What do you get when a self-assured doctor, an uneasy clergyman, a doddering duke, a progressive youth, a businesslike secretary, and an impressionable maiden are confronted with a conjurer in the parlor?
In the case of Magic, what you get is commentary on skepticism and belief – and some distinctively British humor. Your scene is provided by the Washington Stage Guild in a production directed by Alan Wade. Your host is G.K. Chesterton in his first attempt at playwriting, an activity he took up under the near-coercive persuasion of George Bernard Shaw and only repeated a few times afterwards, despite Magic’s original success at its debut in 1913. The play, a modest drawing room production, is termed a “fantastic comedy” (and is, of course, peppered with characteristic wit and memorable one-liners), yet handles important material.
The Stage Guild’s production has played up Chesterton’s fairly minimal stage directions to emphasize the potential gravity of the show. But it has also maintained Chesterton’s signature lightheartedness, never committing entirely even to the play’s darkest moments. Certain elements in the piece, notably, the character of the conflicted Conjurer, hint at Chesterton’s personal experience of falling away from skepticism and into religion. Magic is a jaunty excuse to pose a question to the modern world: “Does it never strike you that doubt can be a madness, as well as faith?”
Our cast of characters is brought together when the Duke hosts an evening of parlor entertainment provided by a Conjurer (incidentally, a former journalist) in an attempt to reach out to the Duke’s niece, Patricia, who in her childlike wonder and eccentric tendencies, causes her uncle and the caring Doctor to worry by purportedly communing with fairies. The Duke hopes also to appease his nephew Morris, who has just returned from his oh-so-modern pursuits in scientific, forward-thinking America, full of hostility towards all things otherworldly. The Doctor, who is a family friend, and Reverend Smith are also drawn into the events of the evening, as is the secretary Hastings (who in this production is played by Stage Guild regular Lynn Steinmetz, and is therefore a Mrs. Hastings).
The Duke is all affability; generally in favor of “advancement” and reluctant to concede the superiority of any one view over another, he stands for the mildest iteration of modern liberalism. In his stage directions, Chesterton notes that “the Duke, though an ass, is a gentleman.” He is the sort of absent-minded character who simply wants everyone to get along, and is happy to do his part with such magnanimous gestures as equal donations to opposing political causes: “It seems only fair!” Indeed the Duke holds that “nothing’s incompatible, you know—except husband and wife, and so on.”
But his efforts become complicated with the appearance of the Conjurer, who doesn’t fit into the Duke’s tidy, inoffensive world of relative goods. The Duke’s intended peacemaking turns into anything but when the Conjurer’s tricks go too far for comfort. The whole company is thrown into an uproar when brash Morris’ mental health is gravely threatened in his distress over the inexplicability of the apparent magic present.
Questions of faith, skepticism, self-worth, and opposing ideologies arise out of the Duke’s curious evening program. A good deal of the dialogue revolves around the tension that each man feels in remaining true to his profession. The Doctor and Morris, in their different ways, are staunch voices for scientific rationalism. In the Reverend Smith we find a voice that would be for the Church—but fails to provide persuasive reasons for belief and frantically defends every man’s “right to the benefit of the doubt.” Even the Duke and Hastings are shaken out of their comfortable and well-rehearsed roles as affluent nobility and steadfast servant by the unfamiliar phenomena they encounter through the mystery guest.
The Conjurer himself comes to an existential crossroads brought on by a combination of the adversarial Morris and the attractive Patricia. The trouble for the Conjurer (and therefore for the party at large, excepting Patricia) is that his magic is all too real. In one of his outpouring confessions to the lady, he reveals his dark history (read: hellish connections) which explains his ability to set the company into confusion through obscuration and disconcerting signs. Her childlike simplicity and willing belief might be the answer for him; he admits to her that in their encounters, his mysterious actions have been from a wicked source—it is she who has “brought the real magic.”
The Conjurer is especially interesting in light of Chesterton’s own spiritual history. Magic is peppered with commentary on the nature of the gentleman; the Conjurer does not consider himself one because of all that he has to hide. He resents his magician’s hat which he “could not take off to a lady.” We might speculate that Chesterton, in the confusing times before his conversion, might have struggled with the same question of his own respectability.
In The Diabolist, an essay from Tremendous Trifles, Chesterton talks about his time spent in art school which was valuable, “in short, because it made me acquainted with a good representative number of blackguards.” The Diabolist recounts an exchange the author had defending his newfound orthodoxy to one such blackguard, a conversation which involved an unsettling encounter with evil and which he stated was “by far the most terrible thing that has ever happened to me in my life.”
Chesterton fans are familiar with reports that the author’s journey, which finally concluded in Catholicism in 1922, did involve some fascination with Ouija and dark spirits. Perhaps the Conjurer is not unlike Chesterton circa the 1890s: an extraordinarily powerful mind in possession of powerful truths—and without peace. He struggles to know how to communicate those truths to others and desires intensely to be a gentleman.
Chesterton, in a comic spirit, seems to reference himself further through this mysterious character, poking fun at the writer’s profession. The Conjurer speaks to Patricia of his past when he was “guttersnipe in Fleet Street, or, lower still, a journalist in Fleet Street.” And to the chagrin of his audience who presses him to reveal the secret behind his magic, the Conjurer stands by his earlier statement that the “whole point of being a conjurer is that you won't explain a thing that has happened,” whereas, “the whole point of being a journalist is that you do explain a thing that hasn't happened.”
The Washington Stage Guild’s production is pleasing and lively, balancing frightening moments with skillfully timed humor. The theater is physically modest (I encourage anyone attending the final performances of Magic to arrive early enough to sit close to the stage), but the special effects and sleight of hand are quite engaging. Vincent Clark and David Bryan Jackson, who play the Duke and the Doctor, respectively, are two old hands in the D.C. theater scene and the most convincing players in the piece. Nick Depinto as the Conjurer is very funny on his upbeats and sympathetic when he’s down.
Madeline Ruskin, a very recent graduate of George Washington University with a beautiful stage presence, makes her professional debut as Patricia. She holds her own in a focused performance among veteran players, despite the choice to emphasize Patricia’s flimsier elements, which, in light of the Stage Guild’s serious thematic approach, is regrettable considering how the leading lady ultimately holds things together.
After all, in classic Chestertonian fashion, it is—paradoxically—Patricia who comes through as the balanced woman to persuade, to calm, and to offer hope, despite her initial appearance of questionable stability. (As the play is written, she is distinctive for being the only female on stage and offers a strong contrast to the cast of men undergoing personal crises. So I make a minor complaint against the Stage Guild’s choice to adapt the character of Hastings from a male role.)
After a long and grueling evening, Patricia puts things back into her perspective, which is to see the world as a fairy tale. Oddly enough, after all the men’s debates, her answer is the most satisfying one the audience has heard. Chesterton has a somewhat similar conclusion to an essay written ten years before Magic, entitled The Return of the Angels: “We have not returned to the spiritual theory because of this or that triviality—because of a justification of the Fourth Gospel or a rap on the table. We have returned to it because, by the rejection of rationalism, the world becomes suddenly rational.”
Deirdre M. Lawler studies philosophy at Catholic University of America in Washington, D.C. The Washington Stage Guild’s production of Magic runs through February 6.