Luca Fumagalli

Msgr. Robert Hugh Benson, one of the most popular English writers at the beginning of the twentieth century, published four theatrical texts during his short but prolific career.

Benson’s passion for the stage emerged in his youth, during his time at school and university. In addition to writing scripts that he gave his friends, he loved improvising amusing sketches. He also covered important roles such as that of a chorus member in a tragedy by Euripides. After ordination to the priesthood he began to organise theatrical performances for the children of his parish in Cambridge: the scenes and the costumes were so perfect that his group came to enjoy a measure of celebrity. The performances, always well attended, were given in large houses; and the spectators came from all the neighboring counties, some even from London.

For Christmas of 1905, Canon Scott used the talents of his coadjutor for the benefit of the community, involving Benson in a theatrical project aimed at the teenagers of the Convent of St. Mary. The final outcome was the staging of a well-received play about the birth of Christ, complete with costumes and sets. A Mystery Play in Honor of the Nativity of Our Lord was published later, in 1908.

Among the most avid readers of Benson’s novels was the elderly Bishop of Hexham and Newcastle, Thomas William Wilkinson, a convert of Newman’s times. Wilkinson, President of the Ushaw College – the largest Catholic seminar in England – urged Benson to write a theatrical work to celebrate the centenary of the foundation of the institute: the result was The Cost of a Crown (published in 1910). Presented at Ushaw in July 1908, the play included music by W. Sewell, sub-organist of Westminster Cathedral, and dealt with the life of John Boste, a 16th-century priest and martyr. The play, despite the great time gap between the acts, was welcomed by the public of the seminar, charmed by the fascinating setting.

A few years later, on the occasion of Easter 1914, before his last trip to America ended, Benson staged The Maid of Orleans, focused on the life of Saint Joan of Arc. The text – which was published in 1911 – turned out to be difficult to represent, at various points not convincing.

The last play written by Benson, The Upper Room, was published posthumously in November 1914. It is a simple allegory of the sacrifice of Christ, a parallelism between the Last Supper and the Crucifixion on Golgotha.

Throughout his life, Benson tried in vain to have parts of his most famous novels presented on stage: this is an additional indication that the best of his output lies elsewhere, particularly in his novels. Nevertheless, the Bensonian dramaturgy is not entirely worthless, indeed, some scenes manifest brilliant intuitions, incisive dialogues and an engaging atmosphere. They are therefore works that continue to merit attention, particularly suitable for the catechesis of the little ones.