What is ‘The Lamp’ about? (1)

In 1915, today was Easter Saturday. For reasons I will give this coming Monday, I think George Calderon was at home over Easter on long weekend leave. This means he may have worked on the possibly four literary works that he wanted to leave in a publishable state if he went to the Front and never returned. One of these would have been his one-act curtain-raiser, The Lamp.

In my post of 29 March I summarised its plot. I would now like to tackle its subject-matter, but in two posts because I think there are two different levels of meaning to the play.

The first is expressed quite simply in the action. Having persuaded the ‘ascetic’ Theophanes to sell his own son Yanoula into slavery for money to keep the lamp burning in perpetuity, Kolónimos makes the mistake of leaving the young boy with his parents until the morning. He has not met the boy’s mother, Myrrhina, so he does not know what a strong person she is. She refuses to part with Yanoula for the sake of the lamp:

No, no. The sun of my sky, the moon of my night, for a smoky flame? My child, my life, God’s special voice to me? No. My eyes are opened now. The voice of life speaks in me, drowning the murmurs of your sullen creed.

This world was made for happiness. The sunshine and the trees, the singing birds and water running joyfully, these are the true symbols of God on earth, not lamps that smoke in the dark corners of hermit caves and huts. When I defied my father and left my home, I chose you for your manly courage, not for your gloomy faith; when I left the city and followed you to the forest it was to seek the true and simple happiness of life, and not to say to sorrow: ‘Be my joy.’

I thought you wise, and I made you steersman of my soul, but now I see you are close driving upon the rocks I take the helm. I will not sell my son.

This play was George’s last word on established religion as he had known it in the Victorian and Edwardian eras. He was deeply attracted to Christ’s ethical message (indeed Kittie, a regular churchgoer, called him ‘the best Christian I know’), but an unspecified experience as a boy had turned him against what he called ‘the parsonic mind’ and with it established religion. We do not know what this experience was, but it could even have been some form of abuse, since Kittie says in her memoirs that he had ‘suffered cruelly at its [religion’s] hands’ and his mind had been ‘so wounded at the time it was growing’.

Although set around AD 50, The Lamp debunks false asceticism, inverted pride, religious hypocrisy and totemism in the Church. George’s highly successful one-acter The Little Stone House had attacked the last two already, but there the religious hypocrite and totemist had died as the curtain came down, whilst the son she refused to acknowledge was carted back to Siberia. In The Lamp, the religious fanatic does not die, he is left as morally shattered as his lamp, and the believer in ‘Life’ escapes with her son into the world of humane values. But note that she retains her belief in Christ. She believes that the ‘true and simple happiness of life’ is Godly. In this she may appear to speak with a particular Calderonian conviction.

Next entry: Easter 1915


About Patrick Miles

I am a writer who specialises in Anton Chekhov and is writing a biography of George Calderon.
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