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Lenten reading: Dorothy Sayers’s The Man Born to be King — Guest Post by Kathryn Wehr

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Editor’s note: Kathryn Wehr is currently working on a PhD on The Man Born to be King at the University of St. Andrews in Scotland.


This past fall, I had the pleasure of leading the Dorothy L. Sayers reading group, where we read her twelve-part play cycle on the life of Christ, The Man Born to be King. Each week we would read one of the plays aloud, each taking different parts, and then we had two sharing nights—in November (at the MacLaurin CSF Study Center) and January (at Church of the Cross)—where we read one of the plays and led a discussion about the ideas they raised. These were exciting events for everyone involved and hopefully they will stir up more creative ways for reading groups to share what they have been discussing.

Of those who attended, only a few had read The Man Born to be King before, though some had read some of Sayers’s other work. She was a contemporary and friend of both C.S. Lewis and Charles Williams, so she is often studied with the Inklings. She wrote within a wide variety of genres so people who have known her through one are often surprised to hear of her others: poetry, mystery novels, secular and religious plays, newspaper articles and speeches related to work, education, the arts and Christian faith, translations of French Medieval poetry, and work related to Dante’s Divine Comedy.

For those unfamiliar with Sayers, I will draw a short biographical sketch: Dorothy L. Sayers lived from 1893 to 1957. She was the daughter of an Anglo-Catholic clergyman, had a marked aptitude for languages from an early age and studied Modern Languages at Sommerville College, Oxford. She left Sommerville in 1915, although women were not actually granted Oxford degrees until 1920, when Sayers was one of the first women to return and claim hers. She was highly gifted and creative, a very loyal and entertaining friend, but also a formidable adversary who was not afraid of a good debate about ideas either in person, in the papers or by letter.

Sayers supported her early writing career by working for the publisher Blackwell’s and later at Benson’s Advertising Agency, where she was personally involved in the famous “Guinness is Good for You” campaign. She started off her writing career with two books of poetry and quickly turned to a new popular genre—the detective novel—and during the 1920s and 30s wrote 14 Lord Peter Wimsey mysteries and a number of other short stories. Throughout these novels you can see Sayers’s growing maturity both in style and theme, and toward the end of this period she used her mysteries to explore themes of the importance of vocation, women’s higher education, and the possibility of love and marriage between men and women as equals.

Sayers' London flat

Sayer’s London flat

 

By the late 30s she moved into drama and began writing a number of plays, particularly religious plays for festivals at various cathedrals. Throughout the late 30s to mid 40s she also began writing essays and giving lectures on theological, educational, and work-related topics and became someone the media often turned to for a “sound bite” on the popular issues of the day. It is said that during their lifetimes Sayers was more well-known than her friend C.S. Lewis.

In 1943, Sayers read Charles Williams’s book on Dante, The Figure of Beatrice and it changed the whole course of her life. It caused her to first want to read Dante’s Divine Comedy in the original language and then eventually to publish her own translation that sought to keep the Italian rhyme-scheme. Her essays and introductory notes on Dante are still particularly prized. This work took the rest of her life and she died in 1957 with the Paradiso, the third volume in Dante’s three-part poem, unfinished. The last cantos were completed by her friend Barbara Reynolds, a Cambridge lecturer of Italian literature.

The Man Born to Be King is the collective name for a set of 12 plays on the life of Christ, which were first broadcast over the course of ten months from December 1941 to October 1942. They were meant to be heard and it is moving to imagine a war-time audience turning up the radio for these plays, perhaps just after the news bulletin about fighting at the front.

One of Sayers’s main concerns in writing was to help these same everyday people—who were caught up once again in a World War—to see how the people of first century Palestine were people just like them. They weren’t just characters in a book or frozen in stained glass in a church window, these were in fact REAL people who saw the situation from their own limited viewpoint and interests. She writes,

God was executed by people painfully likes us, in a society very similar to our own—in the over-ripeness of the most splendid and sophisticated Empire the world has ever seen. In a nation famous for its religious genius and under a government renowned for its efficiency, He was executed by a corrupt church, a timid politician and a fickle proletariat led by professional agitators. His executioners made vulgar jokes about him, called him filthy names, smacked him in the face, flogged Him with the cat, and hanged Him on a common gibbet—a bloody, dusty, sweaty and sordid business. (from Sayers’s introduction to the plays)

Sayers particularly puzzled over the portrayal of Judas. She was one of the first playwrights to take a psychological approach to his character, as compared to the conniving villain of traditional English mystery plays. Others, like Herod, Mary, John the Baptist, and John the Beloved Disciple, are especially well-rounded and help us see the familiar stories afresh. Jesus himself is vividly shown as both human and divine—a Messiah whose Kingdom is coming not in the military conquest others expected, but through the everyday actions of those brave enough to “love and be ruled by love.”

When the series was first announced, several conservative Christian groups protested the “blasphemy” of portraying Christ on the radio at all, especially a production where characters were to speak everyday English not based on the Authorized King James Version, since Sayers freely did her own translation from the Greek New Testament. In fact, the storm was so severe that a question was even raised in Parliament. Having worked in advertising, however, Sayers knew that such a storm actually went a long way to securing her plays a much larger listenership. And once the plays were on the air, people loved them. Among her biggest fans was C.S. Lewis, who, years later, said that he re-read the plays every year during Holy Week. Maybe you would like to do the same this year.


Editor’s note: If you’re intersted in reading The Man Born to Be King, it’s now back in print through Classical Academy Press. Order it here.

To learn more about Sayers, her work, and The Man Born to be King, Kathryn recommends the following resources:

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