Sunday, November 24, 2013

The Play’s not Necessarily the Thing

Between December 1941 and October 1942, the BBC aired a new cycle of twelve radio plays by Dorothy Sayers dramatizing the life of Jesus Christ. When publishing the scripts as a book, The Man Born to Be King, Sayers included with the plays a long introduction explaining her aims and defending her means, as well as fairly substantial introductions to the individual plays, mostly consisting of her notes to the director and actors. I enjoyed reading the book, but I’m not sure the introduction isn’t actually better than the plays.

The plays have little tripping points. To make coherent drama, for instance, Sayers couldn’t just let Nicodemus or Joseph of Arimathea show up at the right time to say the lines required of them by the Gospel narrative. Nicodemus was a member of the Sanhedrin, and Joseph may have been; in any case, he had high enough connections to march into Pilate’s court and request the body of the crucified Jesus. So Sayers has these men take part in Sanhedrin discussions, and to do this she has to decide their characters, even to the point of deciding the level of their devotion to Jesus. Nicodemus never quite commits in Sayers’s view, and Joseph backs off after the body he has buried disappears. I like these men better as the open-ended stubs of the Gospels, sockets I can plug myself into and imagine how (why did I start this metaphor?!) my circuits would run in their poistion. Sayers even rounds out Judas and gives him a definite reason for betraying his Rabbi. In short, while Sayers says she wanted simply to put the story “on stage” and let it speak for itself, she also admits that she had to fill out and shape the story, and that second process only worked so well for me. Soldiers, innkeepers, and party hosts who get names and lines help establish setting and atmosphere for the plays. Fleshed-out representations of particular people with known names, on the other hand, toss me out of the atmosphere and back into my world, where I’m thinking about the play rather than thinking along with it.

But Sayers received a lot of negative criticism for these plays, and I don’t mean to align myself with her detractors. Apparently, most of the Christians who objected at the time felt either that it was sacrilegious to portray Christ at all in a drama, or took offense at portraying Him and his contemporaries in language less lofty than that of King James’s translation. I don’t agree at all, and I’m sorry to some extent that the broadcasts drew this reaction. But maybe the criticism is what compelled Sayers to write her explanatory introduction, and for that I should be grateful. Sayers explains right away the sound theology of her decisions. The dramatic portrayal of Jesus displays his full humanity, his historical actuality. And giving Matthew, for instance, a Cockney brogue takes him out of the mythical space of stained-glass windows and gold-leaf illuminations and places him in the world he actually lived in: our world.

Sayers says that she wanted to restore the shocking nature of the story and to show her audience that God was murdered in the most routine way by people like ourselves. While for many listeners only the first goal was met, with me Sayers fulfilled her whole wish.

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