The psalms hidden in the slang

by
24 March 2017

Kathryn Wehr follows C. S. Lewis’s example and revisits Dorothy L. Sayers’s radio plays on the life of Christ

Dorothy L. Sayers Society

Literary life: Sayers would have worked with many Bibles and reference books to produce her “working man’s” dialogue

Literary life: Sayers would have worked with many Bibles and reference books to produce her “working man’s” dialogue

SEVENTY-FIVE years ago this year, the BBC broadcast a radio drama series on the life of Christ, The Man Born to be King, by Dorothy L. Sayers.

Sensational reporting before the first broadcast led to a public outcry that Sayers — the author of the Lord Peter Wimsey crime novels — was not only brazenly making Christ himself a character, but was writing modern dialogue that was a “spoliation of the beautiful language of Holy Scriptures, which have been given by inspiration of the Holy Spirit” — by which was meant the Authorised Version (AV).

Full-page advertisements making this protest were published in the main newspapers by the Lord’s Day Observance Society in mid-December 1941. Encouraged by these, their readers flooded the BBC with protest letters, and a question was even raised in Parliament. Sayers was put on the defensive for her use of everyday English.

Controversy quickly changed to delight, however, once the plays were heard between December 1941 and October 1942. A book of the scripts was an immediate success, and the plays were re-broadcast during Lent in the years that followed, which led to several fresh recordings; the most recent, in 1967, is still broadcast every few years by the BBC.

The printed scripts reached a much wider audience across the English-speaking world. On Sayers’s death in 1957, C. S. Lewis, praising the plays, said that he re-read them every year during Holy Week.

 

SAYERS used fresh, contemporary renderings of familiar phrases and stories from the Gospels as essential to her theological aim of making Christ and his contemporaries come across as real people, not stained-glass figures. “Nobody, not even Jesus, must be allowed to ‘talk Bible’,” Sayers insisted at the time.

Take, for example, her rendering of the Beatitudes: “Happy are the poor, for nothing stands between them and the Kingdom. Happy are the sorrowful, for their souls are made strong through suffering. Happy are the humble, for they receive the whole world as a gift. Happy are they who long for holiness as a man longs for food, for they shall enjoy God’s plenty. Happy are the merciful, for they are mercifully judged. Happy are they who establish peace, for they share God’s very nature. Happy are the single-hearted, for they see God.”

Occasionally, Sayers is even freer in expanding on the meaning of certain phrases, such as Jesus’s answer about the tribute to Caesar: “Pay to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s. But pay to God the things that are God’s. You are men — and the image stamped upon you is the image of God. So what do you owe to Him?”

 

BIOGRAPHERS have often used words such as “abandon” and “eschew” to describe Sayers’s use of the AV. This conjures up the mental image of Sayers translating her plays with the Greek New Testament in one hand and a blank sheet of paper in the other — an image that forgets the numerous fictional characters and scenes that the dramatic form necessitates.

A more accurate mental picture would be of Sayers surrounded by reference books and Bibles, harmonising and adapting Gospel stories from English into her own distinctive dialogue style, with regular reference to the Greek text for specific word choices.

A close analysis of the scripts shows that, in fact, Sayers does make use of the AV in certain places. For example, all the narration by “The Evangelist” — used to introduce and conclude most scenes — is taken almost exclusively from the AV, which gives the character a natural sense of authority. This has never been mentioned by biographers, but it is obvious once you start looking for it.

We also find the AV in places where characters quote from the Old Testament. Sayers did not read Hebrew; so it made sense that, whenever characters quoted scripture, she would use the AV, as when Caiaphas, quoting Exodus 12.36, speaks of “Spoiling the Egyptians”.

Moreover, Sayers’s use of the psalms is clearly influenced by the translation used in the 1662 Prayer Book, which is from Myles Coverdale’s English Bible of 1535. Sayers was the daughter of a Church of England clergyman who led his household in daily Morning and Evening Prayer; so to her, as to most churchgoing Anglicans, the Prayer Book version was more familiar than the AV’s. The most obvious example is when Peter sends Jesus off, before the triumphal entry, with a cry of “Good luck hast thou with thine honour!” (BCP Psalm 45.5).

These three areas, while clearly exceptions to her preference for vernacular rendering of dialogue, show Sayers at work in a dynamic rather than iconoclastic process; she is clearly a dramatist working with all her available tools.

 

WHEN the controversy surrounding The Man Born to be King erupted in December 1941, Sayers was forced to defend herself. Her response centred on how the language of the AV had become too ingrained and old-fashioned, making it difficult to hear Christ speak as a real person. She reminded people that the AV was itself a translation (not a divinely inspired original), and that familiarity with its heightened language masked the fact that the Gospels were written in working man’s Greek. She pointed out that Jesus himself used slang, and cultural figures of speech.

In her introduction to the published plays, Sayers writes that “nothing is gained by making [characters] use obsolete forms of speech as though they seemed old-fashioned to themselves.” We have seen that she reserved these “obsolete forms” for framing the scenes in narration and in scripture quotation — passages that the characters themselves might also have felt to be “traditional”.

Sayers, however, does not mention this use anywhere; nor has any of her biographers. She could have come back at her critics by pointing out the many occasions when she uses the AV and the BCP, but perhaps this would have taken the focus away from her main message: of the need for a fresh, modern dialogue that helps us to see Jesus anew.

The warm reception of the broadcasts and the book of scripts certainly proved her right. The Archbishop of Canterbury, William Temple, expressed his thanks by offering Sayers an honorary Lambeth Doctor of Divinity degree (which she declined so as to feel free to do non-religious writing).

The BBC was flooded by positive responses: one listener wrote of the plays’ being like “a living scene, and I was a part of it. God spoke to me through it,” and of the way that the language “shocks us out of worn conventional terms”. Indeed, even after 75 years, the plays retain this freshness, and are well worth revisiting, as it was C. S. Lewis’s practice to do, in Holy Week.

 

Kathryn Wehr is researching Sayers’s The Man Born to be King for her Ph.D. studies at the University of St Andrews Institute for Theology, Imagination and the Arts.

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