David Edgar’s latest play for the RSC is a thorough delight. As good as anything since Pentecost, maybe better than Pentecost (and the first half of Pentecost is, I think, the best thing he’s written).
The play concerns the writing of the King James Bible. In tradition David Edgar style it jumps backwards and forwards across seventy-five years. The play comprises four scenes: Act I takes places in 1610, 1536, and 1586. Act II is continuous and takes place in 1610, a little after the events of the first scene. Reconstructed in chronological order, we see a young priest visiting William Tyndale in his cell in Flanders on the eve of his execution, the young man smuggling Tyndale’s English Bible out with him - in a scene reminiscent of the end of Brecht’s Life of Galileo, which Edgar wrote an English version of for the Birmingham Rep in 2005; then we are in the counter-counter-Reformation under Elizabeth I, with protestant and Puritan zealots roaming the country to seek out secret Popery in the conduct of Christian worship. In this scene we see a put-upon Churchwarden having his stained-glass windows broken and the concealed chalice revealed. Then in the present we see the various religious factions debating the creation of the King James Bible. There are the conservatives who think we are going too far, the Puritans who want to expunge every hint of Catholicism from the Bible, and the mediators, trying to keep the Anglican Church together. This is both a witty debate about words (‘flock’ or ‘fold’? ‘church’ or ‘congregation’?) and, of course, a debate about how we became the nation we are. In the final scene, we move into imagination, as Bishop Lancelot Andrewes, the overseer of the KJB, meets the ghost of William Tyndale, who is aghast the see how little progress has been made in connecting the Word of God to ordinary people. Together they begin work on a truly radical Bible for the people, Andrewes haunted by his earlier acts of brutal suppression, though this Bible is destined not to be completed. Andrewes is left reflecting that the Bible (and indeed God) is a reflection of the life of man, not the reverse.
It’s exhilarating. Not just because of the enormous amount of complex research compressed and set out for us, for the most part elegantly. This is a major attraction to the play and you get a sense of the intensity of the debates, the way they mattered to people in their souls and in their daily lives. But the play also makes vigorously clear how the King James Bible - about whose timeless literary qualities, in this quadricentennial year, we have seen much celebration - was a product of its age and, in many ways, a rather conservative document. Tyndale’s preference for ordinary speech is compared to the self-consciously archaic and ‘poetic’ form of the Authorized Version. The mixture of theologies at play in this translation is also made vividly theatrical by the different figures debating it. We hear familiar passages from the Bible shockingly defamiliarised in different translations. ‘When were children, we spoke and understood as children. But now we are men, we put all that away. No longer seeing through the dark glass of ritual and superstition, but in full light, and face to face. To know, as we are known,’ explains an Archdeacon in 1586, the words of 1 Corinthians 13 melting and resolving themselves as if seen in a cleaned mirror.
The form of the play is very powerful. Lengthy flashbacks in the first half, a continuous scene, perhaps taking place in Andrewes’s imagination, in Act II, also gives the play a drive and sharpening focus. A little like Glengarry Glen Ross the first half sets out the terms of the debate, bamboozling us a little on the way just to prepare us for the complexity of the issues, and then the second half drives into the guilt and politics that drive the making of this Bible. The play is also very funny in places. In particular, the debates between scholars which recall what Freud called the narcissism of small differences that has so often paralysed the Left. And, of course, ultimately, this is what the play is about. How shall we have our English revolution, in the twenty-first century as in the seventeenth.