The Man Who Was Thursday  

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The Man Who Was Thursday: A Nightmare is a novel by G. K. Chesterton, first published in 1908. The book is sometimes referred to as a metaphysical thriller.


Plot summary

In Edwardian era London, Gabriel Syme is recruited at Scotland Yard to a secret anti-anarchist police corps. Lucian Gregory, an anarchistic poet, lives in the suburb of Saffron Park. Syme meets him at a party and they debate the meaning of poetry. Gregory argues that revolt is the basis of poetry. Syme demurs, insisting that the essence of poetry is not revolution, but rather law. He antagonizes Gregory by asserting that the most poetical of human creations is the timetable for the London Underground. He suggests that Gregory isn't really serious about his anarchism. This so irritates Gregory that he takes Syme to an underground anarchist meeting place, revealing that his public endorsement of anarchy is a ruse to make him seem harmless, when in fact he is an influential member of the local chapter of the European anarchist council. The central council consists of seven men, each using the name of a day of the week as a code name, and the position of Thursday is about to be elected by Gregory's local chapter. Gregory expects to win the election, but just before the election Syme reveals to Gregory after an oath of secrecy that he is a secret policeman. Fearful Syme may use his speech in evidence of a prosecution, Gregory's weakened words fail to convince the local chapter that he is sufficiently dangerous for the job. Syme makes a rousing anarchist speech and wins the vote. He is sent immediately as the chapter's delegate to the central council.

In his efforts to thwart the council's intentions, however, Syme discovers that five of the other six members are also undercover detectives; each was employed just as mysteriously and assigned to defeat the Council. They all soon find out that they were fighting each other and not real anarchists; such was the mastermind plan of their president Sunday. In a surreal conclusion, Sunday himself is unmasked as only seeming to be terrible; in fact, he is a force of good like the detectives. However, he is unable to give an answer to the question of why he caused so much trouble and pain for the detectives. Gregory, the only real anarchist, seems to challenge the good council. His accusation is that they, as rulers, have never suffered like Gregory and their other subjects, and so their power is illegitimate. However, Syme is able to refute this accusation immediately because of the terrors inflicted by Sunday on the rest of the council. The dream ends when Sunday himself is asked if he has ever suffered. His last words, "can ye drink of the cup that I drink of?", is the question that Jesus asks St. James and St. John in the Gospel of Mark, chapter 10, vs 38–39, to challenge their commitment in becoming his disciples.


Like most of Chesterton's fiction, the story includes some Christian allegory. Chesterton, a Christian by this time (he joined the Roman Catholic Church about 15 years later), suffered from a brief bout of depression during his college days, and claimed afterwards that he wrote this book as an unusual affirmation that goodness and right were at the heart of every aspect of the world.

The costumes that the detectives don towards the end of the book represent what was created on their respective day. Sunday, "the sabbath" and "the peace of God", sits upon a throne in front of them. The name of the girl Syme likes, Rosamond, is derived from "Rosa Mundi", meaning "Rose of the World" in Latin, and a title given to Christ.

The Man Who Was Thursday inspired the Irish Republican politician Michael Collins with the idea "if you didn't seem to be hiding nobody hunted you out."


Martin Gardner edited The Annotated Thursday, which provides a great deal of biographical and contextual information in the form of footnotes, along with the entire text of the book, original reviews from the time of the book's first publication, and comments made by Chesterton on the book at various times. A less thorough annotation was done for the edition of the novel published as part of The Collected Works of G. K. Chesterton.


Mercury Theatre adaptation

On September 5, 1938 the Mercury Theatre on the Air staged an abridged radio-play adaptation written by Orson Welles, who was a great admirer of Chesterton. This was almost two months before the more infamous War of the Worlds broadcast.

The adaptation omits some of the metaphysical and theological discussions and treats much of the whimsical and comedic asides more seriously. Almost all of Chapter 14: The Six Philosophers is left out, in which the greater part of the metaphysical speculation is found.

APJAC Productions musical adaptation

It was reported during January 1967 that Jerome Hellman and Arthur P. Jacobs' APJAC Productions were preparing movie projects including a Leslie Bricusse musical adaptation of Chesterton's novel. The planned movie remained unfilmed, however.

BBC radio adaptations

There have been at least two adaptations broadcast by BBC radio over the years.

During 1986 the BBC broadcast a 4 part series dramatised by Peter Buckman and directed by Glyn Dearman. It featured Michael Hadley as Thursday/Gabriel Syme, Natasha Pyne as Rosamond and Edward de Souza as Wednesday/The Marquis de St. Eustache. The episodes were named:

  1. The Secret of Gabriel Syme
  2. The Man in Spectacles
  3. The Earth in Anarchy
  4. The Pursuit of the President

During 2005 the BBC broadcast the novel as read by Geoffrey Palmer, as 13 half hour parts. It has been re-broadcast several times since then, including during 2008 (one hundred years after first publication). The episodes were named:

  1. The Unusual Soirée
  2. The Anarchists' Council
  3. The Tale of a Detective
  4. The Feast of Fear
  5. The Exposure
  6. The Unaccountable Conduct of Professor de Worms
  7. The Man in Spectacles
  8. The Duel
  9. The Criminals Chase the Police
  10. The Earth in Anarchy
  11. The Pursuit of the President
  12. The Six Philosophers
  13. The Accuser

Unless indicated otherwise, the text in this article is either based on Wikipedia article "The Man Who Was Thursday" or another language Wikipedia page thereof used under the terms of the GNU Free Documentation License; or on research by Jahsonic and friends. See Art and Popular Culture's copyright notice.

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