Thursday, July 28, 2011

Play time - A Review of Magic by GK Chesterton

For the text of the play look here:
Project Gutenberg Link to Magic

I make no claims to have read many plays.  The required amount in highschool plus a few, they are not regularly put on my reading list.  I am a Chesterton fan and fairly familiar with his writing style and thinking; both of which I enjoy.

I downloaded this to test our Nook we received for Christmas. I merely knew it was a play written by GKC. I wanted to see readability, page turning and general format with a secondary goal of getting through another GKC item.  I was awake until somewhere near 3am finishing this story.  It is compelling and lingers long after reading.

This is GKC's first foray into being a playwright.  He had a close friendship with George Bernard Shaw despite being very far apart in philosophy/theology.  Shaw prodded GKC into penning the play.  I haven't read/seen enough Shaw to say it was clearly against the thinking of blah-blah or counter to the contemporary writings of the time.  I can say I greatly enjoyed it.

GKC pours humor and dark themes into this tale.  I chuckled at the banter back and forth and just couldn't put the book down.  He also sharply takes shots at the philosophies of his time.  He does so in much of his other writings but this is a neat and concise shooting down of characters holding to each.

A dinner party seems to have been planned with a conjurer for entertainment.  The party guests end up seeing a challenge to what they believe rather than sleight of hand parlor tricks.

The characters are fairly simple as is typical for shorter plays and thinking driven plays.  The politician with his disbelief in anything solid (paying both sides of an issue); the doctor is a scientific skeptic; the American businessman who believes in materialism, capitalism and himself; the parson who doesn't believe in miracles.  The only characters with some moderate depth are Patricia and the Conjurer himself.

(spoilers will follow)

The whole scene turns on a trick that cannot be explained.  Well it can be explained in that it is magic.  This explanation causes a fit of lunacy in the American and the others are scrambling to beg bribe the secret out of the conjurer.   His response is simple and true:  If I told you, you would not believe.

The play drives hard at the schools of thought that force everything to fit within the given mold.  Any explanation is good except the one that is true that is refused.  It is refused because it doesn't fit the pattern. 
If I take as a given that there are no miracles; then all the "miracles" must be explained, no matter how absurd the explanation.

For me, the surprising part of the play is the parson - Smith.   Smith should be the first to acknowledge magic as he should miracles.  He denies both because he doesn't  believe his own creed. 

As the American is going mad he meets with the Conjurer:
Smith. [In a low voice.] One moment, sir.
Conjurer. What do you want?
Smith. I want to apologize to you. I mean on behalf of the company. I think it was wrong to offer you money. I think it was more wrong to mystify you with medical language and call the thing delirium. I have more respect for conjurer's patter than for doctor's patter. They are both meant to stupefy; but yours only to stupefy for a moment. Now I put it to you in plain words and on plain human Christian grounds. Here is a poor boy who may be going mad. Suppose you had a son in such a position, would you not expect people to tell you the whole truth if it could help you?
Conjurer. Yes. And I have told you the whole truth. Go and find out if it helps you.
[Turns again to go, but more irresolutely.
Smith. You know quite well it will not help us.
Conjurer. Why not?
Smith. You know quite well why not. You are an honest man; and you have said it yourself. Because he would not believe it.
Conjurer. [With a sort of fury.] Well, does anybody believe it? Do you believe it?
Smith. [With great restraint.] Your question is quite fair. Come, let us sit down and talk about it. Let me take your cloak.
Conjurer. I will take off my cloak when you take off your coat.
Smith. [Smiling.] Why? Do you want me to fight?
Conjurer. [Violently.] I want you to be martyred. I want you to bear witness to your own creed. I say these things are supernatural. I say this was done by a spirit. The Doctor does not believe me. He is an agnostic; and he knows everything. The Duke does not believe me; he cannot believe anything so plain as a miracle. But what the devil are you for, if you don't believe in a miracle? What does your coat mean, if it doesn't mean that there is such a thing as the supernatural? What does your cursed collar mean if it doesn't mean that there is such a thing as a spirit? [Exasperated.] Why the devil do you dress up like that if you don't believe in it? [With violence.] Or perhaps you don't believe in devils?
Smith. I believe.... [After a pause.] I wish I could believe.
Conjurer. Yes. I wish I could disbelieve.

The parson is most surprising in that I wasn't expecting him to come up short.  It is an excellent point and it makes sense, I just didn't see it coming.  In "The Ball and The Cross" GKCathiest who is just as committed.  They seek to duel and the story really begins. 

GKC believed the creeds and saw no way of not believing in them.  He was frustrated by casual Christianity.

I found this to be a tremendously easy read and a great snapshot of much of GKC's work.  He is a superb at seeing how philosophies boil down to bones that crack in the light of examination.  He has a mastery of words and wit that can prove a point. 

I wonder if Shaw regretted challenging GKC to write a play?  I'm guessing there are a few inside jokes in the play that would make Shaw smile.  I'm also guessing there are a few points in there that kept him squirming.  Maybe Shaw followed up by equally challenging him to not write another one.

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