Magic by G.K. Chesterton

Magic was G.K. Chesterton's first play. When it appeared, his reputation had already been made: his occasionally ramshackle brilliance could illuminate essays (The Defendant), novels (The Napoleon of Notting Hill, The Man Who Was Thursday), criticism (Robert Browning, Charles Dickens), philosophy (Orthodoxy), detective stories (The Innocence of Father Brown), verse (The Ballad of the White Horse) ... and more.

It was Chesterton's literary sparring partner George Bernard Shaw who demanded that he write a play. A 1908 letter threatens: "I shall repeat my public challenge to you; vaunt my superiority; insult your corpulence; torture Belloc; if necessary, call on you and steal your wife's affections by intellectual and athletic displays, until you contribute something to the British drama." Shaw even issued Chesterton with a plot, about the horrified return of St.Augustine to the England he dimly remembered converting. Unfortunately this play was never written. The indirect result was Magic.

Shaw wanted "a religious harlequinade". Chesterton gave him a fantastic comedy with the simple force of a parable. The stagecraft is creaky, and some of the extravagantly rhetorical lines must have been hard to deliver without that between-the-teeth laugh used by actors to cope with Shakespeare's less inspired exit couplets ... but Magic still reads well and hits home with important truths.

To be Chestertonian, it's topical precisely because it has ceased to be topical. Can we believe today that the Conjurer's tiny miracle could come close to breaking a man's mind? We've met too many "miracles" in the rising tide of paranormal nonsense. The effect is unlikely to be an agonizing philosophical crisis: a more typical reaction might be, "Oh yes, I read in the newspaper about telepathic UFO poltergeists...."

Chesterton's official conversion to Catholicism didn't come until 1922, but his views were already clear. God doesn't muck around with paltry miracles like this or the dubious communications of Spiritualists. The Conjuror believes because he knows too much: his effects are demonic, and bad for the soul. Carleon's rigid scepticism is equally bad for him. And a totally open mind offers the worst of both worlds: the Duke is the sort of amiable moral relativist who, invited to choose between policies of mercy and genocide, would say, "Ah – the truth, as always, lies somewhere in the middle." In matters of ultimate truth, religion or no religion, we nowadays tend to sound rather too much like the Duke.

Mostly the play speaks for itself. There's just one obscure reference, to "Marconi": in June 1913, Chesterton's brother had been convicted of libel for outspokenness concerning Government ministers' suspect dealings in Marconi shares. The scars were still fresh when Magic was put on at the Little Theatre (London) in October 1913.

Chesterton wrote two more plays: the historical The Judgment of Dr Johnson (1927) and another parable, The Surprise (posthumously published, 1952; written circa 1930). Magic remains his best theatrical venture.