What is ‘The Lamp’ about? (2)

Presumably George was home again at 42 Well Walk, Hampstead, for the long weekend of 9-12 April 1915, so he may have done more work on leaving various literary projects in a publishable state in case he did not come back from active service. These were most likely Tahiti (see posts of 27 February, 1 March, 14 March, 21 March), The Lamp (see 29 March, 3 April), or something called Demon Feasts (post to come). He may have read the copy of Hark to These Three Talk about Style given him by his next door neighbour, Tom Sturge Moore (see 6 April), and chatted about it with him over the back garden fence.

Taking The Lamp, I described what I feel is its primary meaning in my post of 3 April, but there is much more to be said.

The name of the ‘ascetic’ protagonist, Theophanes, may be influenced by George’s knowledge of the nineteenth-century Russian saint Feofan Zatvornik (‘Theophan the Recluse’), a monk who had a powerful spiritual effect on a young upper-class woman who eventually became a nun. The name of Theophanes’s young wife, Myrrhina, is the same as the heroine of Oscar Wilde’s fragment La Sainte Courtisane (published 1908), who is also a noblewoman converted by a hermit. But these facts are not strictly relevant to the meaning of the play: the vital point is that there were no real figures Theophanes the Hermit and Myrrhina the Courtesan in the early history of the Christian church, so this is not a ‘history’ play or docudrama. What kind of a play, then, is it?

To Edwardian afficionados of the New Drama, it would be instantly recognisable as a play of ideas. However, the fact that it is set in the distant past suggests that it belongs to a particular species of the play of ideas, namely what Rita Severi, writing of Wilde’s La Sainte Courtisane, calls the ‘Symbolist Mystery play: symbolic characters that embody ethical, philosophical, spiritual ideas’. We can emphathise to a certain degree with Theophanes, Myrrhina, Kolónimos and Yanoula as real people, but their ‘symbolic’ meanings subsume them. Or, I would prefer to say, The Lamp is an allegory.

This and other features mark it out from The Little Stone House (LSH), which I suggested on 29 March resembles The Lamp thematically and structurally. LSH is set as ‘naturalistically’ as possible in Russia as George knew it, and this was one of the things about it that fascinated Edwardian audiences. But the fact that it is set in ‘the real present’ means that it is about 95% un-allegorical: the issues being played out and argued over in front of you are straighforwardly ethical. The ethical issues of the play are apprehended as ‘real live ethical issues’. I should add, perhaps, that The Lamp is almost entirely without humour, whereas it is precisely the wobbly blend of melodrama, parody of Chekhov and Edwardian perceptions of Russia, caricature, and stereotype, that makes LSH difficult to take entirely seriously in the first place.

But if The Lamp is an allegory, it could be an allegory not just of established, fetishistic and totemised religion. It could, for instance, be seen as an allegory of fixation with ideas, of their totemisation and homicidal power, generally. Theophanes has seized on two aspects of the Christian message — its ‘light unto the nations’ and its ‘eternity’ — and objectified them in the lamp which he must collect alms to keep burning forever. He has thereby become an image-worshipper; as Myrrhina realises, the true meaning of Christianity has fossilised in his life and brain. One could compare him with Russian communists mummifying their ideas in Lenin, or with Utopians, fundamentalists, totalitarians, dogmatists, per se. Incidentally, it is the death-dealing consequences of Theophanes’s obsession with an idea that approximates The Lamp to the allegorical 5% of LSH: the last line of LSH is ‘What’s a man [person] compared to an idea?’ and the protagonist is seen as a ‘white raven’ for her rare ‘fidelity to an idea’. It is a fair guess that George was brought face to face with this theme in the years he lived in Russia, whose intelligentsia and underground politics were obsessed with ‘ideas’.

A purely abstract way of looking at The Lamp would be to focus on the respective ‘vows’ that Theophanes and Kolónimos have taken. Many of George’s plays (LSHGeminaeThe Two Talismans, even the full-length Fountain) turn on two sets of circumstances, ideas, or beliefs, that play out as paradox. The circumstances of The Lamp are immediately paradoxical, of course: Theophanes is an ‘ascetic’ in his forties living in a forest hermitage, but married to ‘a beautiful woman of about twenty-eight or thirty’ and they have a child! He has renounced the world, yet he is obsessed with money and sainthood… Particularly characteristic of George, however, is what one might term the ‘antinomial set’ of Theophanes’s and Kolónimos’s vows. Theophanes has vowed to keep the lamp always burning as a duty to God, and Kolónimos has vowed to dedicate his earnings to God by paying for the lamp to burn in perpetuity. They are both members of the set of those who vow/dedicate themselves to God; who want to ‘keep the lamp of God burning’. But it turns out that their vows have sub-clauses that are mutually exclusive: Theophanes cannot accept the money unless Kolónimos renounces his occupation as a slave-trader, and Kolónimos will only part with his money if he retains his occupation. In practice, then, they are both members of the aforementioned set and not members of it.

Usually in George’s plays these paradoxes produce an abstract, noetic deadlock; and this is one of the sources of the disturbing sense of void that his works leave, and are doubtless intended to leave. In The Lamp, however, first Kolónimos breaks the deadlock by stepping outside the terms of the set and appealing to Theophanes’s deluded sense of sacrifice, then Myrrhina shatters it completely by choosing to escape physically with her son from the world of Theophanes and Kolónimos into the ‘true and simple happiness of life’.

I think it is relevant that George was the top mathematician of his year at Rugby and would probably have gone on to read Mathematics and Natural Sciences at Oxford if there had been a comparable scholarship (‘exhibition’) available to the one he won in Classics. It seems to me possible that underlying his dramatic plot-paradoxes is a fascination with Cantorian and Zermelian set theory as it developed in the first decade of the twentieth century, or at least with wagers, games and probability. Unfortunately, though, my own mathematics is not developed enough to pursue this!

The Lamp was premiered at St Paul’s Church, Covent Garden, on 28 February 1926 — surely an enlightened demonstration that the play is not anti-Christian as such.

Next entry: ‘The Maharani’: A postscript


About Patrick Miles

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