Fifty years ago, Dorothy Sayers cut through stained glass and archaic language to reveal the human Jesus.
“Do you have tapes of Dorlothy Sayers’s Man Born to JL.S be King?” I asked the young man in the BBC’s Broadcasting House in London. He looked blank. “It’s a cycle of 12 plays about the life of Christ,” I explained.
“I think you must be mistaken, ma’am; Dorothy Sayers wrote the Lord Peter Wimsey mysteries. Here are the videos of Strong Poison, Have His Carcase, Gaudy Night.”
If only, I thought, this salesman could travel back 50 years when Broadcasting House raged with a controversy about The Man Born to be King. Before she died in 1957, Sayers was well known not only as a writer of mysteries, but also as a Christian essayist, as a translator of Dante’s Divine Comedy, and as a friend of C. S. Lewis and Charles Williams. But her plays about the life of Jesus brought her the most fame and infamy during her lifetime.
The Lord Chamberlain of England had to grant special permission to allow the voice of Christ to be broadcast, since stage portrayals of any member of the Trinity had been against British law from Puritan times. Full-page advertisements—”Radio Impersonation of Christ! A Protest”—appeared in newspapers. Thousands wrote complaints to the BBC; Parliament got involved. Newspapers lurched from support (one claimed that it “rekindled our imaginations with a sense of what it meant for the divine to dwell in human flesh”) to condemnation (one renamed it “Crowning Shame”).
The divine in human flesh; this was the heart of the controversy. Sayers believed that she would be truly reverent to “the incarnate Godhead” only by understanding that he was truly human, “subject to the common realities of daily life.”
Sayers knew her portrayal ...1
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