C.S. Lewis was Not a Dramatist

shakespeare-and-lewisC.S. Lewis’ prolific, genre-crossing success teaches us two things. First, that a very good writer can fruitfully write in a variety of fields. Second, that even the most gifted of authors cannot write with equal talent in all genres.

Students of C.S. Lewis are well acquainted with the fact that one of the great disappointments of his life was failing to succeed as a poet. Although he did write a reasonable amount of poetry, it failed to elicit the response for which he hoped.

Lewis did, of course, receive well-deserved kudos for his literary fiction and children’s stories. His fiction and nonfiction are extraordinary, and over the years I have appreciated the value of his many essays to be among the most precious of his works.

Finally, as a correspondent, Lewis stood in the first ranks. He regarded the responsibility of personally responding to the letters he received as something not to be shirked.

Fortunately, the excellent collections of his letters offer us many insights into Lewis’ life and career. For his Christian fans, they reveal insights into how a disciple of Jesus can gracefully navigate life.

The following letter was written in 1959, to a man who was apparently the editor of a small newspaper. He had requested an article from the exceedingly busy professor. Lewis’ response is quite interesting.

Dear Mr. Aylard,

Yes! my handwriting is awful. It used to be nice but my muscles have stiffened up and the strokes no longer come out as I intend. I give ‘this generation’ all I can in the way of books and articles. Particular articles by request are not usually the good ones: and, you know, I should reach more readers through other organs than your paper. I hope this doesn’t sound stand-offish or conceited, for it is not meant to be. It is really common sense to speak where one can be most widely heard.

I agree that drama is a good medium for our purpose. In this country Dorothy Sayers’ broadcast set of plays on the life and death of Our Lord (The Man Born to be King) did a great deal of good. I don’t attempt this form myself because any talent I may have is narrative, not dramatic. With all good wishes.

I draw several observations from reading this letter.

  • Lewis took the time to personally pen many of his letters, despite the fact that this presented an uncomfortable challenge to him.
  • Lewis preferred to address subjects as he felt moved by the Holy Spirit to do so, rather than on demand.
  • He did not have the time to dress it up in gentle fluff, but candidly expressed the fact that if he had sufficient time and energy to write, it would not be the wisest stewardship to send the piece to a publication with a limited distribution.
  • Even though he did not intend for that remark to be curt or “conceited,” Lewis still felt compelled to offer his “I hope this doesn’t sound…” apology.
  • Lewis appreciated drama, and recognized Sayers’ work as quite noteworthy.
  • He recognized that drama would not be his forte, and wisely preferred to stick with the type of writing wherein he was most accomplished.

Even this final thought is offered with C.S. Lewis’ characteristic—and genuine—humility.

I don’t attempt this form myself because any talent I may have is narrative, not dramatic.

As a writer myself, I find this sentence quite comforting. And not simply because my own extremely modest talents also lie in the narrative realm. Even if I were a poet or a dramatist I would recognize how liberating it is to acknowledge that one cannot be fairly expected to excel at more than one genre.

And “excel” is not really the best word to use here. Perhaps it’s sufficient that writers think of themselves like children of Lake Wobegon, where Garrison Keillor tells us “all the women are strong, all the men are good-looking, and all the children are above average.”

Ultimately, whether we consider ourselves to be adequate or exceptional writers, it is necessary to understand where our skills reside, and to transgress those boundaries only with the greatest trepidation.

16 thoughts on “C.S. Lewis was Not a Dramatist

  1. During my stint on a Navy Reserve training ship, I met an American officer who claimed he had been in Lewis’s home, specifically in his library. The officer was surprised to find most of the shelves practically empty. On query, Lewis replied that as he was approaching the end of his life, he began to give portions of his collection away. I’m not absolutely certain that the following information also came from that same source, but it might have. Lewis not only wrote his letters by hand but also his books.

    1. Interesting. I recently read some of Lewis’ correspondence with his brother regarding the disposition of their father’s library, upon his death. Lewis was present and handling the details, but his primary goal was to determine which texts each of them wanted to retain for their personal libraries.

      I would love to visit the Kilns someday also. I don’t find it surprising that Lewis may have parted with a few of his books, but I think the library was pretty intact when he passed. A number of the volumes ended up in very lucky collections (mostly library, but some private, I believe).

  2. The acquisition of a sense of purpose is one of the more remarkable, less recognized, events in the development of human personality. It’s far and away the most interesting thing that has happened to me so far.

    1. What an amazing observation. It certainly is a pivotal moment.

      My guess, based on your “so far” comment, is that you are rather young. (People who are sixty can call anyone under forty “young.”)

      I would venture to say that since you’ve discovered your purpose, there are sure to be even more “interesting” things ahead for you in your future.

  3. Thanks Rob, this is informative. I’d also note that in literary criticism he did less on drama than anything else. His mammoth 16th Century Poetry & Prose (OHEL) had “excluding drama) in the original title. Intuitively, though, I find the contrast of “narrative’ and “drama” a bit strange. Is there any drama that isn’t also narrative?

    1. Thanks, Brenton, for bringing up the title of Lewis’ OHEL volume. I had debated doing so. I didn’t realize they changed the title of the volume; my 1954 copy has the original title, of course. The new title is much better: Poetry and Prose in the Sixteenth Century.

      It’s interesting to note that only three of the dozen volumes had been published by that date, and there is an ironic note at the bottom of the list saying: “The titles of some volumes are provisional.” And this, directly opposite the “title” page.

      Lest anyone think that Lewis chose to ignore drama in his volume, that’s not the case. It was simply a proper separation of the drama for separate consideration.

      The dust jacket includes the explanation: “The exclusion of drama (reserved for treatment elsewhere) enables the author of this volume to present a fuller picture of literary development in the Sixteenth Century than would otherwise have been possible. Pains have been taken to prevent the concept of ‘the Renaissance’ from imposing a false unity on the complicated period.”

      As for your observation about drama and narrative… I had the same reaction when I read the letter. Something to look into in the future.

      1. Yes the new title is better, but I have the ’54 copy too. Yes, only 3 were out by then, and I think Lewis’ is the only one to reprint? I might be wrong.
        I actually have 4 other of the volumes, but haven’t read them. Post-PhD!

      2. I would definitely not be surprised to learn that Lewis’ volume is the only one that needed to be reprinted. Yes, Post-PhD reading… Something to look forward to!

  4. Hi Rob,

    This is a very timely post, as usual.
    This reminds me of being in Art class. There are so many styles that you can’t compare one artist to a other.

    I have been attempting to write in a number of genres. Short stories and poems, blog posts come easier. Though I have been working on a novel for a while. I enjoy it, but it definitely takes more work when it comes to editing, verb tense, and continuity. I have been spending more time on this project than any other and so ask if this is my genre or not.
    I think you made me process that idea much better. I guess the question is: How much time do you invest in something and should you do it or not?

    Have a Merry Christmas, brother.


    1. A blessed Advent and Christmas to you, as well.

      I see a genuine value in stretching ourselves when we write. That’s the primary reason I’ve toyed with poetry. I rarely read poetry, but I do appreciate certain types. And I love the “exercise” of writing it. I recall the first time I was introduced to the haiku. A young airman suggested that we try writing some, right there at our critiquing meeting. It proved quite fun. What I enjoyed was being able to create something genuinely artistic in such a brief time. (Much shorter than the epic poem that I began writing for my wife in tribute to our fortieth anniversary this summer.)

      Returning to your point… the amount of time involved relates directly to the payoff, in my mind. One must weigh the (1) intrinsic pleasure or pain, (2) immediate value, and (3) potential long-term benefit. We’ll calibrate that scale differently.

      For a young person I suggest aggressively exploring various genres. For those of us who likely have fewer days ahead, it seems sensible to me to invest those hours in the venues that have proven most profitable for us. (I’m not talking about financially profitable.)

      That said, like you, I’ve got many irons in the fire at the present time. That’s not become a problem yet, so I imagine it will continue for a while. The real transition will come now as one or two are emerging to require more attention, in preparation for possible publication. The residual work won’t disappear; it will simply move to side for a season.

  5. Pingback: C.S. Lewis from the mind of others | Not In This Soup Alone

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