“The most monstrous of all monsters are marching across your stage, shaking the earth like dragons and chimeras; the most towering, the most terrible creatures that life ever let loose upon chaos. Stand back—stand out of their way. They are living men.”
G.K. Chesterton wrote extensively on the subjects of creativity, imagination, and art, and did so as an accomplished artist in his own right. During his distinguished career, he produced an impressive body of poetry, sketches, novels, short stories, essays, and even a few works of drama. Chesterton’s keen insight is that man, unlike the brute, beholds the world he inhabits with wonder and celebrates that wonder through artistic creation. The goal of good art is to awaken the beholder to the “white light of wonder”—a light that reveals the truth of things.
Chesterton wrote nine complete plays and left behind fragments of two more. The Surprise, which was published posthumously, is quintessential of his aesthetic philosophy—that art should be both thoroughly enjoyable and expressive of truth. This charming romp of a play is laced with rich humor, praise of good wine, and subtle theological statements, yet it is cleverly choreographed to convey much deeper truths about creation, God, man, and free will. It has been said that Chesterton “tended to be least solemn when he was most serious.” The Surprise is an excellent demonstration of this fact.
The first act of The Surprise introduces a Franciscan friar who, walking through the countryside, happens upon a playwright travelling by caravan with a collection of automaton puppets. The playwright, who refers to himself as the “Master Puppet-Maker of the World,” entreats the friar to watch a play he has written, one that involves a happy world in which the creatures all “behave with majesty and magnanimity” and where virtue always prevails. It turns out that the playwright considers his play a confession of sorts, and wishes the friar to hear it. “We poets never tell the truth,” he explains, “except when we tell it in fables…these clockwork dolls will tell you the truth about me.” The short play-within-a-play turns out to be a melodramatic romance devoid of conflict or villainy.
At the conclusion of his play, the playwright explains to the friar that what he really wants is for the people of his plays to really exist—by which he means possess free will and thus be truly alive. “I want them to be and not to do. I want them to exist,” pleads the playwright. The implication of his statement is that without free will, humans would not exist as such; they would be mere clockwork dolls on a stage. By some miracle, the playwright’s wish comes true and the puppets come to life, but the friar warns that “the most monstrous of all monsters are marching across your stage, shaking the earth like dragons and chimeras; the most towering, the most terrible creatures that life ever let loose upon chaos. Stand back—stand out of their way. They are living men.”
After this turning point, the play-within-a-play begins anew, with the plot proceeding in similar fashion right up to the climax. Chesterton cleverly interweaves one of the key themes of the work: the element of surprise making a good thing even better. The characters begin degenerating, speaking hatefully to one another, and two of them wind up in a violent duel of swords. Free will, it seems, has caused utter disaster.
Suddenly, the playwright’s head bursts through the top of the set and he shouts down to the stage, “And in the devil’s name, what do you think you are doing with my play? Drop it! Stop! I am coming down.” Thus, with whimsical levity, Chesterton conveys fundamental truths about man’s orientation to the Creator, human fallen-ness, and the grand, wonderful surprise of the Creator’s incarnation—a saving intervention on a cosmic scale. The Surprise harmonizes well with Chesterton’s words in Orthodoxy: “According to most philosophers, God in making the world enslaved it. According to Christianity, in making it, He set it free. God had written, not so much a poem, but rather a play; a play he had planned as perfect, but which had necessarily been left to human actors and stage-managers, who had since made a great mess of it.”
 Chesterton, Collected Works Vol. XI, 297.
Melissa Cain Travis serves as Assistant Professor of Apologetics at Houston Baptist University. She is the author of Science and the Mind of the Maker (forthcoming, Harvest House 2018) and the Young Defenders series (Apologia Press). She is a writer for Christian Research Journal and blogs at melissatravis.com.