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Bishops and ploughboys

19 November 2011

11:00 AM

19 November 2011

11:00 AM

The delectable drama student who served dinner beforehand in the Rooftop Restaurant told us she’d much enjoyed Written on the Heart but that it was a bit intellectual. As David Edgar’s new play is about the making of the King James Bible, this wasn’t altogether surprising. How do you make a play about the deliberations of some 54 bishops and scholars who fine-tuned William Tyndale’s English translation of c.1525–34 into the KJB of 1611? One place to start is to have the scholars haggle over ‘delectable’ or ‘very pleasant’ as alternatives for Na’ ameta li meod in II Samuel 1: 26, not that they’d glimpsed our waitress in the restaurant.

And of course that wasn’t the only translation dilemma thrown around the stage by George Abbot, Lancelot Andrewes, Laurence Chaderton, Sir Henry Savile and David Edgar’s other representatives of the different religious factions among King James’s panel of ‘grave divines’. Against all odds, it’s a miracle that the translators were able to agree the text of the greatest Bible in the English language, though one of little help to the dramatist.

David Edgar must therefore play up such differences as did occur, as well as calling in episcopalian conservatives and radical reformers to spice up the plot. Thus in Gregory Doran’s excellent production a scene in which a puritanical archdeacon, chaplain and clerk, checking up that a church has complied with a ‘no images’ directive, are confronted by an appalled church-warden and local squire who’ve hidden their chalice but stopped short of smashing their stained glass.

This scene is crucial in laying the foundation for what’s really the heart of Edgar’s play, namely how the moderation of one principal translator was rooted in remorse and repentance for his youthful intolerance and greed. For the scene turns out to be a flashback to Bishop Lancelot Andrewes’s years as the young chaplain who’d not only insisted upon the removal of the chalice, but also himself swindled the churchwarden by buying it at a knock-down price.

The play opens with Bishop Andrewes at his daily five-hour devotions in his private chapel at Ely House in London, wailing and gnashing his teeth over his sins while the revising committee he’s summoned to join him are left to chafe (‘that was a terrible ride down from Cambridge in the rain’) and, more helpfully, to introduce themselves to the audience. The bearded and fulsomely gowned divines huff and puff over alternative wordings, while one of the younger scholars wastes little time in cajoling Andrewes’s housekeeper into lifting her skirts. Sinfulness is here never far from godliness.

A time-shift takes us back to the exiled William Tyndale, a shaggy, impassioned figure already betrayed and imprisoned near Brussels. Unfortunately, the incarceration isn’t immediately evident. I may not have been alone in guessing that the earnest young priest who visits him would turn out to betray him. But not so, for his role in the play is actually to convey Tyndale’s precious folios to England where they would eventually form the basis of the KJB. There’s a chilling touch when, in a premonition of Tyndale’s horrendous death, his jailer lights a fire in the very stove in which the translator had concealed his pages. This scene, like a number of others, is excessively in thrall to Edgar’s homework, not sparing you excursions into Latin and Flemish. It would be the stronger for the wielding of the ‘pruninghook’ decided by God’s gardeners to be the best word at Isaiah 2: 4.

The second half of the play gathers momentum as its focus tightens on Oliver Ford Davies’s Andrewes as lynchpin of the translation project. Ford Davies brilliantly shows us an Andrewes in 1610 haunted and shaped by a conscience grappling not only with his own intolerant past, but also with the terrible fate meted out by his not-so-distant predecessors to the man on whose work the glories of the translation coming to birth so largely leaned. The dilemmas of the translators and of Andrewes himself are finely dramatised when Tyndale (superbly played by Stephen Boxer) resurrects to argue with him that scholastic indecision must always be resolved in favour of a Bible that will bring the scriptures ‘to the English ploughboy’.  

For us today, the paradox is that what was once perceived as creating a language empowering universal understanding of Testaments Old and New is for so many now considered to be as inaccessible as the Hebrew and Greek originals were when they were the exclusive property of the Catholic Church.

Written on the Heart would be more compelling if it were not quite so mired in the complexities of the Reformation. But one can only be grateful for the vigorous airing of unashamed ‘intellectual’ content when that’s sadly lacking in so much contemporary theatre.

I strongly recommend spending time beforehand with the programme or playtext (Nick Hern Books, £9.99), and at book length Adam Nicolson’s Power and Glory: Jacobean England and the Making of the King James Bible (HarperCollins, 2003). 

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