Gilbert Keith Chesterton last visited the United States in 1930, six years before his death.
The influential English essayist, poet and novelist comes to life, his wit and wisdom intact, in “An Evening With G.K. Chesterton” — thanks to the acting and impersonating abilities of Minnesota history professor John “Chuck” Chalberg.
Chalberg's traveling, one-man show kept a crowd thinking and chuckling for slightly under two hours recently in a stop at De Sales University in Allentown, Pa.
Entering in a disheveled Edwardian costume, tousled hair and enough padding to suggest a man who had indeed enjoyed many ‘a pipe, a pint and a prayer,’ Chalberg wasted no time putting the attentive audience in the virtual presence of Chesterton.
A practiced British accent and commanding pitch of voice, which Chalberg studied from rare, archived audio tape, made it easy to believe, for a moment, that this was not a mild-mannered community-college teacher from the Midwest, but the flamboyantly orthodox Catholic convert, apologist and author himself.
Then came the content. In the first act, Chesterton tells about his early life, punctuating each event with one of his trademark paradoxes:
“I have always loved limits, boundaries, and frames: Only in very small spaces can you comprehend very big ideas.”
“I'm proud of my religion because it is bounded in humility.”
“Joy is the gigantic secret of the Christian, and that joy comes from the doctrine of Original Sin.”
“A thing that is worth doing is worth doing badly.” This last remark had fans in the audience nodding and mouthing the familiar words along with the actor.
Bounding energetically from one broad theme to another, Chalberg covered all the topics Chesterton was best-known for. At various points he exalted family life, exposed feminism's flawed foundations, revered religious orthodoxy while disdaining innovation, and excoriated imperialism. He even rained praise on the notion of patriotism, as long as it is based on affection for one's home-land rather than a desire for power over other lands.
What came across most clearly was that this quaint literary figure from the past was rather controversial in his own time — and probably would be today, too. As he said, “I like getting into hot water — it keeps me clean.”
But this particular audience was too delighted to be offended as Mr. Chesterton paced the stage and held forth on issues still timely today. Of course, some were of more value for lending historic perspective than for providing cutting-edge insights to our own times.
E On women seeking careers outside the home: “A thousand women rose up and said, ‘We won't be dictated to’ — and promptly became stenographers.”
E On objective morality: “What is right is right even if no one is right about it; what is wrong is wrong even if everyone is wrong about it.” E On family life: “To be born into a family is the most romantic adventure of one's life. It's like climbing down the chimney of any house at random and trying to get along with the people inside.”
Chalberg developed his avocation of historic portrayals while teaching at Normandale Community College in Bloomington, Minn., where he still works today. The idea first suggested itself when he was assigned the college theater, rather than a classroom, to teach a survey course on American history.
Dressing and speaking as various historical characters proved a big hit with students and, before long, he was being asked to take his show on the road.
“I choose characters that are colorful, historically significant and easy to make myself resemble,” he explains.
His repertoire includes Theodore Roosevelt, H.L. Mencken and Branch Rickey, the Brooklyn Dodgers manager who hired Jackie Robinson.
The Chesterton impression came to the attention of television producers, who used Chalberg's talent in a series on the life of Chesterton, “The Apostle of Common Sense.” Hosted by Dale Ahlquist, president of the American Chesterton Society, the series has been airing on EWTN since last September.
Today a devout Catholic, Chalberg says that Chesterton's writings had a great impact on his faith. “I'd been a daily communicant right through grad school, but then, like many people around that age, I stupidly decided I didn't need that anymore,” he says. “Some years later, when I had already started coming back to the Church, I discovered Chesterton. It just went hand in glove with my return to the faith, and a deepening thereof.
“What most attracts me in his writings is his sense of humility before the world and before God, and the joy that results from that humility,” adds Chalberg. “That's what I really try to portray in my impression of him. It's almost become a calling, to keep alive what he had to say.”
And that includes Chesterton's thoughts on the search for truth: “I open my mind as I open my mouth: so I can shut it again, quickly, on something solid.”
Daria Sockey writes from Bethlehem, Pennsylvania.