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Holy writ — the David Edgar version

19 October 2011

David Edgar’s latest play for the Royal Shakespeare Company tackles the story of the creation of the King James Bible. Rachel Boulding asks him why

“YOU wait 400 years for a play about Lancelot Andrewes, and then two come along at once,” David Edgar says. It is his “gallows-humour quip” on any danger of overlap between his new play for the Royal Shakespeare Com­pany (RSC) about the King James Version and that of his friend Howard Brenton.

Brenton was commissioned by the Shakespeare’s Globe theatre, in Lon­don, to mark the 400th anniversary of the KJV, and came up with Anne Boleyn (the play is about the Bible, and knowingly ties in with an enthusiasm for all things Tudor), but Edgar was already working on Written on the Heart for the RSC.

Edgar was even further ahead of the game, having helped to organise a conference in Stratford-upon-Avon about the KJV, gathering together Christian and Muslim speakers, and academics.

Although, like many other admirers of the KJV’s contribution to our cultural heritage (including Brenton), Edgar is a convinced atheist, he approaches the subject with a deep level of engagement, and more know­ledge than most. He is familiar with the faith he does not believe in.

He partly credits his upbringing for this. He is one of the generation that encountered Christianity as a normal part of life (he is 63), and attended the “sternly Protestant” Oundle School.

When he was a student in Man­chester, in the late 1960s, he “fell under the influence of various Marxist sects”, he says, although he is glad, in retro­spect, that he never fully joined them. But he did find his new, radicalised views incompatible with religious belief.

He went on to work for a few years as a journalist in Bradford, before becoming a full-time playwright in 1972. More than 60 of his plays have been performed, including the early successes Destiny, about immigration and extreme-right groups, and The Jail Diary of Albie Sachs, based on a true story from South Africa and set in the early 1960s.

Edgar is probably best known, however, for his epic adaptation, in 1980, of Dickens’s Nicholas Nickleby. Directed by Trevor Nunn, it was a huge success for the RSC. Since then, he has written a number of plays, including Playing with Fire, about New Labour and multiculturalism.

Christianity is a regular theme of his work, and, when asked why it has proved such a strong draw, he attri­b-utes this to a fascination with the chaotic history of the 150 years that encompass the Reformation and the Civil War in England, and also his own reading of the Gospels.

Part of his motivation also stems from the death of his wife, in 1998. “The year after, I was asked to do one in a series of Lenten Talks for Radio 4, under the title The Dove Descending.” He studied the Gospels in preparation, and realised that he had never sat down and read them through before.

“I realised how much I had in­gested, and how much I seem to have been quoting the Bible.”

He wanted to confront this, and was keen to mark the 400th annivers­ary of the KJV. So it was he who approached the RSC rather than the other way round.

He became interested in the trans­lators Andrewes and William Tyndale, and what he calls “the ironies of the KJV”, such as its being commissioned almost by accident, “failing spectacu­larly in its purpose of drawing a line under the Reformation”, and so on.

“The story of the Bible is the story of the English Reformation,” he says. “Tyndale wasn’t a translator who happened to be a Protestant: he was a Protestant who therefore made him­self a translator.”

And there was what he describes as the “central irony” of the fact that Tyndale and Andrewes, separated by 80 years, were both engaged in similar works of Bible translation — except that one was executed because of it, and the other was given preferment.

He also explored the emotional truths of the situation: “I was very struck in Andrewes with the fact that he prayed for five hours a day. Clearly, if you read the commentary on that at the time, that was exceptional — not a normal way of behaving.

“He was an exemplary son and brother. But what was he guilty about? What was agonising him? It could have been ambition — he was preferred, and was in the running for Canter­bury.”

There was also the question of his sexuality — “not being married at that point was quite exceptional” — and his having reached a particular stage in life. “Andrewes had hit the crisis moment, and felt that he was betrayed by his comfortable career.”

YET Edgar begins in a lighter mood: “I had the idea that the play should start with a sort of All Gas and Gaiters set of highly competitive Trollopian clerics. Out of those comes the idea that this really was important — a battle that would affect the next stage of history that was taking place.”

So Written on the Heart is set in 1610, 1536, and 1586, and is based on the available records, with some drama­tic licence. One scene, for ex­ample, draws on parish-visitation documents.

It also returns to some of the themes of Edgar’s earlier plays, such as Maydays: the abandonment of youth­ful idealism. Thus it presents An­drewes aged both 33 and 55 (played by different actors, the older one being Oliver Ford Davies, who was the lead cleric in the original 1990 production of Racing Demon, by David Hare).

Edgar, as a “former firebrand”, wanted to write a play about “how you relate to the succeeding generation. . . You’ve been round it all, and you like to think you’ve retained a bit of that.”

During a KJV conference that he had helped to organised at Stratford, it was “tacitly forbidden to comment on the KJV’s literary beauty” (the RSC operates a similar policy on Shake­speare’s poetic language, Edgar says). Not for him the nostalgic sentiment about the translation as a monument of English prose, regardless of its meaning, which has cropped up with such tiresome regularity in this anniversary year.

He is therefore aware of the temp­ta­tion to become sentimental about the KJV. “Whenever I wax dewy-eyed about the Authorised Version, I have friends and critics who say: ‘It’s because you don’t believe it.’”

For him, this is translated into a desire to “deconstruct the making” of it, tracing the story of Tyndale and others, but also asking “why, as a non-believer, every Christmas Eve after­noon, do I solemnly switch on the radio [for Nine Lessons and Carols]? Why does Messiah make me dewy-eyed?

“The nostalgia for the Bible then petri­fies as you go through life, with­out being renewed. So the play was really going to be about people con­fronting — coming to terms with — whether they’d sold out their beliefs . . . and whether it’s possible for one genera­tion to behave differently from another.”

Now that the actors’ work is well under way, the Reformation is being fought out anew in the rehearsal room. The cast have undertaken re­search about the period and its religious debates.

They have been addressed by scholars such as Professor Eamon Duffy, from Cambridge University, the author of The Stripping of the Altars (Yale, 1992), and Dr Peter McCul­lough, Fellow in English at Lincoln College, Oxford, and a lay canon of St Paul’s Cathedral. They made trips to Holy Trinity, Stratford, and to St Paul’s Cathedral, where they were shown round by Canon Giles Fraser.

Edgar was surprised by the actors’ responses as they became absorbed into their roles: “Whenever I entered the rehearsal room slightly late, there would be another Catholic propa­gandist going on.”

Greg Doran, the director of the play, who is Chief Associate Director of the RSC, is a former Roman Cath­olic altar boy. But many of the cast started out as “Tyndalians”, and — shocked by the destruction wrought by the Reformers — then became more sympathetic to the Catholic cause. Edgar “on occa­sions felt like a lone voice, in defence of the Reformation”.

He made a number of changes to the text at this stage — as he usually does during rehearsals, since actors get to know their characters more deeply than he does. “Actors are wonderful tools, and are going to know all kinds of things.”

The cast also related to “the com­par­ison between Protestant funda­men­talism and Islamic fundamental­ism”, particularly in terms of the focus on a book, iconoclasm, distrust of music, and the idea of there being only one truth. The play, however, leaves the audience to draw its own con­clusions.

EDGAR has a particular take on iconoclasm: “What the Reformation did was to change a visual culture into a verbal culture. Ultimately, if you don’t do that at some point, you’re not going to get any further, because the visual world is immobile . . . whereas the word is portable and communic­able and light, easy, and cheap.

“The other thing is that the word re­quires imagination. It requires some­thing inside you. So you are, in fact, in­vited to imagine, as opposed to things’ being laid out in front of you. . . As in the Chorus of Henry V: ‘Think, when we talk of horses, that you see them.’”

Consequently, “those two things — communication and the imagination — are what is the connective mem­brane between the Reformation and the Enlightenment.”

Nevertheless, he says that he noted a “good warning” when he reread the historian Christopher Hill: “You can’t say that the New Testament was just the Communist manifesto a bit earlier. The Reformation was a revolution, but it wasn’t just the Marxist revolution of the proletariat carried on by other means.”

Hill is insistent, Edgar says, that you cannot impose such an interpretation, and that “religion was the motivation — that was what everybody was fighting for.”

In Written on the Heart, Edgar has also lifted a metaphor from Hill. “Ul­timately, if you say that your way to God is sitting alone with a book, with­out any intervening process, then even­­tually that means that you can in­terpret the Bible in any way you like.”

In the play, a young priest, ques­tioning Tyndale, says: “And if any man makes what he fancies of God’s word, might he not make nothing? Might he not cut off the branch on which he sits?”

AS WELL as the new RSC play, Edgar has contributed to the 66 Books project at the Bush Theatre, London, which is also being performed at Westminster Abbey (News, 14 October). It features a short play on each book of the Bible. When asked to choose one, although he was disappointed that Isaiah had already been snapped up, Edgar went for 1 Timothy, specifically 1 Timothy 1.15: “Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners; of whom I am chief.”

This is the verse that inspired the Protestant martyr Thomas Bilney (1495-1531), and the brief play is a conversation about Bilney between three 16th-century bishops: Hugh Latimer, Matthew Parker, and Cuth­bert Tunstall.

AT THE RSC, however, Edgar is bra-cing himself for comparisons with Brenton’s Anne Boleyn, but hopes that the two plays about Andrewes can be seen as complementary.

The only significant change that he made to Written on the Heart, when he learnt about Brenton’s work, which features King James, was to remove his version of the character from an early draft, and substitute James’s sons, Henry and Charles. “That was good, really, because it did push me into thinking that I did want to shake things up at the end, and bring things to a conclusion.”

Prince Henry is “a very good idea”, in terms of the “what ifs” of history. “If he hadn’t swum in the Thames and caught typhoid and died, history would have been remarkably different, and there almost certainly wouldn’t have been a Civil War.”

The two dramas about Andrewes have contrasting atmospheres. Edgar’s play bristles with religious ideas, and — after a wait of 400 years — there is surely room for both.

Written on the Heart is on at the Swan Theatre, Stratford-upon-Avon, from 27 October until 28 January (with extra performances on 16 February and 10 March).
Box office: phone 0844 800 1110

Written on the Heart is on at the Swan Theatre, Stratford-upon-Avon, from 27 October until 28 January (with extra performances on 16 February and 10 March).
Box office: phone 0844 800 1110

66 Books is on at the Bush Theatre, Shepherd’s Bush, London, until 29 October.
Box office: phone 020 8743 5050.

66 Books is on at the Bush Theatre, Shepherd’s Bush, London, until 29 October.
Box office: phone 020 8743 5050.


David Edgar — stage by stage

Born 1948, in Birmingham, to a theatrical family.
Educated at Oundle School and the University of Manchester.
Professor of Playwriting Studies, the University of Birmingham 1995-99.

Selected plays:

The National Interest (1971)
O Fair Jerusalem (Birmingham Rep, 1975)
Destiny (RSC, 1976)
Ecclesiastes (Radio 4, 1977)
The Jail Diary of Albie Sachs (RSC, 1978)
Nicholas Nickleby (RSC, 1980, and New York, 1981)
Maydays (RSC, 1983)
Lady Jane (feature film, 1986)
The Shape of the Table (National Theatre, 1990)
Pentecost (RSC, 1994)
The Prisoner’s Dilemma (RSC 2001)
Playing with Fire (National Theatre, 2005)
Written on the Heart (RSC, 2011)

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