Classic Review: The Man Born To Be King (1942)

Wade Annotated Edition

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Overview

Synopsis The Messiah appears to a the Jewish people and declares himself the king of a people facing confusion and political oppression.

Author Dorothy L. Sayers, Edited by Kathryn Wehr
Publisher IV Press
Genre Drama

Length 456 Pages

Release Date 1943 (First Printed Edition), Annotated Edition (January 24, 2023)

It is a rare opportunity for one of my classic review segments to be a contemporary review, but in this case, two stars happened to align in such a way that it became ideal. The lovely people at Wheaton College’s Wade Center and InterVarsity Publishing pulled together a brand new edition of Dorothy Sayers’ critically acclaimed 12-part radio play about the life of Christ, with full annotations by scholar Kathryn Wehr. The lovely people at IVP were kind enough to send GeeksUnderGrace a review copy.

My review won’t focus on Wehr’s book, but I wish to frontload this article by saying how helpful of a resource she has been with her years-long effort to offer full citations and introductions for the book. She connects the dots on where individual quotations of the plays are drawing from the Gospels and even pulls Sayers’ personal correspondence into the margins to assist with explaining controversial creative decisions.

Her edition has eclipsed all previous editions, most recently the somewhat aging Ignatius Press reprint, and made itself essential to any scholar of Sayers and the Inklings who wishes to deeply study and understand one of the most important and controversial works of art to come out of England in the 20th century.

Content Guide

Spiritual Content: The play describes the life of Jesus Christ and depicts him as the Son of God, in theologically uncontroversial terms
Violence: The book describes a crucifixion, characters die or are murdered in various scenes
Language/Crude Humor: Minimal to none
Sexual Content: Minimal to none
Drug/Alcohol Use: Characters drink wine
Other Negative Themes: The play’s depiction of scripture may be considered “vulgar” or contrary to the written word
Positive Content: Complex and multidimensional exploration of all of the figures of the Gospel, building a complex and humane exploration of Jesus, his followers, and his critics

Review

Last summer, I reviewed Sayers’ translation of The Song of Roland and offered a short introduction to the work of one of the most underrated writers of the 20th century, but her biography deserves some expansion. Sayers was an accomplished popular writer and scholar for her time, a world-renowned Dante scholar, a member of the Detective Club with Agatha Christie and G.K. Chesterton, and a lay theologian for the Church of England who produced a half dozen well-regarded stageplays and radioplays.

Like many writers of her day, she lost a lot of prestige with her public conversion to Christianity. Virginia Wolfe famously anathematized her colleague T.S. Elliot for converting as well. Her conversation to faith was slow and long, like many in the intellectual circles she trafficked. Her early detective stories showed a general negative inclination towards religion, but her conversion moved until she became a leading public face for the faith.

Her first major foray into religious writing was The Zeal of Thy House, a 1937 play commissioned by Canterbury Cathedral for the annual Canterbury Festival, which followed the previous success of Elliot’s acclaimed Murder in the Cathedral. The success of the play turned Sayers into a high-demand figure for dramatic writing. She would produce a one-act nativity play for the BBC Children’s House the following year called He That Should Come.

The BBC loved it and asked her to take on a much larger project, a multi-part series on the life of Christ. Sayers agreed but on strict stipulations. She wanted Jesus to be a real human character, an unheard-of decision at the time in most Biblical adaptations (with respect to avoiding a heretical depiction). She also wanted to adapt the Gospels in vernacular English, rather than using the church-authorized King James Version‘s dialog. This required government approval, as non-authorized depictions of scripture on the radio were illegal.

After receiving approval, she set to work on a multi-year effort that would culminate in monthly broadcasts beginning in December 1941, in the midst of the Second World War. Her early publicity and promotional work would end up backfiring against the entire production when sensationalist journalists began reporting that the plays were blasphemous and vulgarized the holy scriptures, despite explicit approval from dozens of English clergymen. One writer went as far as to claim that the Japanese capture of English Singapore was God’s vengeance against England for violating his scriptures.

However, the censorship effort was not successful and the play was released on the BBC as scheduled, with many schools shutting down early so that students could be rushed home to hear this month’s installment. Sayers herself would receive thousands of letters, many available in the new Wehr edition, documenting just how deeply the plays affected people. Many of them never cared for or understood Christianity yet suddenly related to it by hearing it in their own language and dialect. C.S. Lewis told Sayers that he used the print edition of the plays every year for his Lenten devotions.

Author Dorothy Sayers at the Detective Club
Author Dorothy Sayers at the Detective Club
The Challenge of Adaptation

There is always going to be a challenge in adapting a familiar story in a fresh way. For Sayers, this was a larger problem, as Christ had not been depicted in such a “vulgar” way in England in centuries. As she writes, “the law that representations were intrinsically wicked and had encouraged a tendency already sufficiently widespread towards that docetic and totally heretical Christology which denies the full humanity of our lord.” As such, there hadn’t been any depiction of Christ since the medieval passion plays for critics and laypeople alike. She was traveling in uncharted waters, finding a way to rebuild the humanity of Christ and depict it in a traditional drama.

The play that would follow proved to be a massive undertaking. The Man Who Would Be King is a nine-hour-long, 12-part radio play with dozens of actors, characters, and audio cues to help the adaptation flow as a continuous story. Each of the parts has a three-act structure that follows individual characters reacting to specific events in the life of Christ and explaining their significance.

The structure of the story proved one of Sayer’s greatest challenges. As she notes, “the period of the ministry is naturally presented the greatest difficulty, partly because the matter itself was not so clearly arranged and it is always difficult to make the middle of any story self-contained for the reader.”

In many ways, it pulls on Sayers’ understanding of classical tragedy, but more so in its depiction of the world than in Christ. Jesus of Nazareth, often called Jesus Bar-Joseph in conversation, is depicted in quite human terms with swings of emotion, outbursts, and moments of normalcy. He converses with friends, commences in small talk, and otherwise acts like a normal human being when he isn’t making proclamations that unsettle those around him.

The characters around Jesus are also given much more literary depth. While the economy of language in the scriptures tends to strictly state the morals of each man and his actions, Sayers imagines the apostles and the Pharisees as characters with normal human motivations, living in a complicated world of political gamesmanship and character psychologies. Villainous figures like Judas, Herod, and Caiaphas are imagined as quite normal. We are meant to understand why these characters make the wrong moral decisions, while we lament the fact that they did them.

The only original character Sayers invents from whole-cloth is Baruch The Zealot, an instigator character who appears in some plays to push the plot along at various points, pushing the Pharisees and Judas against Christ while advancing his own radical agenda in the background. These fictionalizations all serve two major purposes: making the Gospels applicable to the lives of ordinary listeners and crafting the world of the Gospels in such as way that we understand the political context of Jesus’s actions.

The Nativity
The Story of The Man Born To Be King

The story begins in media res in the weeks following the birth of a small baby in the crowded city of Bethlehem. Business is as usual for King Herod and his compatriots when three kings appear before his court asking to see the newborn Messiah. Herod is not depicted as a villain but merely as a bitter and cynical politician who has to live under the cruel realities of leadership. He is merely a low-ranking representative of the Roman Empire, made to keep the rowdy Jews in line and maintain an orderly society. The news of a Messiah both excites and unnerves him. Previously, he had gone as far as to kill his own wife and son in a revolt to please the Roman Governor and keep the peace. As he says, “one cannot rule by love.” 

The Magi depart and discover the temporary home of Mary and Joseph, which contrasts the brutal cynicism of the court with the warmth of a loving mother nurturing her newborn child. As Mary says, “I feel as though I were holding the whole world in my arms: the sky and the sea and the green earth and all the seraphim. And then, again, everything becomes quite simple and familiar and I know that he is just my own dear son.”

This marks the first instance of a vague Marianism that appears repeatedly throughout the text. When the Magi appear, they greet her using part of the Catholic Hail Mary prayer, saying “Blessed are you among women,” as she declares that the child in her arms is the answer to all riddles of life:

I speak for a sorrowful people, for the ignorant and the poor. We rise up to labour and lie down to sleep, and night is only a pause between one burden and another. Fear is our daily companion … But all this we could bear if we knew that we did not suffer in vain … For the riddle that torments the world is this: Shall sorrow and love be reconciled at last, when the promised Kingdom comes?

Going forward, much of the story is told through flashbacks and fireside stories, with the apostles recounting to each other events they personally saw with astonishment and disbelief. A pervading irony sits under the text, noting that the kingship of Christ is a resolution to the bitterness and cruelty of this world that is fulfilled in Christ, and yet nobody sees it until it is too late.

The Ministry of Jesus Bar-Joseph

30 years later, the story picks up with the Jewish world being rocked by the miraculous ministry of John the Baptist, a prophet in the wilderness who proclaims the coming of the Messiah to the masses, but who faces antipathy from the ruling authorities. Many of the early apostles and Baruch have already found business following John, as they see him as a tool for advancing their ideas. Jesus appears in the crowd among the rest, recognized not as the Messiah but as Joseph’s son, a local child with incredible talents and well-liked by his family and home.

The second play through the seventh play follows the main period of Christ’s ministry, as he gathers the apostles, performs miracles, casts out the moneychangers from the temple, and gives his public addresses. Stories like the “fishers of men” and Nicodemus’s appearance to Christ at night are told as flashbacks. Much attention is paid to dramatizing each of the core events of the gospel, with much of the third play being solely dedicated to Christ’s healing of the sick child.

Baruch the Zealot appears to the Pharisees to campaign against Jesus and conspires with the high priests to get Jesus in trouble with the Roman authorities for being a meddling disruptor, but realizes quickly that Jesus is too smart to fall into obvious traps. At the same time, they don’t understand Jesus’s mission. They are ignorant of his words and beliefs, merely hearing that this man consorting in the suburbs of Jerusalem is calling himself the Son of God. They would be happy to use him as a political tool, but they “fear he may be incorruptible after all.”

Of all the apostles, Judas is ironically the one that most understands Jesus. As Sayers notes, “one can only say that if the man had been so wholly worthless as suggested, then our lord would have either a fool or a criminal to call him a disciple.” He’s annoying but intelligent and understands the nature of sin and salvation before the rest of the apostles. Unfortunately, he also ends up taking his concerns to Baruch, who conspires against Jesus by twisting Judas against him slowly, adding a layer of tragedy to his eventual betrayal as he comes to believe Jesus is betraying his own principles.

The Magi appear before baby Jesus
The Magi appear before baby Jesus
All Roads Lead to Jerusalem

The final five plays deal directly with Jesus’s emergence into Jerusalem and the final week of his life, prior to the crucifixion. Baruch sends a messenger to Jesus offering him a chance to declare his intentions, saying that if he comes to Jerusalem peacefully then to ride into the city on a donkey, or a warhorse if he comes with militant intentions. Jesus chooses the former, fulfilling one of the Old Testament prophecies about the Messiah in the process.

Facing the reality of political instability and Roman retaliation, the high priests make the decision that Jesus must be swiftly dealt with, as crowds have gathered in the city for Passover and are stirring excitement in the streets. If he isn’t executed quickly and quietly, rioting could begin. After Jesus has his “last supper” with the apostles, Judas leads Baruch and the authorities to him. Jesus is captured in the garden and brought before the court to stand trial for his accused blasphemies. Judas is overwhelmed by his betrayal and confronts Baruch, only to be dressed down and humiliated for his actions. Judas subsequently delivers a Shakespearian soliloquy to the Pharisees before he commits suicide:

“There is no priests, no victim in all the world that is clean enough to purge this guilt. Is God merciful? Can he forgive? What help is that? Jesus would forgive. If I crawled to the gallows’ foot and asked his pardon, he would forgive me, and my soul would writh forever under the torment of that forgiveness. Can anything clear me in my own eyes? Or release me from this horror of myself?”

Jesus is subsequently found guilty in the court of King Herod before the Roman governor “washes his hands” of having to send a man innocent in the eyes of the Roman state to his death. In the stage version, the crowd cheers and jeers at Jesus all throughout, and the vernacular dialog and lowly accents drive home the brutality of these calls as thousands of people celebrate the death of the Messiah. Jesus is forced to carry himself to the cross under this abuse, while the apostles try to follow and speak words of encouragement to him.

The Crucifixion at Calvary

The eleventh play follows the crucifixion, and it is the most harrowing chapter of the story as these characters unfurl under the reality of the horror of what is happening. Jesus wails in pain and agony, screaming the Hebrew words of Psalm 22 as the Romans struggle to comprehend what words of sedition he might be spewing. Mary Magdalene appears before the Roman guards, to whom she is familiar from her previous life, and appeals for the apostles to sit at Jesus’s feet.

Liturgists will notice that Sayers incorporates two traditional facets of the faith into these scenes: the Stations of the Cross and the theology of the La Pieta. Many of the events observed traditionally by Catholics and Anglicans in the fourteen stations are depicted in the play. This marks one of the more notably sacramental creative decisions of the play, but this is further noted by Mary being given several of the most heartbreaking soliloquies of the play, as her traditional theological position of the Mother of God gives her insight into the theological nature of what is happening, as her grief as his mother gives her a mystical insight into the truth.

“I know now what he is and what I am. I am the fact: God is the truth: but Jesus is fact and truth: he is reality. You cannot see the immortal truth till it is born in the flesh of the fact. And because all birth is sundering of the flesh, fact and reality seem to go separate ways … From the beginning of time until now, this is the only thing that has ever really happened. When you understand this you will understand all prophecies and all history.”

It is only after Christ’s death that his oppressors come to fully understand the irony of what he did. They realize that Jesus’s mission could’ve been to bring the entirety of the world, to bring their Roman oppressors, into a new unified world. He did not merely come to bring a Jewish revolt against the world but to unite the world under himself. Alas, the power of death does not hold over Christ and he is resurrected on the third day. The apostles appear to him and he assumes his position of all power, giving them the great commission and departing from the world into a cloud, saying “I am with you always, even unto the ends of the Earth, Amen.”

The Gospels and Critics of Adaptation

The problem with any form of adaptation is that there are always going to be choices made that downplay, water down, or reduce the context of the original creation. The Man Born To Be King is not a new Gospel, nor is it a replacement for them. It is merely a tool to make the underlying story of the Gospel more accessible to a modern audience. This approach is not without its critics though. Even now, there is a loud and vociferous crowd who considers adaptations themselves to be heretical.

This can be seen as well with recent backlashes against The Chosen, the widely popular online streaming series that is currently adapting the life of Christ into a seven-season drama. The show has been widely embraced by Christians of all denominations and stripes, but it has developed a small but aggressive base of critics that scold the show’s creators for heresies against the truth of Christ, not merely against its depiction of theological events but against depiction altogether.

To quote G3 Ministries, the Gospel’s sufficiency is enough and any attempt to adapt it must be considered a violation of God’s law.

“It is, in fact, expressly unbiblical, blasphemous, and heretical. As can be seen, The Chosen can be charged with breaking the Second Commandment, removing Scripture as the all-sufficient guide for Christian faith and practice, and ignoring multiple texts concerning the addition and deletion of texts of Scripture.”

There are certainly difficult and complicated questions to be had about the depiction of Christ in stories like The Man Born To Be King and The Chosen, but this analysis misses that these properties exist as evangelical tools to popularize the faith. More importantly, they work. These stories are very popular. The Passion of the Christ is currently one of the highest-grossing R-rated films in American history. Ben-Hur is one of the most popular films of all time.

To quote Dr. J.W. Welch, the late director of religious broadcasting at the BBC, “it is a fact of history that every Christian revival during the past nineteen hundred years have come, at least in part, from a fresh study of the life and teaching of Christ,” and depicting him in popular media is one of the best ways to put his life in front of fresh unchurched eyes.

To say Christ has no place being depicted in popular art is to banish him from the hearts and minds of the masses. It relegates him as a divine being that had no body and human life. Yet these adaptations show us that humanity better than a cold analytical analysis of the scriptures will, not because they’re insufficient, but because we are. Creating a low-resolution image of Christ in these stories allows people who wouldn’t understand the fullness of theology to grasp something whole, and to allow it to carry them into a deeper understanding.

Sayers believed more deeply than anyone else in the 20th century that creativity was a sacred thing, a sacrament that allows us to participate in creation. Her work facilitated thousands of conversions to an orthodoxy understanding of Christianity. The Man Who Would Be King is a great work of drama and a thoroughly accessible work that puts the complex life and theology of Christ into the words of normal people. And that is a good and defensible thing.

Positives

+ Spectacular Arrangement by Sayers
+ Surprising Character Depth
+ Orthodox Depiction of Scriptures

Negatives

- Controversial Depiction of the Events of the Gospels

The Bottom Line

The Man Born To Be King is one of Sayers' masterpieces and a work of accessible and engaging drama, well worth seeking out and reflecting on.

 

Story/Plot 9

Writing 9

Editing 10

9.3

Tyler Hummel

Born into the unexplored residential backwater of Chicago, Tyler Hummel is a graduate of Tribeca Flashpoint College where he studied Sound Design for Film and Interactive Media. When he isn't hosting his public access talk show The Fox Valley Film Critics or collecting DragonBall Z figurines, he enjoys writing and directing short films. As with Rick from Casablanca, "he's a man like any other man, just more so!"

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