A short profile of a Play about the ‘first’ translation of the Bible into English. The play was first produced in 2011…
David Edgar has had a long and distinguished career, but only with Written on The Heart has he (for me) created something that will stand alongside, for instance, Miller’s The Crucible and Death of a Salesman, Shaw’s Saint Joan and Major Barbara, Rattigan’s The Deep Blue Sea, and not least Drinkwater’s Oliver Cromwell and Abraham Lincoln, all beautifully crafted plays that retain and stimulate an audience.
Edgar’s Written On The Heart, was first produced by the RSC in Stratford to commemorate the 400 anniversary of the publication of the King James Bible, is a theatrical tour de force.
Based around the King’s decision to create an authorised version of the Bible in English, available to every church in England — and by a natural extension the general populace — Edgar’s play, directed originally by the RSC’s Artistic Director, Gregory Doran, takes us on a fascinating journey that at times travels back to a time where we meet William Tyndale, who translated an earlier version of the Bible into English, from which great tracts were taken and, with some changes, incorporated into the new King James version.
And it’s these scenes between Tyndale, played with devastating accuracy and passion by Stephen Boxer, and Oliver Ford Davies’s thoughtful, yet woeful Lancelot Andrewes, that’s at the heart of this play — and the heart upon which this play is written — bringing out a wonderful sequence of arguments that are as important as the courtroom scenes in Miller’s The Crucible, but with an added humour that is wonderfully underplayed, leaving you wanting more, much more.
Edgar’s play is already a classic that will touch theatre goers down the ages, in the way that Shaw’s Saint Joan has done, where again comedy is used to lighten the load, turning Joan of Arc into a street wise young woman who appears wiser than those around her, as does Jodie McNee’s character, Mary Currer, a servant, in Written on the Heart, who appears better read than her boss the bishop, and represents — as does Joan — the lost women of history, which Edgar uses wonderfully, turning her into — again like Joan — a genderless figure with whom we can all relate. This is a rare ability for a playwright.
I have written previously, in William Shakespeare — A Life, about a copy of the King James Bible that found its way to Holy Trinity Church in Stratford soon after its first publication:
Shakespeare was aged forty-six when the Bible arrived in the church, and that same bible is today on display in the chancel open at Psalm 46, which has a strange ‘connection’ in as much as when you count down to the forty-six word(excluding the title) you will come to the word ‘shake’, then, if you go to the end of the psalm, ignoring the word ‘selah’ (amen) and count forty-six words back you will find the word ‘spear’. Many have suggested that Shakespeare had a hand in the translation of the King James Bible, slipping in a coded message of his part in the most important publishing events of the 17th century. A bit far fetched perhaps, but a good and intriguing story nonetheless.
Shakespeare was undoubtedly, in the context and expectations of his time, a true Christian who, as a playwright nevertheless challenged such a belief via the mouths of others, yet used the Bible exquisitely as source material as Shakespeare scholar and priest, Paul Edmondson, has written:
“ Shakespeare alludes to the Bible many hundreds of times…and draws readily on Christian themes…[with]…Major resurrection narratives…found in numerous plays, when characters who have been supposed dead come back to life…”.
“ It is the poet’s privilege to imagine the world differently, to enhance lives through the use of language, to help us to identify our own experiences and feelings, as well as to take us to other worlds.”
Edmondson ends by writing that Shakespeare was not afraid to ask the searching questions that trouble us all.
When Shakespeare died in 1616, his shrouded body was carried through the familiar North Porch of Holy Trinity, past the font in which he was baptised to the right, along the Nave, under the Crossing and into the Chancel where his body was laid in a prepared tomb below the flagstones of the Sanctuary in front of what is now the High Altar. The bodies of members of his family where, in time, laid alongside him.
By the time of his death the parish records were being written in English, not Latin; his reads: ‘Will Shakespeare, Gent’.”
Shakespeare would certainly have read from that Bible, and may even have known, as a possible member of the team who translated the King James Bible, of the earlier Tyndale version. It’s a wonderful thought.