By William Lyon Phelps
It is rather a pity that the Devil has vanished with Santa Claus and other delectable myths; the universe is more theatrical with a "personal devil" roaming at large, seeking whom he may devour. In the book of Job the Devil played the part of the return of the native, coming along in the best society in the cosmos to appear before the Presence. And when he was asked where he came from, he replied in a devilishly debonair manner, "From going to and fro in the earth, and from walking up and down in it."
There are so many things in this world that seem to be the Devil's handiwork, and there are so many people who look like the devil, that it seems as if he could not be extinct. His chief service to the universal scene was to keep virtue from becoming monotonous; to warn even saints that they must mind their step; to prove that eternal vigilance is the price of safety. The Enemy of Mankind never took a holiday. Homer might nod, but not he. In fact, on human holidays he was, if possible, unusually efficient. The idleness of man was the opportunity of Satan.
The principle of evil is so active, so tireless, so penetrating that the simplest way to account for it is to suppose that men and things receive constantly the personal attention of the Devil. Weeds, and not vegetables, grow naturally; illness, not health, is contagious; children and day-labourers are not instinctively industrious; champagne tastes better than cocoa.
Throughout the Middle Ages, although every one believed steadfastly in the reality of the Devil and that he was the most unscrupulous of all foes, there was a certain friendliness with him, born, I suppose, of daily intimacy. It was like the way in which hostile sentries will hobnob with one another, swap tobacco, etc., in the less tense moments of war. The Devil was always just around the corner and would be glad of an invitation to drop in.
Thus in the mediaeval mystery plays, the forerunners of our modern theatres, the Devil was always the Clown. He supplied "comic relief" and was usually the most popular personage in the performance. He appeared in the conventional makeup, a horrible mask, horns, cloven hoofs and prehensile tail, with smoke issuing from mouth, ears and posterior. He did all kinds of acrobatic feats, and his appearance was greeted with shouts of joy. In front of that part of the stage representing Hellmouth he was sometimes accompanied with "damned souls," persons wearing black tights with yellow stripes. On an examination at Yale I set the question, "Describe the costume of the characters in the mystery plays." One of the students wrote: "The damned souls wore Princeton colours."
The modern circus clown comes straight from the Devil. When you see him stumble and fall all over himself, whirl his cap aloft and catch it on his head, distract the attention of the spectators away from the gymnasts to his own antics, he is doing exactly what his ancestor the Devil did in the mediaeval plays.
It is at first thought singular that those audiences, who believed implicity in a literal hell of burning flame, should have taken the Devil as the chief comic character. I suppose the only way to account for this is to remember how essential a feature of romantic art is the element of the grotesque, which is a mingling of horror and humour, like our modern spook plays. If you pretend that you are a hobgoblin and chase a child, the child will flee in real terror, but the moment you stop, the child will say, "Do that again."
There are many legends of compacts with the Devil, where some individual has sold his soul to gain the whole world. The most famous of these stories is, of course, Faust, but there are innumerable others. Here is a story I read in an American magazine some fifty years ago.
A man, threatened with financial ruin, was sitting in his library when the maid brought in a visiting card and announced that a gentleman would like to be admitted. On the card was engraved Mr. Apollo Lyon.
As the man looked at it his eyes blurred, the two words ran together, so they seemed to form the one word Apollyon.
The gentleman was shown in; he was exquisitely dressed and was evidently a suave man of the world. He proposed that the one receiving him should have prosperity and happiness for twenty years. Then Mr. Lyon would call again and be asked three questions. If he failed to answer any of the three the man should keep his wealth and prosperity. If all three were correctly answered the man must accompany Mr. Lyon.
The terms were accepted; all went well for twenty years. At the appointed time appeared Mr. Lyon, who had not aged in the least; he was the same smiling, polished gentleman. He was asked a question that had floored all the theologians. Mr. Lyon answered it without hesitation. The second question had stumped all the philosophers, but it had no difficulties for Mr. Lyon.
Then there was a pause, and the sweat stood out on the questioner's face. At that moment his wife came in from shopping. She was rosy and cheerful. After being introduced to Mr. Lyon she noticed her husband was nervous. He denied this, but said that he and Mr. Lyon were playing a little game of three questions and he did not want to lose. She asked permission to put the third question and in desperation her husband consented. She held out her new hat and asked: "Mr. Lyon, which is the front end of this hat?" Mr. Lyon turned it around and around, and then with a strange exclamation went straight through the ceiling, leaving behind him a strong smell of sulphur.