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Finally– Sayers and The Man Born to Be King


At the beginning of September, I finally finished The Man Born to Be King. It only took renewing it the maximum number of times (three), guiltily glancing at it lying by my comfy reading chair (unfinished), and getting a new job that has some downtime during the day (perfect reading time). Twelve plays (w/ individual introductory notes)+ (wonderful) introductory book material does take quite a bit of time to read, at least for non-skimming type reading. But I’m done.

Dorothy L. Sayers impresses me more each time I read her. For Inklings class we’d read the essay collection The Whimsical Christian (which I absolutely recommend) and The Nine Tailors, one of her Sir Peter Wimsey mysteries (my copy of which remains on my shelf–mostly unread–because that semester there were just bigger books to read AND the prof was having us watch the BBC video outside of class, other excuses ad infinitum). There is something unsatisfying about reading plays rather than watching/listening; at least some of the original radio plays are available on Youtube, and Sayers’ believable dialogue made me wish I had been listening instead of reading. However, my first exposure to this play cycle was the Covenant College Drama Association’s stage adaptation of plays eleven and twelve. These two cover the crucifixion and the resurrection of Jesus; though the stage dressing, costumes, and effects were minimal (as befit both the small budget of our college and the plays themselves), I wept through pretty much the entirety of that production. As a woman who professes to follow Christ, I cherish the “story” itself because it is the Truth that anchors my life’s center and rounds out its corners; two, dramatic retellings of the redemption story just kind of make me lose it. Even hints of it in a film or play will get to me (the same Drama Assoc.’s retelling of H. C. Anderson’s Little Mermaid with a family member sacrificing his powers for his daughter also had me wet-cheeked and wobbly-lipped).  Sayers didn’t help the waterworks matters much with her masterful filling-in-the-edges of the account of Christ’s death, with his mother’s and disciples’ sorrow given words–Mary watching her son die bravely and unable to help, John’s tender heart deadened in empathy with Christ’s pain, starting from watching Christ praying in the Garden of Gethsemane the night before. While I was moved only seeing that stage adaptation, I felt the culmination of events/choices/relationships so much more when I’d read the ten plays preceding the last two.

As best I could, I read the plays concurrently with reading the Gospel of Matthew. Sayers is no flighty dramatist–she carefully researched the cultural/political happenings in Judea and provided good explanations in her notes to her actors on how communicate these situations and societal issues. I was most impressed with Sayers’ blend of  the English Bible  and 1940’s British vernacular; she succeeded in rendering what the biblical characters said in contemporary speech without being unfaithful to the account. The Apostle Peter is as marvelously blustery as one would expect him to be–I thought Sayers’ handling of his three-fold denial of Christ was especially well done. It was strange at first to read Christ saying things like “Come on lads” but Sayers’s Christ felt more human than any fictional account of him I’ve read (this is not a bad thing). Throughout the plays, Sayers portrayed His disciples as honestly bewildered by Christ–something totally there in the Gospels if you read carefully–but trusting and willing to follow despite Christ’s sometimes cryptic words. After all, He was turning a whole paradigm on its head so the disciples were rightfully and understandably confused/boneheaded. I enjoyed the disciples’ interactions with each other and with Christ because reflected the divinity and humanity of Christ–there was the awe and respect of Him but also a brotherly hubbub among the disciples.

In full disclose– when I finished play ten, I put the book aside for a long time. I was afraid to read the last two plays. I’d been reading them during the slow time at work, but the plays (as do the Gospels) were leading–unswervingly– to Christ’s death. Sayers draws her foreshadowing from the Gospels themselves, but the newness of her dramatic depiction filled a dread of the crucifixion in my heart that I’d not experienced before. I didn’t want Christ to die because as the reader, I could see how his disciples were worrying for Him, how much they loved and would mourn for Him; yet I knew that Christ had to die in order to make the world whole again. I wondered (presumptuously) if that thought (“I don’t want this, but it must happen”) was along the same lines as Christ’s heart-thoughts when He prayed in the Garden of Gethsemane– about having the cup taken away from Him if it were possible, but affirming to the Father that He still would do what the Father willed. But He still went, obediently, faithfully (praise Him for His unfailing love!).

I did read them in the end. I wasn’t as emotional as I had been at the stage version, but there were still tears. Ah well. Sayers’ did what I haven’t experienced with many dramatists of biblical material–she is faithful to the original accounts without being cloying or super-preachy (imagine! a play about the Bible that isn’t beat-you-over-the-head-didactic. Really, it’s amazing. The teaching of Christ is still there–and the play cycle was commissioned to take place of Sunday school during WWII for bomb-bound Brits), emphasizing the story that is powerful all on its own. The Man Born to Be King is an excellent dramatization of Christ’s life and I heartily recommend it to anyone who might be interested.

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