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    detail of Golgotha by Nikolai Ge

    A Dirty Piece of Work, Tell the Bishop

    By Dorothy L. Sayers

    March 25, 2019

    From the introduction to her play cycle, The Man Born to Be King:

    For Jesus Christ is unique – unique among gods and men. There have been incarnate gods a-plenty, and slain-and-resurrected gods not a few; but He is the only God who has a date in history. And plenty of founders of religions have had dates, and some of them have been prophets or avatars of the Divine; but only this one of them was personally God. There is no more astonishing collocation of phrases than that which, in the Nicene Creed, sets these two statements flatly side by side: “Very God of very God. He suffered under Pontius Pilate.” All over the world, thousands of times a day, Christians recite the name of a rather undistinguished Roman pro-consul – not in execration (Judas and Caiaphas, more guilty, get off with fewer reminders of their iniquities), but merely because that name fixes within a few years the date of the death of God.

    In the light of that remarkable piece of chronology we can see an additional reason why the writer of realistic Gospel plays has to eschew the didactic approach to his subject. He has to display the words and actions of actual people engaged in living through a piece of recorded history. He cannot, like the writer of purely liturgical or symbolic religious drama, confine himself to the abstract and universal aspect of the life of Christ. He is brought up face to face with the “scandal of particularity.” Ecce homo – not only Man-in-general and God-in-His-thusness, but also God-in-His-thisness, and this Man, this person, of a reasonable soul and human flesh subsisting, who walked and talked then and there, surrounded, not by human types, but by those individual people. This story of the life and murder and resurrection of God-in-Man is not only the symbol and epitome of the relations of God and man throughout time; it is also a series of events that took place at a particular point in time. And the people of that time had not the faintest idea that it was happening.

    Golgotha by Nikolai Ge

    Nikolai Ge, Golgotha

    Of all examples of the classical tragic irony in fact or fiction, this is the greatest – the classic of classics. Beside it, the doom of Oedipus is trifling, and the nemesis of the Oresteian blood-bath a mere domestic incident. For the Christian affirmation is that a number of quite commonplace human beings, in an obscure province of the Roman Empire, killed and murdered God Almighty – quite casually, almost as a matter of religious and political routine, and certainly with no notion that they were doing anything out of the way. Their motives, on the whole, were defensible, and in some respects praiseworthy. There was some malice, some weakness, and no doubt some wresting of the law – but no more than we are accustomed to find in the conduct of human affairs. By no jugglings of fate, by no unforeseeable coincidence, by no supernatural machinations, but by that destiny which is character, and by the unimaginative following of their ordinary standards of behaviour, they were led, with a ghastly inevitability, to the commission of the crime of crimes. 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. It is in this knowledge by the audience of the appalling truth which is hidden from all the agonists in the drama that the tragic irony consists.

    Shocked? We damn well ought to be shocked.

    Consequently, it is necessary for the playwright to work with a divided mind. He must be able at will to strip off his knowledge of what is actually taking place, and present, through his characters, the events and people as they appeared to themselves at the time. This would seem obvious and elementary; but its results are in fact the very thing that gives offence to unimaginative piety. We are so much accustomed to viewing the whole story from a post-Resurrection, and indeed from a post-Nicene, point of view, that we are apt, without realising it, to attribute to all the New Testament characters the same kind of detailed theological awareness which we have ourselves. We judge their behaviour as though all of them – disciples, Pharisees, Romans, and men-in-the-street – had known with Whom they were dealing and what the meaning of all the events actually was. But they did not know it. The disciples had only the foggiest inkling of it, and nobody else came anywhere near grasping what it was all about. If the Chief Priests and the Roman Governor had been aware that they were engaged in crucifying God – if Herod the Great had ordered his famous massacre with the express intention of doing away with God – then they would have been quite exceptionally and diabolically wicked people. And indeed, we like to think that they were: it gives us a reassuring sensation that “it can’t happen here.” And to this comfortable persuasion we are assisted by the stately and ancient language of the Authorised Version, and by the general air of stained-glass-window decorum with which the tale is usually presented to us. The characters are not men and women: they are all “sacred personages,” standing about in symbolic attitudes, and self-consciously awaiting the fulfilment of prophecies. That is how they were seen, for example, by a certain gentleman from Stoke Newington, who complained that the Centurion who was commended for building a Jewish synagogue had been made by me to “refer to the sacred building in a conversation, in a levitous (sic) and jocular manner.” For him, the Centurion was not a Roman N.C.O., stationed in a foreign province, and looking on the local worship with such amiable indulgence as a British sergeant-major in India might extend to a Hindu cult. He was a sacred Centurion, whose lightest word was sacred, and the little Jewish edifice was sacred to him, as though he had no gods of his own. Still odder is the attitude of another correspondent, who objected to Herod’s telling his court, “keep your mouths shut,” on the grounds that such coarse expressions were jarring on the lips of any one “so closely connected with our Lord.”

    Sacred personages, living in a far-off land and time, using dignified rhythms of speech, making from time to time restrained gestures symbolic of brutality. They mocked and railed on Him and smote Him, they scourged and crucified Him. Well, they were people very remote from ourselves, and no doubt it was all done in the noblest and most beautiful manner. We should not like to think otherwise.

    Unhappily, if we think about it at all, we must think otherwise. God was executed by people painfully like us, in a society very similar to our own – in the over-ripeness of the most splendid and sophisticated Empire the world has ever seen. In a nation famous for its religious genius and under a government renowned for its efficiency, He was executed by a corrupt church, a timid politician, and a fickle proletariat led by professional agitators. His executioners made vulgar jokes about Him, called Him filthy names, taunted Him, smacked Him in the face, flogged Him with the cat, and hanged Him on the common gibbet – a bloody, dusty, sweaty, and sordid business.

    If you show people that, they are shocked. So they should be. If that does not shock them, nothing can. If the mere representation of it has an air of irreverence, what is to be said about the deed? It is curious that people who are filled with horrified indignation whenever a cat kills a sparrow can hear that story of the killing of God told Sunday after Sunday and not experience any shock at all.footnote

    The Central Religious Advisory Committee vetted each play for the BBC. One of the members, the Bishop of Winchester, objected to the informality of Sayers’s dialog. She entreated the director of religious broadcasting to negotiate with him:

    I am frankly appalled at the idea of getting through the Trial and Crucifixion scenes with all the “bad people” having to be bottled down to expressions which could not possibly offend anybody. I will not allow the Roman soldiers to use barrack-room oaths, but they must behave like common soldiers hanging a common criminal, or where is the point of the story? The impenitent thief cannot curse and yell as you and I would if we were skewered up with nails to a post in the broiling sun, but he must not talk like a Sunday-school child. Nobody cares a dump nowadays that Christ was “scourged, railed upon, buffeted, mocked and crucified,” because all those words have grown hypnotic with ecclesiastical use. But it does give people a slight shock to be shown that God was flogged, spat upon, called dirty names, slugged in the jaw, insulted with vulgar jokes, and spiked up on the gallows like an owl on a barn-door. That’s the thing the priests and people did – has the Bishop forgotten it? It is an ugly, tear-stained, sweat-stained, blood-stained story, and the thing was done by callous, conceited and cruel people. Shocked? We damn well ought to be shocked. If nobody is going to be shocked we might as well not tell them about it.

    It’s very bad luck on you, and I don’t want to make trouble. But I do want the Bishop to know what I feel about it – not from the “artistic” point of view, but from the point of view of what we are trying to tell people. The scandal of the Cross was a scandal – not a solemn bit of ritual symbolic of scandal. “The drunkards make songs upon me” – I daresay they did, and I don’t suppose they were very pretty songs either, or in very good taste. I’ve made all the alterations required so far, but I’m now entering a formal protest, which I have tried to make a mild one, without threatenings and slaughters. But if the contemporary world is not much moved by the execution of God it is partly because pious phrases and reverent language have made it appear a more dignified crime than it was. It was a dirty piece of work, tell the Bishop.

    Sympathetically yours,

    Dorothy L. Sayersfootnote

    From The Gospel in Dorothy L. Sayers, by Dorothy L. Sayers, edited by Carole Vanderhoof


    1. Introduction to The Man Born To Be King: A Play-Cycle on the Life of Our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ (London: Victor Gollancz, 1943).
    2. Sayers to Dr. James Welch, Director of Religious Broadcasting, BBC, February 19, 1942, The Letters of Dorothy L. Sayers: Volume Two: 1937–1943: From Novelist to Playwright, ed. by Barbara Reynolds (Cambridge: Dorothy L. Sayers Society, 1997), 351–352.
    Contributed By DorothySayers Dorothy L. Sayers

    Dorothy L. Sayers was a renowned British writer best known for her detective stories, as well as for her translation of Dante’s Divine Comedy.

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