The Chapel of the Thorn: A Verse Drama by Charles Williams
(Apocryphile Press, 2014, 152 pages)
The Chapel of the Thorn is a verse play – similar in form to the well-known verse play Murder in the Cathedral by T. S. Eliot – written by Charles Williams in 1912. Written over a century ago, it has remained unpublished until now. This edition is edited by Sørina Higgins who also writes a lengthy introduction. The two act play takes place in Britain, sometime in the early medieval period, and centers on a chapel that contains the crown of thorns worn by Christ. The action of the play involves a struggle for control of the relic between Church officials and the priest who tends to the chapel. Thematically, it deals with the relationship of paganism to Christianity and of the Church to secular powers.
As a fan of Williams, it is exciting to see this play made available. It is an early work, and it definitely suffers from comparison to his later plays. However, it is extremely valuable in charting Williams’ development as a writer, and the poetry itself is beautiful and theologically profound. I’m not sure how well it would work as a play (it has never been performed) but it is a gripping poem. Williams gives poetic expression to the struggle to reconcile the natural religion of pagan peoples with the Church’s claim to exclusive revelation. In so doing, he illuminates an important part of the development of European cultural.
The supplemental material adds immense value to this book. Higgins’ introductory essay charts the manuscript history of the play, including her own discovery of Williams’ original manuscript in the holdings of the Wade Center at Wheaton College. It also shows how the themes of Williams’ later work, including his cycles of Arthurian poetry, are found in seed form in The Chapel of the Thorn. Grevel Lindop – who is currently working on the definitive biography on Williams – offers a preface that discusses the history of the play, and an essay by David Llewellyn Dodds is included as an afterward. For those interested in Charles Williams or twentieth-century verse drama, this is definitely a valuable book.