Those familiar with the formidable Dorothy L Sayers’s Lord Peter Wimsey, the suave, multi-talented amateur sleuth of book and TV fame, might be surprised to know that Sayers pioneered the depiction of Jesus in dramatic form. Her 12-play radio cycle, The Man Born to be King, is 75 years old this December.
In 1941 the presumption of “personifying the godhead”, now taken almost for granted (for instance, in Jesus Christ Superstar), was something of an outrage. Some listeners complained that such blasphemies caused the fall of Singapore; others said that if the plays weren’t taken off the air the same fate would befall Australia. But the Lord Chamberlain had no objection provided no audience was present: without the visible impersonation by an actor of the Saviour, Sayers’s plays were safe.
The scripts today remain fresh and compelling. As a playwright, I admire Sayers’s skill in maintaining dramatic momentum over such a length, and with such a variety of characters. The key to how she does this is to be found in her masterwork of creative analysis, The Mind of the Maker, the most challenging explanation of creative inspiration in this secular age I have read. It identifies the Trinity of Father, Son and Holy Spirit with the three stages of creation: the conception or idea; the energy; and the power over (or awareness of) the audience.
Much of the dynamic of her very human Christ comes from his consciousness of Judas, and his awareness of Judas’s intent to betray him, while he makes a last attempt to save Judas from himself. Judas and Jesus play a grim game of move and counter-move to find out each other’s position.
This innovative and original portrayal of Judas as the most intelligent of the disciples shows him as a person of the utmost nobility. He, too, provoked angry responses, for he has the greatest possibility for good of all the disciples; and, as Sayers describes him, “the worst evil in the world is brought about not by the open and self-confessed vices, but by the deadly corruption of the proud virtues. Pride is the head and front of all sin, and the besetting sin of highly virtuous and intelligent people.”
To bring the theology alive, she hit upon the right common touch, something that evaded Benedict XVI in his three-volume Jesus of Nazareth. To take one significant moment to compare them, Benedict took the liberty of transferring the synoptic details missing from John’s Gospel, including the Jewish trial, to the day before Passover. “It clashes with the reference that Jesus and his party had sung the halleluiah psalms, ‘the hymn’ concluding the Passover dinner before they departed to Gethsemane,” one critic complained.
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