Sunday, March 26, 2017

Dorothy L. Sayers, The Man Born to Be King


Opening Passage: From "Kings in Judea":

THE EVANGELIST: The beginning of the Gospel of Jesus Christ, the Son of God...Now, when Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judea in the days of Herod the King, behold there came wise men from the east to Jerusalem....

(the rattle of dice and the sound of a lute)

EPHRAIM: Four, six, two....Oh, stop strumming, you idle monkey!...Your throw, Captain.

PROCLUS (throwing dice): Five, three, six.

EPHRAIM: You win, Proclus....What was all that noise in the street last night? Right under the palace windows--disgraceful!

PROCLUS: A bunch of fools who'd got hold of some rumour or other. (p. 48)

Summary: The Man Born to be King consists of twelve plays, initially presented about a month apart:

(1) "Kings in Judea": King Caspar of Chaldea, King Melchior of Pamphylia, and King Balthazar of Ethiopia come to King Herod the Great to congratulate him on this newborn heir, whose birth they have seen in the stars, the scion of the House of Judea who shall rule in Rome as priest and king. The paranoid Herod, whose position is as a client-king of Rome who replaced the priest-king dynasty of the Hasmoneans, sends them off quickly but, taking their prophecy seriously, takes thought for how he will deal with this threat.

(2) "The King's Herald": A man named John is preaching repentance in the wilderness and baptizing in the River Jordan, along with a number of his disciples, including Judas Iscariot, Simon and Andrew the sons of Jonah, and John and James the sons of Zebedee. John baptizes his cousin, who makes an impression on several of John's disciples; He tells them to seek Him out when John no longer has need of them.

(3) "A Certain Nobleman": Mary is helping at the wedding of a close friend and her son, Jesus, arrives with several of his friends, Philip, Nathanael, Andrew, Simon, James, and John, thus increasing the number of guests beyond what had originally been planned. They run out of wine, but Jesus turns water into wine. Later, one of the guests at the wedding, named Benjamin, learns that his son has been dying; he sends for Jesus, who has been causing a scandal by driving the moneychangers out of the Temple with a whip. Jesus heals the son with a word.

(4) "The Heirs to the Kingdom": Jesus picks up two new disciples, Matthew and Judas Iscariot, as his healing ministry begins to worry the priests. The High Priest Caiaphas, a political schemer whose position is due to Rome's influence, begins to develop a plan to play the Jesus movement and the Roman government against each other; a Zealot named Baruch happens to know a man in Jesus' retinue, because they had discussed nationalist issues before. The man will see through any crude attempt at corruption, but he may nonetheless serve their purposes; his name is Judas.

(5) "The Bread of Heaven": Jesus sends his disciples out with the power to heal and cast out demons; Philip is exhausted from having done so, and Judas, who has only been preaching, is jealous. They stay at the house of Baruch, and Judas and Baruch discuss the possibility that Jesus is the Messiah who will save Israel from oppression. But to do so against the might of Rome requires a popular uprising -- which Baruch can provide. Baruch raises a worry: so many purported saviors and prophets turn out to be corrupt; Jesus seems incorruptible, but what if he is not? Judas refuses to have anything to do with Baruch's plans, but Baruch's suggestion eats at him. Jesus' miracle of feeding the crowd increases his popularity, but his claims that he is the bread of life and people must devour him turn many off; Simon receives the name of Peter.

(6) "The Feast of Tabernacles": The Feast of Tabernacles approaches and Jesus declines to go up to Jerusalem with his family. Claudia, the wife of the Roman governor, hears about a remarkable Jewish prophet from her Syro-Phoenician handmaiden. Jesus takes Simon Peter, James, and John to the top of a mountain and shows them his splendor. A Zealot named Barabbas is captured by the Romans, and Caiaphas sends guards to arrest Jesus when he finally comes to Jerusalem and begins preaching in the Temple; the guards, however, refuse. Caiaphas, not trusting Baruch, makes direct contact with Judas, who assures the Jewish leaders that Jesus' kingdom is not political but spiritual. When Caiaphas suggests that even noble men may become corrupted, Judas insists that Jesus will not, and Caiaphas sees how he can use him: "People with ideas are always jealous of their leaders" (p. 176).

(7) "The Light and the Life": Jesus is staying at the house of his friends, Mary, Martha, and Lazarus when the disciples come to tell him that there is trouble brewing over a blind man who had been healed by Jesus -- the local elders are excommunicating him from the synagogue. Jesus increases the tensions by claiming that God is His Father and He and His Father are one. Matthew, who knows money despite having given it up, has reason to believe that Judas is using his role as treasurer to embezzle from their common purse, but has no proof. Judas is getting frustrated with his inability to get straight answers from Jesus. Jesus and his disciples learn that Lazarus has died; Jesus returns and raises him from the dead. Caiaphas has to maneuver Nicodemus and Joseph of Arimathea, who are Jesus sympathizers, into not interfering with his plans.

(8) "Royal Progress": Baruch sends a message to Jesus warning him that the priests and Pharisees are scheming to turn him over to Rome, and asks for a sign of Jesus' intentions: Baruch has prepared a war horse and an ass's colt for Jesus' entry into Jerusalem, and if Jesus rides into Jerusalem on the war horse, he will have all of Baruch's men in support of him. Jesus sends back saying that Baruch will have his sign, and Judas learns of it in a garbled form suggesting that Jesus will take Baruch up on his offer. Jesus enters Jerusalem on the ass's colt and crowds hail him as king. The Jewish leaders hire hecklers to try to trap Jesus, but he is too witty for them. Judas comes to Caiaphas in anger at Jesus' hypocrisy and the fact that the less intelligent disciples are more in Jesus' confidence than Judas is. We learn that Judas has been using the disciples' funds to spy on Baruch; Caiaphas promises to pay him thirty pieces of silver for his help.

(9) "The King's Supper": Jesus and his disciples celebrate the Passover feast. In private discussion, Judas realizes that Jesus suspects him, and he goes to Caiaphas urging speed. At supper, Jesus says many baffling things, but the disciples are still exultant after the triumphal entry into Jerusalem. Jesus is arrested in the Garden of Gethsemane.

(10) "The Princes of this World": Jesus becomes part of a complicated political game between Caiaphas and the Roman governor Pilate. Jesus is examined by Annas, the High Priest Emeritus who was removed by Rome and replaced by Caiaphas. Peter denies Jesus. Judas learns from Baruch that Jesus refused Baruch's offer and that Caiaphas has been manipulating him. Jesus is tried by the Sanhedrim, and Caiaphas manipulates the situation to guarantee a conviction despite the fact that the hurried nature of the situation makes it difficult to get the witnesses required by Law. Judas confronts Caiaphas, who pays him and dismisses him; Judas refuses the money and flees in shame. The Jewish leaders bring Jesus to Pilate to get ratification of the death penalty for him; Pilate sends Jesus to Herod on the jurisdictional technicality that he is actually a Galilean from Nazareth; Herod, discovering that Jesus was actually born in Bethlehem, sends him back. Pilate tries to save Jesus by using the custom of releasing a prisoner for the Feast, but the crowd, which has gathered to support Barabbas, forces his hand, especially when Caiaphas claims that if Pilate does not comply it will be regarded as a refusal to uphold the authority of Caesar against a man claiming to be king. Pilate washes his hands of the matter and in petty retaliation for being outmaneuvered commands that Jesus' cross be labeled, "The King of the Jews".

(11) "King of Sorrows": Jesus is led out to be crucified between two thieves. Caiaphas insists to Nicodemus and Joseph of Arimathea that his way is the only way to save the Jewish people from the heavy hand of the Empire. Claudia has a dream in which a great voice cries, "Great Pan is dead", and in which Pilate is remembered forever for the shame of having crucified a god. The Centurion Proclus and Balthazar of Ethiopia, whose paths had crossed before in the court of King Herod the Great, meet once more beneath the foot of the cross. Caiaphas has guards set on Jesus' tomb.

(12) "The King Comes to His Own": The disciples are scattered in fear and sorrow, but the women must still tend to the body. They discover that the body is gone and meet Angels. Peter and John confirm that the body is gone, and Mary Magdalen meets Jesus. Joseph of Arimathea is accused in the Sanhedrim of having aided the disciples in stealing Jesus' body; Nicodemus has a public breakdown over the events. Caiaphas realizes that he must arrest Jesus' disciples in order to prevent them from spreading claims that Jesus has risen from the dead. Cleophas and Mary Cleophas come to the disciples with a story of having met Jesus on the road to Emmaus. As Claudia and Pilate leave the city, Claudia hears gossip that people are claiming Jesus rose from the dead. Jesus proves to Thomas that he is real, and Thomas replies: "You are my Lord and my God" (p. 340). Jesus and Peter speak and Peter is forgiven, and Jesus ascends into heaven.

There are many specific choices that have to be made in a cycle like this, and there are many things that can be done in different ways, but the choices Sayers makes contributes to an excellent story. Two things in particular are outstanding. The first is her portrayal of the political scheming of Caiaphas, which I think partly comes out in the summary above. He has to outmaneuver the Zealots, and he has to outmaneuver Rome. He has to outwit Pilate, who has every reason to be noncooperative, and he has to outmaneuver his opponents in the Sanhedrim, some of whom sympathize with Jesus and some of whom, while not sympathizing with Jesus, would be more than happy to see Caiaphas fall on his face, and what is more, he has to do so on a point of Law in a room full of rabbis on the spur of the moment. And all of his maneuvering is successful, but it all comes to nothing in the end.

The second is the portrayal of Judas Iscariot, the only disciple who actually understands the truth that Jesus' kingdom cannot be political, and who is destroyed by not recognizing the limits of his understanding. He is an intellectual idealist, as Sayers says at one point, and, like so many intellectuals and academics who spend their lives in a world of highminded ideas, has difficulty distinguishing between his ideal of something and the way it really ought to be, and ends up devoting everything to the former rather than the latter. She also does very well at portraying his frustration that his intelligence is not getting him special consideration, and his devastation at the discovery that he was all the time just a pawn in the games of far more practically competent schemers, and not the brilliant strategist he had convinced himself he was. It is an extraordinary depiction of the corruption and self-destruction of an intellectual.

Favorite Passage: This passage, shortly after the Triumphal Entry and just before the Passover supper, captures perfectly the complete cluelessness of the disciples about what is about to smash into them broadside:

JESUS: The Kingdom is very near.

MATTHEW: And 'ere we sit, a-tasting of it, in a manner of speaking, beforehand. There sits the Master, like it might be in his royal palace, with his counsellors about him--John one side and Judas the other--between the 'eart and brains of the undertaking, as you might say.

JUDAS (unpleasantly): I am glad to learn what is John's official capacity.

ANDREW: My brother had a position given him too. Hadn't you? And a title.

PETER: That'll do, Andrew.

JAMES: Keeper of the Keys, wasn't it?

ANDREW: There you are! Judge of the Supreme Court.

JUDAS: It sounds more like the Head Gaoler.

ANDERW: Judas, that's rude....No, Peter was to be the foundation-stone of the Church.

NATHANAEL: High Priest then.

JAMES (slightly shocked): Oh, but he's not of a priestly house. Now our father Zebedee--

PHILIP: Of course, James, of course. All right--John shall be High Priest and Judas the Lord Treasurer.

MATTHEW: Don't I get anything? I've been a government official. A bad job, and a dashed bad government--still, experience counts for something.

THOMAS: Are all the appointments going to you people at the head of the table?

JUDE: That's right, Thomas. How about you and me and Simon here?
(pp. 244-245)

Recommendation: Sayers does excellent work in fulfilling her goal of telling that story; Highly Recommended.


Dorothy L. Sayers, The Man Born to be King. Gollancz (London: 1969).

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