Chesterton becomes aware of something menacing behind his back. He turns about and there are two ogres lit by a dim light, moving back and forth ape-like, hunchbacked, their hands dragging on the floor, in murky grey outfits that cover their faces, except perhaps their lower jaws, which have awful teeth. Chesterton unleashes his sword and attacks them with astonishing vigour for a man his size, slashing and swiping and thrusting, shouting out as he does so: “Ha!” “I’ll have you!” “There! And there!” The ogres vanish.)

(Suddenly a magic lantern show appears over Chesterton’s head. He watches, lowering his sword to his side. There are wonderful hand-painted images of castles and knights and unicorns and dragons. We hear the voice of Chesterton’s father: “Cecil! Gilbert! Come along smartly! The show has begun!” “COMING!” We hear the boys making exclamations of pure delight: “Father, these are wonderful!” “How did you make them?” “Can we paint some?” “Where did you get the ideas for the pictures?”)

(A mist begins to cover the stage as the dozen slides are shown. This signals an enactment of Chesterton’s imagination. When the magic lantern show goes out the light goes out on Chesterton as well. Another light begins to play on the mist and we notice a body stretched face down on the stage with a jewelled dagger in its back. After a few moments a small figure comes through the mist and stoops over the body. It is a priest in old-fashioned garb with a round hat with a wide brim. It is, of course, Father Brown. As he examines the body, paying particular attention to the hilt of the knife, a light comes up on Chesterton who is intensely watching Father Brown’ s actions. Lacking any suitable writing pad he begins to write furiously upon the cuff of his shirt, looking up now and again at Father Brown. Father Brown bends and plucks something from the clothing of the corpse, looks at it closely, mumbles something, half-audible, half-inaudible, in Latin, and then goes off into the mist and dark. The light on the dead body fades. The mist is dispersing. Another light comes up on a London Bobby at his post on a night beat. He is aware that Chesterton is behind him and that something a little odd may have been going on but in true Bobby fashion he keeps his eyes straight ahead, hands behind his back, totally unflappable.)

(Chesterton makes his way uncertainly out of the darkness and towards the Bobby, squinting about him and recognizing nothing, obviously lost.)

GKC: Excuse me . . .

BOBBY: (turning to look at him) Yes, sir.

GKC: Would you happen to know where I am?

BOBBY: Right by St. Paul’s, sir.

GKC: Where should I be?

BOBBY: Beg your pardon?

GKC: (fishing a large watch out of his waistcoat and squinting at it) It is just coming on seven o’clock, it is, I am convinced, a Wednesday in March, we are, are we not, in London, and we are, as you say, just by St. Paul’s Cathedral. Very well. This is where I am. But where should I be?

BOBBY: I wouldn’t know that, sir.

GKC: Why not?

BOBBY: What’s that?

GKC: You are a guardian between night and day, you stand at the crossroads of a great city of the Empire, you wear the uniform of our Queen of Hearts, do you not? Very well then, telling me where I ought to go should not be a problem for you.

BOBBY: (taken aback but rising to the occasion) All right, sir, do you have a bit of paper in your pocket, by chance? Something that would tell us place and time for the second Wednesday in March? A schedule? An appointment card?

GKC: (going through the pockets of his pants and waistcoat and searching under the folds of his cloak) It may surprise you but I can always pretty satisfactorily account for all my possessions. I can always tell where they are, and what I have done with them, so long as I keep them out of my pockets. If once anything slips into those unknown abysses I wave it a sad Virgilian farewell. I suppose the things I have dropped into my pockets are still there. The same presumption applies to the things that I have dropped into the sea. They tell us that on the last day the sea will give up its dead. And I suppose that on the same occasion long strings and strings of extraordinary things will come running out of my pockets. But I have quite forgotten what any of them are. And there is really nothing - except money! - that I shall be at all surprised at finding among them.

(While Chesterton is talking he is pulling all sorts of unlikely objects out of his pockets and unloading them on the Bobby. It is a bit of magic though GKC would see it as commonplace, at least for himself. It would be nice if he could be pulling out rabbits and pigeons and tigers but I expect we will have to settle for inanimate objects. Still, these should be of a very wonderful nature, connected with high romance and adventure. So out should come a brass telecscope, a ship in a bottle, a flintlock pistol, a bouquet of red roses, jewels and pearls, etc., a bottle of wine, another bottle of wine, and finally a decent sized head of cheese. The larger items can be pulled out from under his cloak. At the end he does find a scrap of paper which he squints at and promptly tosses over his shoulder. The Bobby, laden as he is with all the plunder of Egypt, still notices this.)

BOBBY: Pardon me, sir, but what was that you just threw over your shoulder?

GKC: (still rummaging) I threw nothing over my shoulder.

BOBBY: A bit of paper. Just back of you.

GKC: (looks around, spots it, picks it up and reads it) Ah! You see! The very thing! I am to be at a gentleman’s establishment called the Rangoon Racquet and Tea Club!

BOBBY: The Rangoon? Why, you're in luck, sir, that’s just along the street here, sir, not a minute away.

GKC: Ha! Luck! I am in luck am I? Then as it is not quite seven I shall not be late at all. This is most extraordinary, most extraordinary, that I shall not be late but ahead of time, why, I should not be surprised if this does not throw the world off its orbit and we have sunrise at noon!

(All this time he has been brandishing the sword in his excitement literally under the Bobby’s nose. The officer gives him a look and GKC sheepishly mumbles an apology and that the rest of the cane is lying about somewhere, there was an attack of ogres, he glances about him, thanks the Bobby, and wanders off into the dark looking for the rest of the cane with the piece of paper in his hand.)

BOBBY: (vainly calling after him) The Rangoon is in the other direction, sir! And what about all this here? Don’t you want your things?

(There is no response. The Bobby can barely see over the pile of items in his arms. A gentleman in a bowler hat and carrying an umbrella walks past and stops to look at the sight. The Bobby meets his gaze somewhat defiantly, acting as if nothing is amiss, and the man goes on his way. The last we see of the Bobby he is looking straight ahead, still holding the stuff from GKC’s pockets, resolutely back at his post and on duty.)

(The light goes out on the Bobby. Big Ben strikes nine and the light comes up on Chesterton at a podium going through his pockets. In the end he is two hours late but not apologetic, after all, he has been on a grand adventure in the mysterious streets of London. Finally GKC looks up at his audience and smiles. He takes off his hat with a flourish and places it on the podium along with his reassembled sword cane.)

GKC: You have asked me here to speak upon the Renaissance. If I have brought with me notes on the subject they have vanished, as Melville put it, into the Descartean abyss. I do not need them. I do not need them anymore than a boy needs a sheaf of notes to tell you the story of Jack and the Bean Stalk or a young girl needs a thick tome to recite a rhyme from Mother Goose. I find myself beginning where I ought to be ending. It is just nine and I was to begin at seven and you were to have tea and cake at nine. If I am not quite a substitute for the tea and cake I trust I will prove an adequate substitute for the hours you spent talking to your neighbour when all along you knew I ought to have been the one talking to your neighbour. Here is what I have to say. I have just had my pockets emptied by a bobby. I do not mean he stole items from my pocket. I gave them to him for we were on the hunt for the great white whale and I needed my pockets emptied for that was the sea in which I hunted. I did not find the white whale but I found the white chalk. Here is a stick of it. Now the chalk brings to mind a great adventure on one of my summer vacations.

It was a splendid morning, all blue and silver, I put six very bright-coloured chalks in my pocket, I recall I asked a woman for brown paper, and when she found I wanted to draw on it, not wrap a parcel, she wished to give me notepaper instead. I then tried to explain that I not only like brown paper, but I liked the quality of brownness in paper, just as I liked the quality of brownness in October woods, or in beer, or in the peat streams of the North. Brown paper represents the primal twilight of the first toil of creation and, with a bright-coloured chalk or two, you can pick out points of fire in it, sparks of gold, and blood-red, and sea-green, like the first fierce stars that sprang out of divine darkness.

So I put the brown paper in my pocket along with the chalks and possibly other things. I suppose everyone must have reflected how primeval and how poetical are the things one carries in one's pocket. The pocketknife, for instance, the type of all human tools, the infant of the sword. Once I planned to write a book of poems entirely about the things in my pockets. But I found it was too long and the age of great epics is past.

With my stick, my knife, my chalks, and my brown paper, I went out onto the great downs. Do not, for Heaven's sake, imagine I was going to sketch from Nature. I was going to draw Devils and Seraphim and Blind Old Gods that men worshiped before the dawn of right. Now when a cow came slouching by in a field next to me, a mere artist might have drawn it, but I always get wrong in the hind legs of quadrupeds. So I drew the soul of the cow, which I saw there plainly walking before me in the sunlight. And the soul was all purple and silver and had seven horns and the mystery that belongs to all beasts.

But as I sat scrawling on the brown paper, it began to dawn on me, to my great disgust, that I had left one chalk, and that a most exquisite and essential chalk behind. I searched all of my pockets but I could not find any white chalk.

One of the wise and awful truths which this brown-paper art reveals is this, that white is a colour. It is not a mere absence of colour. it is a shining and affirmative thing, as fierce as red, as definite as black. When, so to speak, your pencil grows red-hot, it draws roses; when it grows white-hot, it draws stars. The chief assertion of religious morality is that white is a colour. Virtue is not the absence of vices or the avoidance of moral dangers. Virtue is a vivid and separate thing, like pain or a particular smell. Mercy does not mean not being cruel or sparing people revenge or punishment; it means a plain and positive thing like the sun, which one has either seen or not seen. Chastity does not mean abstention from sexual wrong; it means something flaming like Joan of Arc. In a word, God paints in may colours. But He never paints so gorgeously, I had almost said so gaudily, as when He paints in white.

Meanwhile, I could not find my chalk.

I sat on the hill in a sort of despair. Without white my absurd little pictures would have been as pointless as the world would be if there were no good people in it. I stared stupidly round, racking my brain for expedients.

Then I suddenly stood and roared with laughter, again and again, so that the cows stared at me and called a committee. Imagine a man in the Sahara regretting that he had no sand for his hourglass. Imagine a gentleman in mid-ocean wishing that he had brought some salt water with him for some chemical experiement.

I was sitting in an immense warehouse of white chalk. The landscape was made entirely out of white chalk. White chalk was piled more miles until it met the sky. I stooped and broke a piece off the rock I sat on. It did not mark so well as the shop chalks do but it gave the effect.And I stood there in a trance of pleasure, realizing that this Southern England is not only a grand peninsula and a tradition and a civilization. It is something even more admirable.

It is a piece of chalk.

(Light goes out on Chesterton and comes up on the interior of the Cheshire Cheese, a favourite haunt of Chesterton and his friends which serves both food and drink. A waitress is tidying up a wooden table when a man comes hurrying in, peeling off his cloak and setting his cane to one side. This is Cecil Chesterton, the younger brother of Gilbert, slender, full of energy and passion and opinion. He greets the waitress in familar terms and rubs his hands together.)

CECIL: Well, Molly, we'll need bread and cheese and plenty of it. I am pretty certain the lads will have a hunger on this night.

MOLLY: Right you are, sir. How many are you expecting? Ten? Twelve?

CECIL: Just the Chesterbelloc.

MOLLY: The Chesterbelloc! What is that? Sounds like a monster.

CECIL: Ha! A monster it may be, a monster birthed out of the bald head of an Irish wit named Shaw. My brother is coming, Molly, my brother Gilbert, and he will have Hilaire Belloc in tow. They will be full of words and full of appetite. Gilbert has just given a profound lecture and we three musketeers must dissect it. And everything else that is going on in the world.

(All this time Molly has been bringing out several loaves of bread and a number of block s and wedges of cheese.)

CECIL: And wine. We'll need rivers of wine. Oceans of it.

MOLLY: (going back to the wine rack) Yes, sir. And who is this Belloc fellow?

CECIL: Half French. Two thirds English. A great talker. Talked them all to death at Oxford and that takes some doing. A big head stuffed with ideas. He'll sweep you off your feet. Or knock you off them.

MOLLY: (setting two bottles of wine down at the table) Will he? I've brought you red.

CECIL: Oh, we'll need much more than that, m'dear. Much more.

MOLLY: Well, what are you talking? Four, five?

CECIL: Six, seven, eight, nine.

MOLLY: You're joking.

CECIL: You've not been at the Cheshire Cheese more than a month. You haven't seen my brother when his mind is hungry for ideas and for discussion and debate. He gets mixed up and eats as if he is eating Plato and Cicero and Augustine.

MOLLY: (at the wine rack) I served him a few sandwiches once and he had only one bottle of wine with those. Beef and mustard they were.

CECIL: He had been at the El Vino all night. But they don't serve food so he came here for that. You'll see. He will take in an ocean and spout out a sea. Molly, what do you think of the Kaiser and his army?

MOLLY: Oh God, don't bring that up. He does frighten me. All those spikey helmets.

CECIL: I quite agree with you. You ought to pitch in with your thoughts on that when the lads arrive.

MOLLY: I thought you were going to talk about your brother's lecture?

CECIL: So we are.

MOLLY: Well, was he talking about Germany then?

CECIL: Actually he was lecturing on the Renaissance. Do you have some knives for the bread and cheese?

MOLLY: I suppose you'll be wanting a half dozen of those.

CECIL: Not unless we are set upon by brigands from the Barbary Coast. Would you open a bottle for me?

MOLLY: My pleasure, Mister Chesterton, sir.

CECIL: You look particularly fetching tonight.

MOLLY: I thought you'd given your heart to another.

CECIL: (sighing) So I have. I've given it but she hasn't taken it.

MOLLY: Are you giving up on her then?

CECIL: I never give up, Molly. Not on anything. Is there some cold meat?

MOLLY: What sort of meat?

CECIL: Muuton. Beef. I don't care. The thought of unrequited love starves me.

(All of a sudden there is a ruckus. Someone comes out of the dark singing an aria in Italian with great gusto. It is Chesterton. He steps grandly into the Cheshire Cheese and spreads his arms wide.)

CECIL: (saluting with a glass of wine) Ecce homo!

GKC: (shaking his head vigorously) Ah, no, my good brother. I am only a humble citizen of Elfland.

CECIL: You're a bit large for one of those, wouldn't you say?

GKC: I am an entire forest and they dwell in my branches and in my bole.

CECIL: Molly, my brother, Gilbert.

MOLLY: (setting down a plate with a side of roast beef on it) I've had the pleasure of serving you in the past, sir. (She drops a curtsy and delivers a dazzling smile.)

GKC: (bowing gravely) Moll Flanders. I have seen you in a high tower not far from here and requiring rescue.

MOLLY: (smiling) Have you, sir?

GKC: I have. I would give you my heart, Moll, but I have given it to another.

MOLLY: A lot of hearts are not in their own bodies tonight, it seems, and are out and about London with no one to take them in. How was your lecture tonight, sir?

GKC: It went very well. I spoke on the Remaissance.

CECIL: And chalk.

GKC: Naturally chalk. The Renaissance is about art. (He leans over the table and takes out his piece of white chalk and swiftly and accurately draws Molly's profile.) Of course it is about a thousand other things as well.

MOLLY: My goodness, sir, is that me?

GKC: A glimpse, a mere glimpse. You may take it home and show it to your beau when he next comes to call.

MOLLY: In that case I will need a saw.

GKC: (quoting) A poet may praise many whom he would be afraid to marry.

MOLLY: What?

GKC: Doctor Johnson.

MOLLY: (to Cecil) What is your brother on about?

CECIL: (tossing off a glass of wine and also quoting) Marriage may often be a stormy lake but celibacy is almost always a muddy horse pond.

MOLLY: (smiling and enjoying the repartee but unable to get a handle on it) You two are the very devil. I don't know as a good Catholic girl like me ought to be waiting on your table.

(The sound of a voice coming through the dark gives everyone pause. It is Belloc and he is going on about something long before he enters the Cheshire Cheese.)

GKC: Wait a bit and you will get your Catholic man.

MOLLY: And you, sir? What are you then?

GKC: An elf.

BELLOC: (while he is still in the dark and approaching) This is how it works, or at least how I perceive it to work. We are such and such a distance from the sun and from Jupiter. Now this thing, this great thing, this event, is bound to happen but it can happen, WILL happen, only at three points on the Earth's surface, and those are, I am very much certain of my calculations, those locations are, not in any order of preference or superiority, a stretch of jungle in the Amazon of Brazil, that is one, somewhere in the vast Canadian Arctic, that is the second, and the third, the third . . .

(Belloc enters the Cheshire Cheese and looks at them all intensely, Molly included, as if they were students he was lecturing and he fiercely insistent they not miss his main point.)

BELLOC: Do you wonder where the third location is? Do you tremble?

GKC: (together with huge enjoyment) YES!

BELLOC: A castle on the Rhine. I don't know which one. Those damned Prussians. And they will want France, Catholic France mind you, and then as much of Europe as they can get. They are building bloody great battleships, did you know that? I saw an article in the Times.

CECIL: This is Moll Flanders, Hilaire. She has expressed a fear of the Kaiser and his spike-helmeted legions.

MOLLY: I am pleased to meet you, sir. I hope the Kaiser does not mean to start a war, sir.

BELLOC: (scarcely looking at her but sitting at the table and throwing off his hat or beret and cutting himself a generous slice of French bread) Ha! He means to swallow us whole, my lady, whole and salted, and France sleeps and England snores.

GKC: Because they helped us at Waterloo, you see.

BELLOC: Who did?

GKC: Blucher.

BELLOC: (insulted) You should have left Napoleon alone. Europe would have been better off under Buonaparte. Now you have these Prussian Protestants and their strange Norse God.

GKC: I quite agree with you, Hilary, in fact I am presently putting some notes together for a piece in Cecil's paper on how England permitted Prussia to become a menace. The crimes of England.

BELLOC: Which paper?

GKC: The New Witness.

BELLOC: The New Witness. The Eye Witness. The No Witness. You change the name of your paper more often than Protestants change their doctrines. Young lady, are you a Catholic?

MOLLY: I am, sir.

BELLOC: Ha. I knew it. I see it in your profile. Do you have any Bordeaux?

MOLLY: I do, sir.

BELLOC: Would you be so good as to fetch me a bottle? Or two.

MOLLY: I have seven fine ones, sir.

BELLOC: Bring them out. Is your family Catholic?

MOLLY: (at the wine rack and bent over searching) It is, sir. Since before the time of Sir Thomas More.

BELLOC: Wonderful, wonderful. (she brings the wine) There is hope for England yet with sturdy young women like yourself bearing and baptizing the next generation.

MOLLY: Why, thank you, sir.

(All three men are now seated at the table, drinking wine, eating cheese and bread and meat. There is a great deal of energy between them. They go back and forth between subjects like flying sparks. The lines need to crack from one to another. There is a good deal of lateral think yet the thread is never lost. They are tireless and will eat and drink and talk with animation all night. Molly is amused and attracted to them and always listening in, sometimes engaging.)

BELLOC: Look here, Chesterton, and you, Chesterton.

. . . to be continued


EMP said...

Ah, MP, how did I miss this?!

"GKC - Charles [really? Charles? who knew] Keith Chesterton - was a contemporary of GB Shaw and HG Wells, a robust follower of the risen Christ, a wit, a wordsmith, a theologian, a mystery writer, and a man with a heart as big as his prodigious body."

Yes, yes, yes! All true. [Well, maybe not the name?] How marvellous. In one succinct line you have captured much of this magnificent man, body and soul.

"If you haven't read him, please get ahold of some of his poems (like The Donkey) and follow that up with The Everlasting Man and Heretics."

This very thing I tell my students! In fact, I bring RP in and he recites The Donkey from memory--it's one he learned at school and still remembers; my students are invariably impressed.

One year I preached on Palm Sunday at a cons. ch. up in Edmonton and I asked RP to do the usual: recite GKC. A fine start to any Palm Sunday service, methinks--or any service at all.

And next I tell my students: "If you're a mystery lover, by all means get a hold of a 'best of' collection of the Father Brown stories" (a collection I've just reread m'self, funnily enough).

Well, this is nice. More, please? Have you continued this yet?

And is there any way for me to receive your blog updates as you post them? Daily/weekly? Oui? Non?

Sigh of contentment. I love this. I bet GKC and you would have had a most splendid time together...

murray said...

OK, OK, GILBERT Keith Chesterton - Charley, well, Charley's another tale - EMP, there is a way to sign up where if a new blog is written you are notified - meanwhile, soon time for a visit back to you and Anne Morrow Lindbergh - but I have a 300,00 word manuscript to submit tonight - fortunately, it's written, or even cramming wouldn't have saved me