Plus ça change ….

Posted by Tory Historian Monday, April 06, 2009 , ,

Well, some things do change. For instance, the book in Tory Historian’s hands, the 1969 edition of Dorothy L. Sayers’s highly intricate and literate plays about the life of Christ, “The Man Born To Be King” tells one that these plays were written for and performed on Children’s Hour on BBC Radio during the war.

Children’s Hour? We have nothing called that these days but we do have children’s programmes on TV if not on radio and they are unlikely to have complex plays of that kind. These days it appears on BBC 7 the somewhat controversial digital radio station, heard by very few people.

What has not changed much, though, is the media attitude. This is what Dr J. W. Welch, then Director of Religious Broadcasting at the BBC (there not being any other broadcasting in Britain in the forties) wrote in his Foreword:

By December 1941 five plays had been written, and the first, about the Nativity, we planned to broadcast on the Sunday before Christmas 1941. Ten days before the broadcast, at my request, Miss Sayers attended a Press conference, at which she read a statement outlining some of the dramatic difficulties involved in writing the plays and some of the methods she had used; she also read, at the request of a member of the Press, some excerpts from the dialogue in the plays.

Then the storm broke. Almost all the journalists who had attended the conference wrote fairly and sympathetically about the new venture; but a few used the occasion for sensational reporting, and at least one was guilty of misrepresentation. One appearance of these sensational and inaccurate reports, without having heard or read one line of any of the plays, without ever crediting Miss Sayers with any capacity for a reverent handling of such a theme … people condemned the plays as “irreverent”, “blasphemous”, “vulgar” and so on. These correspondents condemned plays they had never seen or heard, and the language applied to Our Lord by his contemporaries was, almost word for word, now applied to Miss Sayers.
Well, well, ladies and gentlemen of the media publishing ignorant articles and the public blindly reacting as if it was, to coin a phrase, gospel truth. Nothing much has changed.

The crux of the matter, it seems, was Miss Sayers’s use of modern language to tell a tale as it happened. A skilled translator and highly knowledgeable writer (though somewhat inferior as a detective story creator), she was also a devout member of the Church of England. She, therefore, knew that the accepted view of most Christian churches was that Christ was both Man and God and, as Man, he lived in a particular historical time and historical space in which people spoke in various ways but not, probably, in the cadences of the Authorized Version.

In other words, soldiers sang marching songs and gave brusque orders and shepherds were peasants. As it happens, there is much play in the Gospels with the fact that Christ and his followers came from Galilee and were, clearly, immediately recognizable by the way they spoke in Jerusalem.

Miss Sayers, as she points out in the Introduction, was following the example of the Mediaeval Mysteries, which were performed in the language of the time. (One of the best theatrical performances of the last few years in London, in Tory Historian’s opinion, was The Mysteries by the South African Dimpho Di Kopane Company. It was performed in four languages, English, Afrikaans, Zulu and Xhosa, with many references to modern African history. It was also joyous, frightening and very moving. Miss Sayers would have approved.)

1 Responses to Plus ça change ….

  1. "Not the best detective story creator"...? Bah and twice bah! Did you hear that noise? It was my jaw hitting the floor!

    NB this is an equal opportunities comment. Other detective story creators are available, and no animals were hurt when my jaw dropped; the hare I'm going to skin when I get home might have been a bit miffed...

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