Some truths are so profound, so dense and heavy with meaning, that the world strains to bear their weight. Tongues still. Words fail. Then things start to get interesting. All three plays in former Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams’s new collection Shakeshafte examine this point where language breaks and renews: the edge of mystery, a line that, for Williams, runs through culture as much as through religion. One movement unites two worlds: literary bodies conceal liturgical souls. Having devised this theory, Williams puts it into practice in his plays.
The first of the plays, Shakeshafte, describes a meeting on the outskirts of historical possibility, between the Jesuit martyr Edmund Campion and a teenage Shakespeare: both Catholic, both persecuted, and both wondering what to do with their lives. Or rather, in Campion’s case, his death; the safe house they encounter each other in isn’t, as it turns out, safe at all. In a set of close-focus scenes, Williams posits the saint and the playmonger as psychological foster siblings, with twin obsessions and attitudes toward the words of others. A disguised Campion frankly accepts his kinship with the coltish, unsure bard: “You may hear all these other voices,” he hisses at Will. “Do you think I don’t?” Stalking the ruins of Christendom, Campion curses the coming darkness. But for Williams’s Shakespeare – as for Bertolt Brecht – the only way out is through. To Campion, the multitudinous, mutative babble of common humanity is a distraction. For Shakespeare, it’s his vocation.
Vocation also dominates The Flat Roof of The World, an account of the Catholic artist-poet David Jones’s life and an accounting of the sexual abuse of his one-time fiancée, Petra Gill, by her father, Jones’s mentor, Eric. Every character looks for purpose and find pain. In Jones’s PTSD, Petra’s resignation, and Eric’s violent, self-pitying egomania, we see wounds covered as by “a stone over a well” but not healed. The distance between the truth they seek and the everyday kind they experience is unbearably wide: the characters of Roof fall through the gap. That’s all, as Jones quips, part of the “Catholic Thing.” Mystery encodes, but not discriminately. Behind the masks, rules, theories, and words, you might find God. Or you might just find a mirror, or something worse. One character accuses Catholics of hiding their true selves under endless “patterns of words.” What lies beneath these tangles of speech and ritual? God, presumably, but – as so often with Williams – He’s not talking.
Except at the very end. In the final, brief entry in the collection, Lazarus, the darkness speaks. “I’m what’s left,” a disembodied voice declares. “You may go away; I won’t. The water keeps on coming.” So do the words. André Gide worked it out: “Catholics,” he said, “don’t like the truth.” He was right, though perhaps not in the sense he originally intended; it’s not because the truth doesn’t matter but because it matters too much. Williams’s plays explore the fissures of language through which God sometimes appears.