A novel use for theology books

Hewlett Johnson, dean of Canterbury, has an unique place in recent church history, having become a symbol for the kind of sympathetic engagement amongst well-meaning English churchmen with Soviet Russia in the forties and fifties. From our safe distance, works such as The Socialist Sixth of the World now appear almost comic in their naivety, and Johnson has come to be seen as a Soviet dupe. An intriguing indication of how this picture of the Red Dean has escaped from academic historical writing into the wild is Tibor Fischer’s comic novel Under the Frog. Fischer was born in 1959 to Hungarian parents, and brought up in England. His first novel, Under the Frog won a Betty Trask Award in 1992.

In the novel, Gyuri is a slightly bemused if self-absorbed observer of the popular uprising in Budapest in October 1956, which was crushed in short order by Soviet forces. In a moment of quiet before the tanks arrive, Gyuri passes a bombed-out bookshop, thinks to gather up some the kind of edifying reading that the comrade proletariat had (in Soviet mythology) been delighted to read, and decides to conduct an experiment. When next he has recourse to the bathroom, and is in need of toilet paper, the experiment begins.

We Knew How to Use Freedom by the Party ideologue Jozsef Revai failed the test, as its paper was too shiny. Others are more successful, being printed on coarser paper, notably those by Matyas Rakosi, leader of the Hungarian Communist Party, but overall Gyuri concludes that ‘[t]he Communists couldn’t even hack it as toilet paper.’ Finally:

The last book Gyuri turned to was in English, Eastern Europe in the Socialist World [1954] by Hewlett Johnson, who was supposed to be the Dean of Canterbury. The book was a paean to the Socialist order. Either the book was a forgery, or else the Dean must have been …. blackmailed into writing this, thought Gyuri, because no one could be stupid enough to write things like this of their own volition.

John Masefield’s ‘The Coming of Christ’

[UPDATE: this article has now been published in a slightly revised form in a collection of essays edited by Andrew Chandler.]

I am bound to note the appearance, on the School of Advanced Study’s institutional repository SAS-Space, a post-print text of my article on this play by John Masefield. Commissioned by George Bell for performance in Canterbury Cathedral in 1928 (one of Bell’s last acts as Dean before his appointment as Bishop of Chichester), it is often (incorrectly) described as the first play to be staged in an English cathedral since the Reformation. The article explores what precedents there were for such a performance; examines the controversy provoked by the play, on theological, moral and aesthetic grounds; and locates it in the development of Bell’s own thinking with regard to the relationship between the Church of England and the arts.

The article is to be published in Humanitas. The Journal of the George Bell Institute later this year. I am extremely grateful to the Editor for permission to publish this version at this time. It was originally given at a conference under the auspices of the Institute last year.

Dallas Sweetman

I note the premiere this week of this new play by Sebastian Barry, reviving the commissioning of new plays by Canterbury Cathedral. The heyday of the Canterbury plays was between 1928 and the years immediately after the war; my own article on the first of these, John Masefield’s The Coming of Christ, is forthcoming in Humanitas. The Journal of the George Bell Institute.
A preview has appeared in the Telegraph.
[October 10th: reviews in the Times, Observer, Guardian and Telegraph; overall conclusion: nice building, difficult acoustics.]