It is somewhat aggravating that G.K. Chesterton wrote so few plays. He had an obvious gift for witty dialogue, creative plots, unforgettable characters, and best of all, for presenting profound and complex ideas in a clear and entertaining manner. He managed to get two plays produced – Magic and The Judgment of Dr. Johnson – but in spite of their success, he never pursued this genre, being fully occupied with churning out endless journalism, dozens of books, and many popular detective stories. But about four years before his death in 1936, he did write a play for the community theatre in his hometown of Beaconsfield, England. Like everything else Chesterton wrote, it was written in a hurry, and apparently it was thought that it needed some revision before being staged. But Chesterton never got around to revising it, and so the play was never performed in his lifetime.
The play was The Surprise. It is now finally starting to get the attention it deserves. It is, quite simply, a masterpiece.
When he was working on the play, he mentioned to a friend that he was going to “out-Pirandello Pirandello,” a reference to Six Characters in Search of an Author, written by his Italian contemporary, Luigi Pirandello, a play in which the characters on stage break the “fourth wall” and start referring to the play they are in (or, as the case may be, the play they are not in.) Pirandello’s play appeared in 1921, but the plot for The Surprise was first suggested in 1908 by Chesterton himself in his book Orthodoxy, where he states that when God created the world, he did not write a poem, but a play, “a play he had planned as perfect, but which had necessarily been left to human actors and stage-managers, who had since made a great mess of it.”
The Surprise is part fairy tale, part farce, part allegory. It tells the tale of an author who claims to have written the perfect play, but no one has ever seen it. It has dramatic tension, and yet there are no villains. He even has perfect actors – lifelike puppets that he has created just for this play. He puts on a performance for a wandering friar, but is unsatisfied even with his perfection. He wants his characters to have free will…
Chesterton augments the dramatic irony by having a play within a play, where the interior playwright echoes the audience’s thoughts but wryly chides them for their predictable reactions. But then Chesterton does something even better: he has the author re-play his play. To make it even more interesting, one of the author’s characters is also an author; a poet who muses about the creative process (and also creatively attempts to find his muse.) The dramatic devices are dazzling: the human puppets, the play-within-a-play that repeats itself, a scene in the dark, masking and unmasking, dialogue that runs across both the emotions and the intellect, from the poignant to the hilarious to the profound.
Chesterton’s exploration of free will is fascinating. He puts the most important speech of the play in the mouth of the most minor characters, the princess’ maid, who explains the mystical connection between nuns and knights:
Obedience. The most thrilling word in the world; a very thunderclap of a word. Why do all these fools fancy that the soul is only free when it disagrees with the common command? Why should mere disagreement make us feel free? I know you are fond of dancing; do you want to dance to a different tune from your partner’s? You are a fine horsewoman; do you want to think of walking northward all by yourself, when you and your horse are going southward together? You have called me a nun; I am not a nun, I am not good enough to be a nun. I do not . . . I have not set . . . (She breaks off the sentence.) But do you suppose that nuns are unhappy? I never see them pass, silent and hooded, through their quiet cloisters but I have a vision: a vast vision of Amazons, wilder than any heathen Valkyries, riders rushing into battle; a charge of chivalry going all one way, and every rider as free as Joan of Arc; galloping, galloping to God. That is the real vision of Obedience.
The Surprise is an apt title, because nothing can prepare you for what will happen, especially the stupendous punchline. We’re not going to give it away. See it. Enjoy it. Paradoxically, you will enjoy it even more the second time, despite knowing what is going to happen. The surprise is always surprising. It does people good. This is a great insight into the life of faith: we never know what to expect. It is also a great vision of love: we can increase the good we do for others by adding the element of surprise. It is a way of giving more than what people expect.