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‘Playwrights Are Not Evangelists’: Dorothy L. Sayers on Translating the Gospels into Drama

  • Margaret Wiedemann Hunt (a1)


Dorothy L. Sayers's twelve-part wartime radio life of Christ The Man Born to be King has been judged ‘an astonishing and far-reaching innovation’, not only because it used colloquial speech and because Jesus was a character voiced by an actor, but also because it brought the gospels into people's lives in a way that demanded an imaginative response. In spite of this, Sayers insisted that her purpose was not evangelization. Sayers's writing on theological aesthetics asserts that a work of art will only speak to its audience if the artist ‘serves the work’ rather than trying to preach. This article locates her thinking in the context of William Temple's sacramentalism and Jacques Maritain's neo-Thomism, suggesting that Temple's biblical exegesis was central to her approach in dramatizing the gospels. Finally an argument is made for Sayers's influence on mid-century thinking about the arts through her association with Bishop George Bell.


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1 Sayers, Dorothy L., The Man Born to be King (London, 1943).

2 Sayers was one of the scriptwriters for a local pageant in 1908 when she was fifteen, and included a short satirical verse play, ‘The Mocking of Christ’, in her second published work, Catholic Tales and Christian Songs (Oxford, 1918).

3 Sayers, Dorothy L., Busman's Honeymoon (London, 1937); Sayers, Dorothy L. and Byrne, M. St Clare, Busman's Honeymoon: A Detective Comedy in Three Acts (London, 1939).

4 Eliot, T. S., The Complete Poems and Plays (London, 1969), 237–82.

5 Sayers, Dorothy L., The Zeal of Thy House (London, 1937).

6 Sayers, Dorothy L., The Devil to Pay (London, 1939).

7 The Just Vengeance, for the 1946 Lichfield Festival and The Emperor Constantine for the 1951 Festival of Britain in Colchester. This was followed by a London run in 1952 of a shortened version of the latter, Christ's Emperor, at St Thomas's, Regent Street.

8 Sayers, Dorothy L., transl., The Divine Comedy, 1: Hell (Harmondsworth, 1949); 2: Purgatory (Harmondsworth, 1955).

9 Sayers, Dorothy L. and Reynolds, Barbara, transl., The Divine Comedy, 3: Paradise (Harmondsworth, 1962).

10 Published as The Greatest Drama Ever Staged (London, 1938).

11 Sayers, Dorothy L., The Mind of the Maker (London, 1941).

12 Other contributions to the debate included Bell, G. K. A., Christianity and World Order (Harmondsworth, 1940); Temple, William, Christianity and Social Order (London, 1942). Whale, J. S.’s Christian Doctrine (Cambridge, 1941) was admired by Sayers as a benchmark.

13 London, LPL, Bell papers 208, fols 256–64, Dorothy L. Sayers, ‘Memorandum for the possible Formulation of a Statement of Oecumenical Doctrine based on the Highest Common Factor of Consent among the Christian Churches’, 1942.

14 Between 1938 and 1947 several comparable projects were discussed by members of the theological discussion group The Moot, and in January 1939 John Baillie's comment on the draft of a pamphlet presented by its convenor, Oldham, J. H., was that ‘for general distribution it would need to be rewritten by someone, like, e.g. Dorothy Sayers’: Clements, Keith, ed., The Moot Papers: Faith, Freedom and Society 1938–1944 (London, 2010), 148. In the event, Sayers was not involved, and the pamphlet was published by Oldham as The Resurrection of Christendom (London, 1940).

15 Sayers, ‘Memorandum’, fol. 257.

16 LPL, Bell papers 208, fols 254–5.

17 Giles Watson, ‘Catholicism in Anglican Culture and Theology: Responses to Crisis in England (1937–1949)’ (PhD thesis, Australian National University, 1998), 221–70, at 248; cf. idem, ‘Dorothy L. Sayers and the Oecumenical Penguin’, VII: An Anglo-American Literary Review 14 (1997), 17–32.

18 Fletcher, Christine M., The Artist and the Trinity: Dorothy L. Sayers’ Theology of Work (Eugene, OR, 2013), 5669. Fletcher's book includes a comprehensive bibliography.

19 Simmons, Laura K., Creed without Chaos: Exploring Theology in the Writings of Dorothy L. Sayers (Grand Rapids, MI, 2005).

20 Thurmer, John, A Detection of the Trinity (Hurstpierpoint, 2008); Michael Hampel, ‘Dorothy L. Sayers: Creative Mind and the Holy Trinity’ (MA dissertation, University of Durham, 2002).

21 Bray, Suzanne, ed., Dorothy L. Sayers: The Christ of the Creeds and other Broadcast Messages to the British People during World War II (Hurstpierpoint, 2008).

22 Pickering, Kenneth, Drama in the Cathedral, rev. edn (Malvern, 2001), 219–25.

23 Wolfe, Kenneth M., The Churches and the British Broadcasting Corporation 1922 –1956: The Politics of Broadcast Religion (London, 1984), 218–38.

24 Kenney, Catherine, The Remarkable Case of Dorothy L. Sayers (Kent, OH, 1981); Coomes, David, Dorothy L. Sayers: A Careless Rage for Life (Oxford, 1992).

25 Reynolds, Barbara, Dorothy L. Sayers: Her Life and Soul (London, 1993), 298306, 317–30.

26 Brabazon, James, Dorothy L. Sayers: A Biography (London, 1988), 191205.

27 Frances Clemson's PhD thesis, ‘The Theology of Dorothy L. Sayers’ Dramatic Works: Dramatic Performance and the “continual showing forth of God's act in history”’ (Exeter, 2012), was not available at the time of writing.

28 Downing, Crystal, Writing Performances: The Stages of Dorothy L. Sayers (New York, 2004).

29 Bethany Wood, ‘Incorporation of the Incarnation: Dorothy L. Sayers's The Man Born to be King and the Wartime BBC’ (MA thesis, University of Wisconsin, Madison, 2008).

30 Reynolds, Barbara, The Passionate Intellect (Kent, OH, 1989); Sayers, Dorothy L., Introductory Papers on Dante (Eugene, OR, 2006; first publ. 1954); Further Papers on Dante (Eugene, OR, 2006; first publ. 1957).

31 Sayers, Dorothy L., ‘The Translation of Verse’, in eadem, The Poetry of Search and the Poetry of Statement (London, 1963), 127–53, at 127.

32 Dorothy L. Sayers, ‘On Translating the Divina Commedia’, ibid. 91–125, at 91.

33 Dorothy L. Sayers, ‘Poetry, Language and Ambiguity’, ibid. 263–86, at 283.

34 Sayers, Dorothy L., ‘Playwrights Are Not Evangelists’ (1955), reprinted in VII: An Anglo-American Literary Review 7 (1986), 109–13, at 111.

35 Sayers, Dorothy L., Letters Volume Four: 1951–1957: In the Midst of Life, ed. Reynolds, Barbara (Hurstpierpoint, 2000), 141–2.

36 Fletcher, Artist, xix.

37 Ibid. 63.

38 Radio was not subject to the Lord Chamberlain's jurisdiction, although the scripts were submitted for his approval as a matter of courtesy. He made no objection to the inclusion of Jesus, provided that there was no studio audience and that Jesus's longer speeches were based on his words as recorded in Scripture: James Welch, Foreword to Sayers, Man Born, 15.

39 Ghéon, Henri, The Way of the Cross, transl. de Jonge, Frank, 2nd edn (London, 1952).

40 Sayers, Dorothy L., Letters Volume Two: 1937–1943: From Novelist to Playwright, ed. Reynolds, Barbara (Hurstpierpoint, 1997), 147.

41 Sayers, Man Born, 20.

42 Sayers, Letters 2, ed. Reynolds, 147.

43 Sayers, Man Born, 24.

44 Sayers, Letters 2, ed. Reynolds, 147.

45 Ibid. 343.

46 Ibid. 294.

47 Sayers, Man Born, 77.

48 Ibid. 20.

49 Matt. 5: 6; ibid. 143.

50 Matt. 5: 9; ibid.

51 Ibid. 117.

52 Welch, Foreword, ibid. 9–16; Wolfe, Churches and the BBC, 218–38; Reynolds, Life and Soul, 317–28; Coomes, Careless Rage, 11–25.

53 The broadcasts were on Sundays.

54 Sayers, Letters 2, ed. Reynolds, 357.

55 Ibid. 373.

56 James Welch, ‘The Man Born to be King’, Radio Times, 19 December 1941, 5.

57 Sayers, Letters 2, ed. Reynolds, 45.

58 Maritain, Jacques, Art and Scholasticism with other Essays, transl. Scanlan, J. F. (London, 1947 edn), 49.

59 Ibid. 52.

60 Sayers, Dorothy L, Four Sacred Plays (London, 1948), 38.

61 Sayers, Man Born, 20.

62 Sayers, ‘Scalene Trinities’, in eadem, Mind, 120–44.

63 Temple, William, Readings in St John's Gospel (First and Second Series) (London, 1950), xvi. The two parts of this work were first published separately in 1939 and 1940.

64 Sayers, Letters 2, ed. Reynolds, 172–3.

65 Sayers, Dorothy L., Whose Body? (London, 1968 edn), 63.

66 Sayers, Man Born, 31.

67 Dorothy L. Sayers, ‘The Gates of Paradise’, in Op. 1 (16 March 2000; first publ. 1916), online at: <>, accessed 11 April 2012.

68 Kazantzakis, Nikos, The Last Temptation of Christ (Oxford, 1960); Guirgis, Stephen Adly, The Last Days of Judas Iscariot: A Play (London, 2006).

69 Barbara Reynolds, in a discussion of original sin, has drawn attention to a remark by Sayers in an unpublished letter: ‘The Incarnation is the answer, and the only answer, to the whole problem of free will and suffering’: Reynolds, Barbara, ‘The Just Vengeance’, in Proceedings of the 1996 Seminar, ed. Simpson, Christine R. (Hurstpierpoint, 1997), 516, at 12.

70 Sayers, Man Born, 137.

71 Ibid. 23.

72 Ibid. 230.

73 Ibid. 343 (John 21: 25 AV).

74 Ibid. 20.

75 Sayers, Search and Statement, 130.

76 Sayers, Letters 2, ed. Reynolds, 334.

77 LPL, Bell papers 151, fols 190–6, at 193.

78 Ibid., fol. 169.

79 George Bell, ‘Church and Artist’, The Listener, 14 September 1944, 298.

80 Quoted in Jasper, Ronald C. D., George Bell, Bishop of Chichester (Oxford, 1967), 133.

81 For a full discussion of the episode of the Lambeth doctorate, see Webster, Peter, ‘Archbishop Temple's Offer of a Lambeth Degree to Dorothy L. Sayers’, in Barber, Melanie and Taylor, Stephen, with Sewell, Gabriel, eds, From the Reformation to the Permissive Society, CERS 18 (Woodbridge, 2010), 565–82.

82 Sayers, Letters 2, ed. Reynolds, 429.

83 Reynolds, Barbara, The Passionate Intellect (Kent, OH, 1989), 213.

84 Sayers, Sacred Plays, 99.

85 Sayers, Dorothy L., transl., Tristan in Brittany (London, 1929).

86 Wolfe, Churches and the BBC, 237–8.

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‘Playwrights Are Not Evangelists’: Dorothy L. Sayers on Translating the Gospels into Drama

  • Margaret Wiedemann Hunt (a1)


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