Gilbert Meilaender on Reading Dorothy Sayers's Play Cycle for Lent
On June 4, 1955, C. S. Lewis wrote to Dorothy Sayers to thank her for a pamphlet and letter she had sent him. He noted, in passing, that "as always in Holy Week," he had been "re-reading [Sayers's] The Man Born to Be King. It stands up to this v. particular kind of test extremely well." We might, I think, do far worse than imitate Lewis in our own Lenten reading.
The Man Born to Be King is a series of radio plays, twelve in all, dramatizing the life of Jesus from birth to death and resurrection. First broadcast by the BBC in 1941–1942, they were published in 1943, together with Sayers's notes for each play and a long Introduction she wrote recounting both her aims and approaches in writing the plays and some of the first (often comical) reactions from the public. . . .
That is where the artist's skill and imaginative powers are essential, and, to my mind at least, Sayers is at the top of her form in these plays. Those who know her other writings will recall how insistently she argued that her task was to produce—as best she could—good work, plays that were truly good art. The theology implicit in the story and the religious impact of the events recounted would, she hoped, emerge from the story told, but her task was simply to tell that story in as coherent and arresting a fashion as possible. She had to develop the story through characters who, unlike us, do not know how it will end, and who could not, therefore, think in ways that might seem natural to us.
The plays may, therefore, call for some imaginative stretching on our part, but that stretching may also offer in turn a considerable theological payoff. In particular, it may keep Christians from a mistake they have often made—supposing that the political and religious leaders responsible for Jesus' death had as their aim "doing away with God." That is not how Sayers tells the story. "We, the audience, know what they were doing; the whole point and poignancy of the tragedy is lost unless we realise that they did not."
I have read Sayers' radio plays a few times, too, but usually for her depiction of the Nativity. Something that really thrilled me at the end of the online article was this link to an audio version of this play cycle--and it's free! I haven't listened to it yet, but it might answer my plea from a couple of years ago.