Holding It All Together: How Faith and Literature Respond to a Fragmented World

Gregory Wolfe: Rowan Williams grew up in South Wales and studied theology at Christ College Cambridge. A strong interest in Russian Christianity led to research at Oxford in the religious thinkers of the Russian emigration and later to a book on Dostoevsky. Ordained in 1977, he worked in a pastoral and academic context before becoming Anglican Bishop of Monmouth in 1992 and then Archbishop of Wales in 1999. From 2002 to 2012, he was Archbishop of Canterbury, continuing to write on theology, philosophy, and contemporary issues. He retired in 2012 to move back to the university as Master of Magdalene College Cambridge.

Over the years he has written a number of books, academic and popular, on Christian faith, as well as publishing several collections of poetry and a number of essays on literary themes, including some studies of Shakespeare and a book on tragedy. He is a fellow of the Royal Society of Literature as well as the British Academy. He now lives in Wales with his wife Jane, also a writer and theologian.

Since we would like to start with an experience of the title play from Shakeshafte & Other Plays, why don't you tell us what we are about to see.

Rowan Williams: Thanks very much, Greg. The premise of the play goes back to a discovery in the nineteenth century of the will of a landowner in Lancashire in the northwest of England, a rich man, a Catholic—somebody involved in secretive networks of people and somebody with a complicated domestic life. In this will he leaves playing musical instruments to two of his servants. One is Will Shakeshafte and the other Fulk Gillom. He recommends them to the care of one of his neighbors of the Hesketh family.

This is pretty routine. Shafte is a surname you find in that area of Lancashire. But since the early twentieth century, people have wondered about the curious echo of a familiar literary name. Shakeshafte is not far off from a famous English playwright, and the connections do not end there. We know that the schoolmaster in Stratford-upon-Avon in Shakespeare’s last years of study was a Lancashire man, a Catholic whose brother was a Jesuit and martyred for his faith under Queen Elizabeth. This Jesuit returned to work in the English mission along with a famous scholar and preacher, Edmund Campion, also martyred for the faith. We know that Campion traveled extensively in Lancashire, and he stayed with the family of the aforesaid Lancashire landowner Alexander Hoghton at some point in 1580-1581.

The connection between Lancashire and Stratford is a rather unexpected one. It reinforced for some people the persistent rumor that Shakespeare had strong Catholic connections in his family and background. Some say he might have been working under an alias in Lancashire. Plenty of scholars return a resounding “no” to that question with good reasons. But as a literary person, you're always inclined to wonder why not and experiment with that. What if Will Shakeshafte really were the aforesaid well-known playwright in his late teens. What if he were at Alexander Hoghton’s residence in Lancashire at the same time as the Jesuit martyr. What might they have had to say to each other, and that's the germ of the play.

The characters of the play are figures who appear in Alex Hoghton’s will or other documents of the period. Fulk Gillom came from a family in Chester probably connected with the Chester mystery plays. About Will Shakeshafte we know nothing for certain, so let us imagine a young man with Catholic connections, somebody who might be a promising recruit to the Jesuit mission but is not very convinced of that himself. Let us imagine that he is bundled off by his schoolmaster to a family friend in Lancashire, partly to keep him out of the way of agents of the state who are pursuing the Jesuits with great relentlessness in this period. Let's imagine that he arrives at Hoghton Hall near Preston in Lancashire along with Fulk Gillom and that they are being inducted into their duties and the tradition of the place by Roger Livesey, the steward and manager of Alex Hoghton’s estate, and let's hear how that imagining unfolds.

GW: Rowan, we have heard in your biography about all the different genres that you have written in: theology, spirituality, literary criticism, cultural analysis, poetry. Whatever possessed you to try your hand in playwriting? Did you have any experience of the theater when you were in school or university that left an itch that eventually needed to be scratched?

RW: I think that is exactly it. I did quite a bit of amateur theater when I was a student. It is the unlived life taking its revenge, but also my son is in the theater business, so he keeps me up to scratch on these things, and we talk a lot about theater. It has always been a real fascination, and I wanted to explore various things, but it was not so deliberate. I was re-reading a book on this period, this particular theory about Shakespeare’s youth, and suddenly I thought, what if, and then to my surprise a whole scene between Shakeshafte and Edmund Campion started to unfold in my mind. And then, like with a poem when you start with a line or an image, and you think now where does that fit in, what goes around it, I found myself with this conversation thinking: what goes around that, what's the frame in which that might make sense. And then I sat down, and the rest is history as they say.

GW: So, what does the medium of drama enable you to do that other forms of writing have not, or is it just the subject matter that somehow fell into this format?

RW: It is a very good question, because different genres allow you to do different things. Drama, like fiction, allows you to stage a conversation. You need to stage an argument not in terms of ordered pros and cons, but in the way you might actually move through an argument in real life so it does not all come at once. People shift their ground. People discover as they talk what they mean, just as we do in real life. I have never had enough of an ear or eye for plot to make me a novelist, but here was a ready-made story. I wanted to see how that argument is made in real time and how language might unfold the argument between someone who is discovering that they are wholly committed to the world of the imagination and somebody who knows that they are totally committed to the world of faith. Because I do not think that's a zero-sum game, I wanted to stage that and see what changes as that conversation is spelled out.

GW: Have you been able to see any of your plays on the stage, and if so, what did you learn from seeing the actors bring your work to life?

RW: It is a terrifying experience, because the things that make sense in your ears do not necessarily make sense when you hear them from somebody else’s lips on a stage. Yes, I have seen both Shakeshafte and Lazarus in performance. The short play Lazarus was directed by Josie Rook, for whom I have enormous admiration. And I found the experience almost entirely positive. I thought yes, that is very much what I was feeling my way for, and I felt all the actors got this.

I have seen Shakeshafte on stage once. The first performance was in my hometown of Swansea some years ago, and they did a fantastic job. But it also made me see things that needed tightening, things that needed loosening, things which I thought would sound like speech and did not when spoken. I discovered meanings that I had not intended, and that was part of the discovery. The third play, about the poet and artist David Jones, I have heard in a rehearsed reading but have not seen on stage. That rehearsed reading was very important in helping me think of the structure, how to shape the play, where the point of tension comes, where the watershed moments are.

My first draft was a bit sprawling and needed some questions put about its rhythm, how it rose to a point and relaxed, because, as with any piece of art, you have to find that very elusive point where things come together, clench, slip into place and then unfold and allow something else to move on. It was a very important experience hearing the words. The most terrifying thing was having my son alongside me on some occasions and thinking, what on earth is he, as a drama student, as a writer and a director, making of this. Is this the ultimate paternal embarrassment being inflicted on the poor thing?

GW: You told us about the genesis of the play Shakeshafte. I am interested in pursuing something from the scene we just saw, an environment tense with fear and suspicion, with fraught implications for what can and cannot be said, as Catholic priests were being hunted down and executed by Queen Elizabeth’s agents. Do you find any resonances between that environment of fear, suspicion, the difficulty of what to say and not to say and our own time, or is that merely the historical circumstance of the time period that interested you.

RW: I do not think I would have written the play if I had not found some resonance there, but it runs in a number of directions. First there is the obvious sense in which we have been for the last 20 or 30 years, a state of profound collective anxiety about enemies within, whether it is Britain, the IRA campaigns in the 70s and 80s, al-Qaeda, ISIS anxieties. The position of Catholics in sixteenth century England was that people were constantly expecting to come across conspiracies, people undermining the state or the status quo.

There is also that sense of how does the minority feel about itself. I was trying to get into the mind of a bewildered Catholic minority in England, people who would have had little patience with conspiracies to overthrow Queen Elizabeth, but who were also carrying the burden of the perception of their society, that if you were Catholic you had to be a traitor. I think sometimes of Muslim communities in our own country who have carried that kind of suspicion in a very big way for the last decade or two.

Finally, there is the other pervasive anxiety in our culture about freedom of speech. Everybody left, right, and center is ready to say that their freedom of speech is being threatened. That is a strange position for us to be in. It is as if everyone feels like a persecuted minority at the moment in our culture, and the so-called culture wars are not helping us get a real intellectual grip on what the issues are. Behind this is one of the issues that the play tries to tackle: what happens when a society has lost any sense of a grand narrative, of a common culture, where even if you disagree you know what you are disagreeing about. I think what people are expressing in the play is the beginning of that typical modern anxiety: do we know the script any longer, or are we being pushed on stage into a play we have not rehearsed? We do not know what to say, so we do not know what we can say, and the whole idea of the common culture itself begins to disappear.

Now, again, part of what the play is saying is that you have a heroic and saintly figure like Campion saying, if we put enough prayer and effort into this, we can turn the clock back. And you have the young man saying, but what if you cannot turn the clock back? I wanted both of those to be serious positions, with young Shakeshafte recognizing that the question that Campion tries to answer is a real question, even if he cannot answer it in the same orthodox Catholic way that Campion does. So yes, I think there are crossovers there.

GW: I was struck by the way that you contextualize that encounter between Shakeshafte and Campion, that is, the individuals in the play that one might call minor characters. Fulk Gillom, Margery and Meg are given rounded portraits. Could you talk about the way that you give flesh to that faith versus imagination theme in these other currents in the play.

RW: I am glad you found the characters rounded there. With young Will's involvement with both Margery and Meg, I was trying to imagine the curious sensibility that the writer of the sonnets or of Much Ado About Nothing or Othello might have had as a young man discovering that his understanding of sexual involvement and commitment was not straightforward, that there was always an element of almost wanting to devour and possess the other, which Margery talks about. He is so passionate about understanding and entering the other, inhabiting the other, that it feels like being eaten alive. I hope Margery comes across as a fundamentally sensible and sensitive personality. Margery is hurt and bewildered. Meg, who is not a sensible or sensitive person, but a person with huge bitterness, with the suggestion of abuse and neglect in the background, Meg wants to exploit and will turn the sexual encounter into a battlefield where she has to win.

Yes, there is something in those depictions which looks at the shadow side of what the great imaginative artist may be like as a human being. People have very different views of what William Shakespeare was like. His friends all say what a nice chap, he is sweet. I have often used he is companionable; he is easy to get on with. But you scratch a bit, and there is an undercurrent of some real ruthlessness in some of what we know about him. That does not surprise me at all. You could say the same with Tolstoy; you could say it in spades about Wagner. Many great artists are deeply shadowed personalities, so there is real continuity going on there.

GW: This is a sobering reminder that it is easy to lionize the imagination with a capital “I”, because there is a dark side to everything. There's a shadow side, not only as corruption of a human personality, but as a reductionism. Imagination is a powerful instrument, but it can be wielded in different ways.

RW: Exactly. And for all that I really love Shakespeare as an artist and would willingly spend a lot of the rest of my life reabsorbing the plays and poems. It is important not to indulge that artistic hagiography, but to say that genius comes with a human cost. I meant the audience to feel Margery’s desolation in the play. She loves Will; she wants him to stay; she wants to build something with him; and she knows at some level that is just not going to happen. I think the reason for ending the play with that sad little Elizabethan song was to leave people with the sense of the cost of genius with no theoretical way of resolving that. The other side is trying to get across that Shakespeare-Shakeshafte-Will in the play does at some level know what Campion is talking about. He knows why faith matters to Campion.

He cannot quite make it his own, but that's why, at the climax of their conversation, he kisses the priest's hand. He recognizes something, and I wanted to leave that as an image of imagination, at its highest, almost through gritted teeth, saying I know there is something I cannot do. I know there's a grace that I cannot deliver for myself. Shakespeare is very interested in grace. The language of grace permeates the last plays very strongly. They are in some ways his most Christian product, and I think they are so because there is a recognition, especially in the last lines of The Tempest, of what art can and cannot do. Prospero comes forward at the end of The Tempest and says, well, you've seen what magic can do, but now you (the audience) have to show what prayer can do. Because the magician is always trapped in their own magic, and only prayer can set you free. It is a pretty strong statement in that play, and I think about it a lot indeed.

GW: Was Hastings/Campion a challenging figure to bring to life?

RW: There was an element in creating Campion of asking what does a good priest sound like? I wanted to do some justice to the historical Campion, who was certainly a formidable figure, a man of immense erudition, creativity, courage, eloquence. I wanted to show him with his collar slightly undone, sitting by the fire late at night, sharing with this uncannily sympathetic young man what the real problems were. He's able to say what this is basically about is: there is a ship to carry him home. I had Campion saying, I understand the hardline Calvinist better than some in the Reformed Church of England, who did not seem to care much. People have often said that about the Church of England, not fairly, so I felt it had to be in there somewhere on the landscape.

GW: You could say that the very tension is in the encounter between the representative of faith and the representative of imagination. Presumably the ultimate Christian humanist response is both/and rather than either/or, but tell me if I am wrong.

RW: I hope you are right. You could say Campion tried the humanist synthesis. He had been at the court of the Holy Roman Emperor, and he had written poems as well as theology and philosophy. He had done the sophisticated humanist business, and then he had been sent off to godforsaken remote parts of Britain at a time when his faith and his commitment were regarded as de facto dangerous and diabolical. The choices of the humanist in the study are good and can be life-giving, but there are circumstances where they do not map easily onto the choices people actually make. At the end Will does kiss Campion's hand, and Campion does say, you might make it back yet by a very long route to the place where I live. Yes, those are the kind of cracks I want to leave open.

GW: In the second play, The Flat Roof of the World, you're writing about David Jones, a twentieth century Anglo-Welsh poet and visual artist. Why should we care about this very obscure, troubling figure of David Jones?

RW: I first came across David Jones as a poet in my late teens. I was almost immediately electrified by the way Jones picks up this traditional mythology and literary tradition, especially the Arthurian tradition. In his later work, he feeds back into the Christian narrative with the Mass, the Eucharist, into all the insights and dimensions that the literary and legendary tradition give him. It's as if the legendary background of both Welsh and classical mythology is a set of marginal notes to the one great story in which everything converges, and that is the story which is enacted in the Mass. I was fortunate in my teens to have guidance from a parish priest who consistently gave the message that being a sacramental Christian was an enormous expansion of your imaginative horizons rather than a reduction.

Here is a writer who can hold those things together, the sacramental theological vision, the complex, rich, baffling classical and Celtic mythological tradition, and a lot more besides. Then, as I read more of Jones and began to look at his paintings, his engravings, his etchings, I realized that the method he always used, in his verbal and his visual art, was to encourage you to be an archaeologist, to see through surfaces into an image, to level after level after level. In his poetic work he is building layers of narrative discourse and imagery, and you can see he is doing that in his visual work too.

But at the center of it is the great meditation on the experience of the trenches of the first world war in In Parenthesis, which he published in the 1930s after working on it for 20 years. There he very vividly and concretely evoked the experience of being a private soldier in the trenches, layered onto the history of let's say the Hundred Years’ War in the Middle Ages, which is layered onto classical Homeric tropes and elements again of traditional Welsh literature and culture, and all finally layered onto the great act of redemptive violence which is the cross.

So, In Parenthesis is where you see everything that is going on in David Jones's work. That's what really struck me—that archaeological sense of how the imagination works, looking at the landscape and learning to read it for what's buried underneath, whether in words or pictures. If you put that together with his own very troubled, very vulnerable personal life, it becomes even more poignant. It's evident in some of his letters and in some of his production that he suffered from seeing too many connections. He was the kind of artist who sees too much for comfort. He could not hold it all together. Part of his inability to cope with everyday life is that sense of the system being overloaded. That is part of the impulse that led me to explore his biography.

GW: Part of the challenge facing Jones in terms of reputation, which is also central to the play, is his association with Eric Gill, the Catholic artist and essayist and typographer who is a very controversial figure because of revelations of some very troubled, abusive behavior. Jones is not under suspicion, but there is guilt by association. Gill's behavior undermines people who want to champion the larger Catholic aesthetic that he and Jones were both interested in.

RW: I read Fiona McCarthy’s wonderful biography of Gill when it appeared back in the 90s, and Gill was somebody I had admired a lot as an artist and writer. I found it profoundly shocking that there was this background of incestuous abusive behavior with his daughters and a whole range of other things I cannot understand. It is as if Gill had an absolute tone deafness in certain areas of the moral life. I thought, if I want to do justice to Jones, I have to factor in what is going on with Gill, and that felt the riskiest bit of the play.

Gill’s daughter said more than once that she and her sisters had never known anything different, and they did not feel their lives were completely wrecked by their father's abuse, but can that be? Is that humanly credible? What is the cost; what is the hurt. I am really fascinated by the figure of Petra. She comes across in the biographies as a rather enigmatic, almost unnaturally placid figure, a bit aside from the turmoil of the household. I thought, what's the placidity managing, what is it holding? I liked the sound of Petra from what I heard about her, somebody who had been plunged into utterly unwelcome complications in her life. So, she had to grit her teeth and talk about it, think about it, not dramatize and not lie. I wanted to feel this is a person of colossal moral substance which has partly to do with the colossal moral insult that she's endured. But I remember showing it to a friend of mine, who understands what's going on in that emotional world, who said to me: you really are on very thin ice.

GW: Well, I applaud your courage. I always think of Kurosawa the great director saying that “the artist is the one who does not look away.”

RW: To me the essential intellectual dishonesty in any work of art or any intellectual system is what it teaches you to ignore systematically, who it teaches you to ignore. Any art that has any claim at all has to help you not look away. When I heard the play being read, I have to say the actor nailed it so credibly. I thought, here is somebody who is completely illiterate about a whole area of himself and his emotions and his impact on people. With some little bit of his mind he knows that there is something he doesn't know, but he does not fully know what he doesn't know, and he plunges on. The image with which his final speech ends is an almost desperate moment of self-justification. As if to say but it didn't really hurt, did it. And then I have asked for the spotlight to go onto the broken doll that Petra has left on stage, as what I’d like people to remember from that speech.

GW: Again, trauma is at the heart of this play. There seems to be a kind of fragmentation, a breaking apart of world and meaning. And so it seems to me that Jones's own desperate attempt to find the connections between things is ultimately a deeply healthy response to trauma. Eliot says, “I have shored these fragments against my ruin . . .”

RW: Yes, and Jones quotes that more than once, and I think that's exactly what he was doing in In Parenthesis. But also, in his visual work he wants there to be room for everything that matters, but an awful lot of things matter, and no one artistic sensibility, however generous, however extraordinarily fertile as with Jones, no one sensibility can do it all. Which is why Jones takes you back to the sacramental center. Something is done to hold it all together, but not by the artist. The artist has every opportunity to witness to it and say that it's deeper than that. What is deeper is what the play tries to explore, again leaving the image of the crucified towards the end.

GW: The modernist style of both poetry and visual art seems perfectly suited to respond to a world that was fragmented, a world where technology but also mental disturbance made us aware of how the mind and the brain can be overloaded.

RW: Certainly, I think Jones is saying that, in a world where the fragmentation is so deep, the task of holding it together is that much more costly. On the surface the fragmentation is his own experience of war and the horrors of the trenches and the battle of Nanette's Wood and his own wound and neurosis. Somewhere under the surface is the unspoken fragmentation of Petra’s life by abuse and neglect. The cost of being that kind of artist in that kind of world and that kind of relationship is what the play is about. The title The Flat Roof of the World is from an image that Jones uses about getting out of the trenches and going forward in formation towards the enemy through the mist in an early morning where you cannot see the ground in front of you and cannot see the trees above you. He said it was like walking on the flat roof of the world, and one of the hidden elements in that extraordinary image is: if you are walking on a flat roof in mist, you will not know where the edge is.

GW: Let me ask about Lazarus. This is different from both of the others that are full-length plays with multiple characters. Lazarus is more a matter of artifice, of characters emerging from darkness into the spotlight, less conventional but maybe even liturgical in that way.

RW: Lazarus was commissioned for the anniversary of the publication of the King James Bible in 2011. Before that, Josie Rourke, then artistic director of the Bush Theatre in London, proposed to a number of people a sequence of 66 short plays, one for each of the books of the Protestant Bible, that is not the Apocrypha. So, it is a sequence simply called 66 Books, and we were given a choice as to which books we might address. She mostly went to people who had an established reputation as writers of plays. I do not know why she knocked on my door, but I am glad she did, because it enabled me to say, I would like to write something about Saint John's Gospel in half an hour. What can you say about John's Gospel in half an hour?

If you remember the end of John's Gospel, that if all the works Jesus did were written down, the world could not contain the books that would have been written. You could almost say the same about John's Gospel. If you said everything that there was to be said about John's Gospel, the world couldn't contain the commentaries. So, I thought, what is one of the most focal and compelling episodes in John's Gospel, and for me it's often been the raising of Lazarus. It is a phrase from that story that occurs at the beginning of the Church of England’s burial rite. The priest walks into the church in front of the coffin reciting the words from the story, “I am the resurrection and the life, saith the Lord.”

And so that gave me the idea of a kind of double or triple frame for the story, a modern rather secular person puzzling over hearing these words at a funeral. What do they mean? And a re-creation of the Lazarus story itself, through the voices of Lazarus’ sisters and the evangelist. So, it is a little unusual in terms of its form, but I wanted the modern voice, the baffled secularist, to have the first and the last word and for the short play to be the trajectory of this voice beginning to see what those words might be. That's where the imagery comes in. I think of that speaker suddenly associating the words of John's Gospel with a sound like distant thunder, with the sound of boxes falling over in the room upstairs, with the sound of the wooden gong from a Chinese ceremony, something both resonant and spacious and spare. That is the style of John's Gospel. That is why I wanted that voice, the baffled modern man, to be the opening and closing voice.

EDITORIAL NOTE: Gregory Wolfe is a writer, teacher, editor, and publisher. In 1989 he founded Image—one of America’s leading literary journals, which he edited for thirty years. He was also the founding director of the Seattle Pacific University MFA in Creative Writing program, which he led for twelve years. He is currently the Publisher and Editor of Slant Books. You can read an excerpt from Shakeshafte & Other Plays here and purchase the book here.

Feature Image: The Cobbe Portrait of WillIam Shakespeare, c. 1610; Source: Wikimedia Commons, PD-Olde-100. 


Rowan Williams

Rowan Williams is the former Archbishop of Canterbury and currently the Master of Magdalene College, Cambridge. He is the author of dozens of books, including Faith in the Public Square and the forthcoming The Way of St. Benedict.

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