Lecture 25: Chesterton’s Play “Magic”

I shall deliberately destroy your credit as an essayist, as a journalist, as a critic, as a Liberal, as everything that offers your laziness as a refuge, until starvation and shame drive you to serious dramatic parturition. I shall repeat my public challenge to you; vaunt my superiority; insult your corpulence; torture Belloc; if necessary, call on you and steal your wife’s affections by intellectual and athletic displays, until you contribute something to British drama.

So threatened George Bernard Shaw in a March, 1908, letter to his personal friend and philosophical enemy, G.K. Chesterton. It was part of a long process on Shaw’s part of cajoling Chesterton to write a play. He recognized Chesterton’s gift for dialogue and the dramatic. He also thought Chesterton was wasting his literary talents on journalism. And probably more important of all to Shaw, he also knew that Chesterton could make a lot of money writing plays, which is how Shaw himself made a lot of money.

In 1913, Chesterton finally gave in and wrote Magic, which was produced in November of that year at London’s Little Theatre. It was well-received and ran for 165 performances, followed by a similarly successful run in New York.

Shaw praised the play, putting Chesterton squarely in the tradition of Shakespeare, and immediately began urging him to write more plays. Another of Chesterton’s philosophical opponents, George Moore (who has a chapter devoted to him in Heretics) saw the play several times and wrote to a friend, “I am not exaggerating when I say of all modern plays I like it the best.”

Another big fan was film director, Ingmar Bergman, who staged his own translation of it in Sweden, and later reworked the play (pretty much beyond recognition) into a film called The Magician starring Max Von Sydow.

The play is a pleasing mix of comedy and drama and romance and suspense and debate. A magician is hired by a Duke to entertain some guests one evening at his estate. The Duke’s nephew is a quite arrogant young agnostic (and to make matters worse, an American), who is determined to expose all the magician’s tricks. But there is one trick he cannot explain, that really does appear to be magic of the supernatural sort, and it nearly drives him mad. Thus does Chesterton combine two of his favorite themes, magic and madness. Meanwhile, the magician and the Duke’s niece, naturally, fall in love. Chesterton’s stage directions are as amusing as some of the dialogue: at one point the conjurer is instructed to say his lines while “doing whatever passionate things people do on the stage.” Rounding out the cast are the Duke himself, who is a complete and comical idiot, and a skeptical doctor and a less skeptical clergyman, who are needed for the necessary clash of ideas.

Smith: You trust a woman with the practical issues of life and death, through sleepless hours when a shaking hand or an extra grain would kill. Doctor: Yes. Smith: But if the woman gets up to go to early service at my church, you call her weak-minded and say that nobody but women can believe in religion.

The play was based on a short story that Chesterton had written many years earlier, but which is now lost. And interestingly enough, it is one of his only works that Chesterton himself reviewed. One of his criticisms was that it was a better short story than a play. But unless the manuscript of the story turns up, we’ll have to take his word for it. And while he mercilessly criticized the short-comings of the plot and the characters, he defended the device of the soliloquy, which modern critics were saying was unnatural. Chesterton says it is perfectly natural that a man should talk to himself. If he doesn’t talk to himself, it is because he is not worth talking to. Even better, he says, is to argue with oneself, which is what someone writing a review of his own play is forced to do.

But the play more than proved that whatever literary genre Chesterton tried writing, he wrote amazingly well. He could be a playwright as well as a poet, a novelist as a well as a journalist. There was indeed magic in his pen. Had he gone the George Bernard Shaw route, he could have been very wealthy and very famous. But he was concerned about neither money nor fame. He was concerned about eternal truth and earthly justice, two things that seldom provide fame and fortune.

Shaw is still to be commended for urging Chesterton to write for the stage. He did write a few other plays, including The Judgment of Dr. Johnson and The Surprise, and they are wonderful, though none achieved the success of Magic. And even though Shaw made the big money and Chesterton did not, there was in the end, or rather, after the end, a certain final justice. In 1990, when the British Library acquired the Chesterton papers, most of the funding came from money bequeathed …from the estate of George Bernard Shaw.

This book is currently out of print.

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