1940s radio plays on Christ’s life continue to inspire

| Barb Umberger | February 19, 2020 | 0 Comments

Katy Wehr of Holy Family in St. Louis Park talks about Dorothy Sayers and her play, “The Man Born to be King,” during a 90-minute session at the Benedictine Center of St. Paul’s Monastery in Maplewood Feb. 11. DAVE HRBACEK | THE CATHOLIC SPIRIT

Benedictine Sister Virginia Matter fondly remembers listening to children’s radio programs on Saturday mornings as a youngster in the 1940s. “We didn’t have a television,” she said. 

“When I listened to the radio, I learned to use my imagination and envision what was going on,” said Sister Virginia, spiritual director at the Benedictine Center of St. Paul’s Monastery in Maplewood, which provides opportunities for spiritual direction, formation and retreats. “It was delightful.” 

Her memories resurfaced Feb. 11 when she participated in a group reading of excerpts from “The Man Born to be King,” a book of 12, 45-minute plays for children about Christ’s life originally performed on BBC radio in Great Britain from December 1941 to October 1942. 

The plays were written by Dorothy L. Sayers, best known as a writer of mystery novels but also a poet who wrote books about the Christian faith, once translated Dante’s “Divine Comedy” and was a friend of C.S. Lewis, who read “The Man Born to be King” every Holy Week.

Katy Wehr, a Catholic musician, former faith formation coordinator at St. Mark in St. Paul and member of Holy Family in St. Louis Park, presented opening remarks on Sayers and led a 90-minute session, during which the dozen participants read parts from several scenes in Sayers’ plays. They sat at conference tables pulled into a “U” to create an intimate, conversational setting.

“Hearing (the speakers) reminded me of when I was a child listening to the radio,” Sister Virginia said. During the readings, she imagined each of the characters and life lived in the time of Christ.

Wehr earned her doctoral degree in divinity in 2017 at the Institute for Theology, Imagination and the Arts at the University of St. Andrews in Scotland. Her dissertation addressed “Bible and Theology at Work: The Creative Energy of Dorothy L. Sayers’ ‘The Man Born to be King.’”

Sayers’ purpose, Wehr said, was to help participants picture each character as a real person. The plays were intended to be heard, not read. 

“She wanted people to know that those in a Gospel story are not just people in a story,” Wehr said. “These were real people who lived real lives. They encountered Christ in real ways, whether meeting him on the street, hearing about him or hearing him teach.”

Lent is a great time to read — or hear — the plays, Wehr said. “The plays try to show a bigger story of Christ’s coming, of who Christ is. That the Nativity is not just one event that happened, but the beginning of the story that ends with the crucifixion and resurrection.”

The event at the Benedictine Center is one way to encourage more people to read the plays, Wehr said. “When they do, it makes them think about the Gospel stories in a new, more experiential way,” she said.

The plays were controversial in their time. In 1941, by law in England, performances involving Jesus were to show him as a light from above or a voice heard offstage. When snippets about the plays were released before full airing, some feared that portraying Jesus interacting with others would sound blasphemous.

Similarly, audiences were accustomed to actors speaking words directly from Scripture. Hearing that Sayers’ characters would speak conversational, contemporary English created an uproar. One newspaper headline read: “BBC radio plays in American gangster slang.”

In Sayers’ plays, the disciples spoke in British dialects. The character of Matthew, for example, was written to speak in a cockney accent. Sayers’ intention was to emphasize that “Jesus was for everyone,” Wehr said.

Sayers wanted to break through what she called “stained-glass window decorum,” Wehr said. “These are real people.”

Once the plays hit the radio waves, they were received positively, she said.

The 12 plays cover Christ’s life from his birth to his death and resurrection. For example, plays nine through 12 depict the Last Supper, Jesus’ trial, his crucifixion and resurrection, including reaction of the disciples to all that was happening. 

A longtime fan of Sayers’ mystery novels, Erin Sim of St. Albert the Great in Minneapolis, said she participated in the reading to learn more about the theological side of the author’s work. 

Sim said she especially admired how Sayers’ wording humanized the characters. “It gives them more life than Scripture does,” she said. “That appealed to me.”

The last scene read at the Benedictine Center described Jesus reuniting and breaking bread with his disciples after his resurrection. It brought the characters to life, Sim said.

“These people had lost their teacher, their friend,” she said. For example, “they understand the subtle hierarchy in a group of friends. ‘Of course, it hurt you the most, John. You were the closest to him.’”

“People always surprise me by their deep reactions to different lines or ideas in the plays,” Wehr said, “and I get more out of the plays each time, too.”

Wehr said Catholic theater, the arts and literature can do a lot to nurture spiritual growth. 

“God speaks to us in many different ways,” she said. “Even if people are not musicians, actors or dancers, God can use attending the arts to speak to us. And for people who are not artistic, often using the arts and our faith together becomes a kind of prayer.”

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