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Radio / The Man Born to Be King

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The Man Born to Be King is a play cycle for radio by Dorothy L. Sayers. It consists of twelve one-hour plays depicting key events in the life of Jesus. The play cycle was commissioned by The BBC and first aired in 1941-1942, with the first play broadcast on 21 December 1941 and subsequent plays following at four-week intervals.

Sayers felt that religious drama was frequently undramatic, populated by flat characters who mouthed archaic dialogue while going through the overfamiliar motions, and strove to avoid this in her play cycle, presenting the characters as real people who speak in contemporary language and are motivated by everyday (and occasionally trivial) concerns.

The twelve plays in the cycle are:

  1. Kings in Judea
  2. The King's Herald
  3. A Certain Nobleman
  4. The Heirs to the Kingdom
  5. The Bread of Heaven
  6. The Feast of Tabernacles
  7. The Light and the Life
  8. Royal Progress
  9. The King's Supper
  10. The Princes of This World
  11. King of Sorrows
  12. The King Comes to His Own

"Kings in Judea" tells the Christmas story; the next six plays cover the years of Jesus's ministry; and the final five plays tell the Easter story: the entry into Jerusalem, the Last Supper, Jesus arrested and condemned by the authorities, the Crucifixion, and the Resurrection.

No relation to The Man Who Would be King.

This play cycle provides examples of:

  • Accent Adaptation: Contemporary British Accents are used to indicate the social standing of various characters. At one point in the script, there is a stage direction warning against the temptation to play a materialistic character with a Jewish accent, as if he weren't surrounded by equally-Jewish characters speaking standard English; instead Sayers recommends playing him with 'a frank Cockney accent'. She also notes that technically, all the Disciples and Jesus should have a thick back-country accent, because the Gospels mention that they had noticeable Galilean speech patterns. But since no one could figure out how to pick one regional English accent without making all the others feel snubbed, they went with standard pronunciation.
  • Agent Scully: The Second Pharisee in "The King Comes to His Own", who's convinced there's some perfectly natural explanation for all the unexplained phenomena at Jesus' tomb.
  • All There in the Manual: Each play comes with very detailed performance notes in which Sayers explains her creative choices, explains her interpretation of the characters and their motivations, and suggests ways to present the drama most effectively.
  • Anachronism Stew: Deliberately invoked: "The general effect aimed at has been rather that of a Renaissance painting, where figures in their modern habits mingle familiarly with others whose dress and behaviour are sufficiently orientalised to give a flavour of the time and place and conform with the requirements of the story." Thus, for example, the wealthy Lord Benjamin is characterized as a cheerful English country squire type, Matthew as a East London Cockney wheeler-deeler, and two Roman soldiers Proclus and Sosius as different levels of English officers in the British Raj, the former being one who respects and understands the local religious traditions and officials (and who refers to his servant, whom he later asks Jesus to heal, as his 'batman') and the latter who tends to lump all the native people together and isn't be too impressed by supposed miracles.
  • As the Good Book Says...: Zig-Zagged. The plays of course adapt the stories straight out of The Bible, but Sayers refused (unlike most previous religious dramas had done) to simply take the wording from the King James Version and call it a day, believing that to be poor workmanship. However, she studied The Four Gospels directly in the Greek and followed them very closely, so that in some places her dialogue is actually closer to the original text than the KJV is.
  • Bitch in Sheep's Clothing: When he first shows up, Judas comes across as a fairly nice if serious person; but he gradually shows himself to be mean-spirited, greedy, proud and misguided. As Sayers points out in the introduction, the story simply doesn't work if it's obvious from the beginning that Judas is going to end up betraying his friend and teacher, because it makes Jesus appear to be a Horrible Judge of Character.
  • Bothering by the Book: During the court scene, Nicodemus the Pharisee and Joseph of Arimethea (who are followers of Jesus, but too afraid to declare openly for him), do their best to defend Jesus by insisting on everything being done per the letter of the law and pointing out every time Caiaphas tries to wrest the evidence or break the rules.
  • Bullying the Disabled: Judas's mean-spiritedness is established when he teases John for his stutter.
  • Canon Foreigner: Baruch the Zealot, who represents the Jews who wanted to throw the Romans out of Israel and interpreted Jesus's talk about bringing forth a new kingdom in that light; his interactions with Jesus and Judas help provide context for the latter's actions.
  • The Coconut Effect: As Sayers puts it in the notes: "It is doubtless true, as somebody pointed out, that a yoke of oxen would be driven, not with a whip but with a goad; but the lash of a whip can be heard on the air, whereas it is useless to ask the studio-effects-man to stand by making a noise like an ox-goad."
  • Composite Character:
    • Sayers combines a couple of different Roman soldiers from the Gospels into a single character named Proclus, who first appears at Herod's court in "Kings in Judea" and subsequently crosses paths with Jesus a number of times, the last time when he's the centurion supervising Jesus's execution.
    • Mary Magdalene, Mary of Bethany, and the Woman caught in adultery are treated as the same character, following a tradition in some early church writings. This also helps deal with the One-Steve Limit, as there are a lot of women named Mary in the Gospels.
  • Corrupt Church: Caiaphas and the Pharisees.
  • Doctor's Orders: In "Kings in Judea", Herod's Court Physician speaks quite firmly with him.
  • Do Wrong, Right: In "The Princes of This World", Shadrach is as eager to get a conviction as the rest of the Pharisees. He still annoys them immensely, by pointing out that if they want a watertight case, their attempts to take shortcuts of dubious legality are just going to be a waste of time. (And that it isn't — "strictly speaking" — legal for the police to hit the accused in the face).
  • Dreaming of Things to Come: Pilate's wife Claudia dreams, correctly, that her husband will be remembered by the phrase 'He suffered under Pontius Pilate'.
  • Everyone Has Standards: In "Kings in Judea" Herod orders Proclus to go and kill every boy under two years in Bethlehem, but Proclus flat-out refuses: "Sir, I am a soldier, not a butcher [...] I won't, and that's flat. I am a Roman, and Romans do not kill children."
  • Evil Debt Collector: Matthew is a reformed example. While he's changed his ways after meeting Jesus, he gets a kick out of the parable of the Unrighteous Steward (who uses creative accounting to get a new job), declines to be in charge of the Disciples' funds since it would be a temptation for him, and is the first to suspect that Judas is Stealing from the Till.
  • Fix Fic: The plays fill in what Sayers saw as a Plot Hole in the scriptural accounts: How did Jesus know so specifically where there was a donkey colt tied up, and what password the disciples should say for its owners to let them borrow it? In Sayers' version, it's a pre-arranged signal from Baruch the Zealot to let him know Jesus was not interested in leading the Rebellion. If He had been, He would have asked for the white horse that was there instead.
  • God Is Dead: Claudia's dream incorporates Plutarch's tale of a cry going out over the sea: "Great Pan is dead".
  • Go Mad from the Revelation: Nicodemus, the revelation in question being that Jesus' claim to be the Son of God had been entirely justified.
  • Historical Domain Character: Herod the Great and others.
  • La RĂ©sistance: The Canon Foreigner Baruch the Zealot provides some plot machinations by pressing on tensions between Jesus' followers and Rome.
  • I Did What I Had to Do: Caiaphas's justification for having Jesus executed: one day, he knows, the Zealots will revolt, leading to a brutal Roman clampdown on what's left of Jewish independence. Caiaphas has Jesus judicially murdered in case he becomes a figurehead for such a rebellion — though he knows he's only delaying the inevitable.
    Caiaphas: I have killed this Jesus, who would have made more faction, but for one pretender crucified, fifty will arise.
  • It's All About Me: When Judas makes his bargain to betray Jesus to the Pharisees, his language makes it clear that his only interest in Jesus was as a projection of his own ideas:
    The noblest dreams I ever dreamed, the holiest prayer my heart could utter, all my hopes, all my ideals, seemed incarnate in him.
  • Major Character, Mainstream Accent: As mentioned under Accent Adaptation, Jesus was voiced in a "standard" (RP) accent.
  • Passion Play: The trial and execution of Jesus each get an hour-long episode.
  • Ritual Magic: The simplicity of Jesus's miracles is contrasted with the complicated spells of sorcerers.
  • Smug Snake: Shadrach.
  • Stealing from the Till: Matthew, being a former Evil Debt Collector who knows how such things work, suspects Judas of doing this, although he can't prove it.
    Matthew: Judas looked me straight in the eye—too straight—and said he'd bestowed it on a deserving object. I know them deserving objects what you can't put a name to.
  • Values Dissonance: Invoked in-universe to explain the conflict between Pilate and the Pharisees. To the Pharisees (being Jewish) Jesus' claim to be the Son of God amounts to blasphemy and deserves death. To Pilate as a Roman, the notion that a god could have a human son is very much in the realm of possibility, and the gods wouldn't be terribly pleased with you if you killed him.
  • What Happened to the Mouse?: Sayers deliberately leaves the fate of Judas ambiguous, as a nod to the differing versions of his death in the Gospels.