Sunday, March 12, 2017

Fortnightly Book, March 12

It was assumed by many pious persons who approved the project that my object in writing The Man Born to be King was "to do good"--and indeed the same assumption was also made by impious persons who feared lest it might "do good" in the Christian sense, as well as by pious but disapproving persons who thought it could only do harm. But that was in fact not my object at all, though it was quite properly the object of those who commissioned the plays in the first place. My object was to tell that story to the best of my ability, within the medium at my disposal--in short, to make as good a work of art as I could. For a work of art that is not good and true in art is not good or true in any other respect, and is useless for any purpose whatsoever--even for edification--because it is a lie, and the devil is the father of all such.

In 1940, the Religious Broadcasting division of the BBC wrote Dorothy Sayers asking if she would be willing to write a series of radio plays on the life of Christ; she had written a nativity play for them a couple of years before that had been well received. Sayers agreed on three conditions: (1) Christ must be represented as a character; (2) the style must be realistic; and (3) the language must be modern. The BBC agreed, and that is quite to its credit as an act of courage, for all three conditions were highly controversial. Representing the Lord in a drama as a character was something that was just not done (indeed, at the time it was still illegal to do it on a physical stage in a theater); the realistic style was often seen as somewhat impious; and the general expectation was that the language for religious drama should be, or at least be based on, that of the King James Version. And Sayers's twelve plays in the cycle were, in fact, repeatedly criticized on all three grounds, and could not have possibly survived any of the three criticisms if they had not been radio plays -- radio plays need not have an immediate physical audience, and only work by voice, so there wasn't actually anyone playacting Jesus, except in the way a good preacher, for instance, might read His actual words from the pulpit, and the language could be pitched both as easier to understand on the radio and as translations directly from the Greek (which Sayers typically did), which might also be done by a preacher in the pulpit, as needed, even if they were not particularly common. But it still made people quite uncomfortable.

The original twelve plays in The Man Born to be King were distributed over nearly an entire year -- from December 1941 to October 1942, with the plays airing about four weeks apart. Because of this, the plays had to be dual-functioned, being hour-long episodes in a series but also able to be heard as stand-alone plays. This meant some rearranging and editing in order to fit the requirements of the medium, and also required a unity of theme and a single plot. The theme was handled by the contrast between temporal and spiritual kingdom, but the second was handled in an ingenious way: the plot is the story of Judas Iscariot, an intelligent man seeking a Kingdom worthy of his hopes and dreams, and his relation to the Man Born to be King. The portrayal of Judas was another element that was highly criticized in the plays -- people angrily wrote in that he was presented as noble, acting on worthy motives. But that, of course, was the point.

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