The Space Between: Literature and Culture 1914-1945

Militarizing the Messiah: Britain's Wartime Rebranding in The Man Born to Be King

Melissa Dinsman
University of Notre Dame

In this article, I discuss Dorothy Sayers’s BBC serial drama The Man Born to Be King, an allegorical version of the Gospels and the lead-up to World War II in twelve parts. Although primarily a national broadcast, The Man Born to Be King needs to be understood within a transnational wartime context, thereby challenging the tendency of critics to see British wartime literature as exclusively preoccupied with nation. Instead, I argue for a transnational understanding of late-modernism and suggest that Sayers participated in a larger British rebranding campaign that aimed to court continued U.S. support of the Allied war effort. By giving Christ a voice in her play-cycle, Sayers attempted to redefine Britain as a historically Christian nation, an argument T.S. Eliot also frequently made. Yet while Sayers hoped that The Man Born to Be King would unify Britain (and by extension her allies) through the Gospels, the play-cycle was instead effective because of its militarization of the Savior.

Keywords: Sayers, WWII, radio, propaganda, Christianity

Two shocks broke on us this past week: Pearl Harbour and The Man Born to be King.

– Frederick Ogilvie, Director-General of the BBC1

On 10 December 1941, only a few days after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, Dorothy L. Sayers, best known for her Lord Peter Wimsey detective novels, spoke at a press conference held at the Berners Hotel, London. Here, she read an excerpt from the fourth installment of her forthcoming radio play-cycle on the story of Christ, The Man Born to Be King. The first play, based on the nativity, was to be broadcast on the BBC the Sunday before Christmas, and this press conference was meant to give the listening public a taste of what was to come. Instead, following a reading of a dialogue where the disciple Matthew speaks in a working-class Cockney accent and uses American slang, a firestorm broke out among the press. The Daily Mail ran the sensational headline “BBC Life of Christ Play in U.S. Slang” and the Daily Herald falsely reported “Gangsterisms in Bible Play” (Briggs 567). After reading the newspaper accounts of the forthcoming broadcasts, extreme Protestant groups such as the Lord’s Day Observance Society (LDOS) and the Protestant Truth Society began protesting Sayers’ play-cycle, writing letters to the BBC, the Ministry of Information (MOI), and the Archbishop of Canterbury, and running an advert in The Times with the heading “Radio Impersonation of Christ!”2 Due to the public outcry and the desire to avoid any unnecessary religious controversy, the MOI’s Brendan Bracken requested that Sayers’ radio plays be reviewed by the Central Religious Advisory Committee (CRAC), who, after reading the scripts, overwhelmingly approved the productions. Even those committee members who raised doubts about the broadcasts ruled in favor of Sayers’ play-cycle as they neither wanted to set a precedent of appeasing fringe religious organizations like the LDOS, nor offend Britain’s main ally and newcomer to the war by suggesting that American English was beneath the dignity of the disciples (Brabazon 204).

While this second reason may initially seem irrelevant, given that Sayers’ broadcasts were intended for a national audience, this point actually gets at the heart of a larger British self-marketing problem that impacted mass media and cultural productions. As Marina MacKay notes, one of the biggest propaganda battles Britain faced at the outset of the war was a national “rebranding” campaign, which, bolstered by MOI propaganda, depicted Britain’s struggles as a “‘people’s war’” that relied upon the “mythology of classless civilian solidarity” (MacKay 23).3 Standing somewhere between MOI-sanctioned and independent art, Sayers’ yearlong (21 December 1941–18 October 1942) radio serial The Man Born to Be King offered the BBC a tremendous opportunity to recast Britain in favorable terms, these being that the nation was historically egalitarian and Christian (much like the U.S.). Promoting such a positive, albeit fictional, image of Britain to its national listeners was an important step in a larger propaganda campaign that aimed to court U.S. support of Britain’s war effort and show Americans that they were, in the words of radio broadcaster J.B. Priestley, “like us” (13).4

Mass media such as radio and film were particularly important for the national and transnational transmission of this rebranding campaign. One of Britain’s main intended audiences during the war’s early years was the U.S., whose isolationism Britain hoped to bring to an end.5 Priestley, one of wartime Britain’s most famous national broadcasters, epitomized this new image. With his West Yorkshire accent, he took to the BBC’s North American Service airwaves and described a unified British population fighting a “total war.” He depicted a Britain in transition: as the bombs dropped, entrenched class lines were destroyed, making way for a new “People’s” Britain. As he describes in his opening broadcast on 30 May 1940:

At odd times we’ve heard a sound like the distant banging of doors, which was, of course, the noise of bombs and anti-aircraft guns. It hasn’t worried anybody very much. At the Star Inn just down the road, the regular customers in the taproom, sitting over their half pints of bitter, have been telling each other that we’ve all to set about stopping this Hitler. We’ve formed a local detachment of local defence volunteers or parashots, and I’ve joined them myself. […] It’s not the first time men have kept guard on these downs, for they did it in Queen Elizabeth’s time and then in Napoleon’s. (Priestley 1)

Priestley’s Britain, where citizens carry on with “business as usual” and talk of the war as everyone’s fight, is prepared for battle not only because its people recognize the war as just, but also because they have been in this position before, first in “Queen Elizabeth’s time and then in Napoleon’s.” History, for Priestley and for Britain, repeats itself. And these motifs of a resilient, egalitarian, and historically-established nation find themselves reiterated throughout wartime literature and art, creating what is now referred to as the “myth” of the Blitz.6 The depiction of Britain doing “business as usual” despite the war’s interruptions was an oft-recycled theme. Pushed by the Churchill government and the MOI as a means to “normaliz[e] the air-raid experience,” this message often found its way into British films of the early 1940s (Fox 112).7 In Harold French’s Unpublished Story (1942), for example, a pub owner insists that patrons use the door to his establishment, despite the fact that the wall next to the door had been bombed open not five minutes before in an air raid.

Perhaps the most famous British propaganda film to find its way onto British and American screens is London Can Take It! (1940). Created by the MOI, this short documentary film famously shows the effects of “total war” with images of the king and queen of England walking along the rubble of a London building beside working-class citizens. 

World War II, according to London Can Take It, affected royalty and worker alike. The numerous films on the London bombings that emerged in the early years of the war have enabled historians like Mark Connelly to argue that the Second World War, and in particular the Blitz, is “very definitely a visual memory” (131). But while films suggest a visual war, victims of the Blitz and radio listeners in America experienced the war largely through sound and not sight. Even in her work on wartime British and German cinema, Jo Fox acknowledges the power of sound and cites the “‘soundtrack of a night raid’” as one of the most powerful moments of London Can Take It (113). This “soundtrack” (the engines of planes, the whizzing of falling bombs, machine gun fire, and explosions) determined how Britons navigated the Blitz while inside a shelter. Such a focus on sound, even in a visual medium, indicates a larger cultural movement that stressed listening as a means by which the war created shared experiences across class, gender, and even racial lines.8

For Sayers, rebranding Britain as egalitarian required a nationwide lesson in Christian doctrine through the broadcasting of God’s word. These religious radio plays, however, did not sit well with all listeners, particularly marginal Protestant groups. One of the main factors leading to these groups’ extreme response was the assumption that radio broadcasting and war were linked. In Sayers’ broadcasts, however, religion, or more accurately a fear of divine retribution, was infused into this correlation: some of the public believed that broadcasting the play-cycle was such a blasphemy that Britain’s defeat in Singapore in February 1942 was a punishment from God. As the BBC’s former Director of Religious Broadcasting J.W. Welch recalls, some critical responses to The Man Born to Be King claimed “that Singapore fell because these plays were broadcast, and [critics] appealed for them to be taken off before a like fate came to Australia” (33). Although responses like these were in the minority, they were frequent and vehement
enough that the Director-General of the BBC equated the shock value of The Man Born to Be King with the astonishing attack on Pearl Harbor.            

Most of the public outrage regarding The Man Born to Be King revolved around voice and language. But it was not only the use of accents and slang in the productions (the major complaint of newspaper headlines) that caused religious conservatives to fear the worst for Britain’s war efforts; it was also the voicing of Jesus on air, and in contemporary language. For Sayers, however, voice and language were key to making the play successful. Before she began writing, Sayers received assurance from Welch and the BBC that she would be able to present Jesus as historical and human, and that she would be allowed to use present-day language rather than have characters “talk Bible” (Letters 282). Sayers was particularly adamant that Christ’s role be a speaking part in order to emphasize his humanity and historicity. As she writes to Welch,

I feel very strongly that the prohibition against representing Our Lord directly on stage or in films…tends to produce a sense of unreality which is very damaging to the ordinary man’s conception of Christianity. The device of indicating Christ’s presence by a “voice off”, or by a shaft of light, or a shadow, or what not, tends to suggest to people that He was never a real person at all, and this impression of unreality extends to all the other people in the drama, with the result that “Bible characters” are felt to be quite different from ordinary human beings. (Letters 146-47)

For Sayers, giving a voice to Jesus over the radio was an entertaining means of educating the public on Christian dogma, thereby strengthening the religious and cultural values of Britain at a time when these values were being assaulted by Nazi Germany.9 But by attempting to strengthen what she believed to be British values, Sayers also participated in a larger re-narration of Britain’s national identity, to which a number of writers, directors, and artists (both MOI-sanctioned and not) were contributing.

In reading Sayers’ The Man Born to Be King as part of Britain’s larger re-branding campaign, I argue that the mythical image of a Britain unified through the trans-historical radio voice of Christ speaks to more than the British public. Building upon the work of Mia Spiro, who writes in Anti-Nazi Modernism that “British […] writers and intellectuals were in conversation with European politics, and their works were far more integrated with international concerns” than they may at first appear (4), I show Sayers to be an example of a larger movement within British late-modernism toward transnationalism. In order to create a national “Christian” image, Sayers defined other national cultures through the language of opposition. The division between ally and enemy in the play-cycle, however, is complicated by Britain’s imperial past and Sayers’ militaristic presentation of the Gospels. This martial depiction of Christ is partly due to what Siân Nicholas refers to as the BBC’s “‘military’ character;”10 but it is also due to the play-cycle’s allegorical structure (109). In effect, Sayers’ plays invited listeners to imagine Christ as a religious leader who eschewed military conflict in the first century; yet by giving Christ and his message a voice during the Second World War, Sayers also contradicts the traditional image of a pacifist Christ. Instead, under Sayers’ direction, Jesus was transformed into a militarized Messiah promoting a Britain unified by the Christian faith as an antidote to German Nazism.

Before discussing The Man Born to Be King as partaking in Britain’s larger rebranding campaign, however, Sayers’ polarizing decision to have Jesus voiced on air needs addressing. I am specifically concerned with the criticism of the Lord’s Day Observance Society (LDOS), whose confused mixing of visual and aural language to describe the blasphemy of voicing Christ has yet to be fully considered. The LDOS’s mixing of senses not only questions the long-held philosophical division between the aural and the visual,11 but also calls attention to the symbiotic relationship between sight and sound that emerges with radio broadcasting, thereby enabling propaganda, and specifically The Man Born to Be King, to become a more effective wartime tool.12

I Heard the Voice of Jesus Say

When the LDOS published their complaints against The Man Born to Be King in The Times on 30 December 1941, Sayers’ Jesus had not yet spoken on air. With the first play, the nativity scene, already broadcasted (in which the character of Christ had no speaking lines), the LDOS was making one last attempt to outrage the public and convince the BBC that Sayers’ play-cycle was an assault against the Christian religion. Throughout this advertisement (Fig. 1), the LDOS makes a fascinating claim about the medium of radio, a claim that was overlooked when CRAC and the BBC approved the plays for production. 

Specifically, the LDOS’s protest argues that Sayers’ broadcast amounted to an “impersonation of Christ,” thereby implying that when a voice is heard over the radio, the character and appearance of the voice is also suggested to a listening audience. For the LDOS, this personification of Christ on air was “blasphemous” and “irreveren[t]” and broke the Third Commandment (taking the Lord’s name in vain), by speaking on behalf of God. Strangely, the LDOS did not choose to mention the Second Commandment (not making a carven image or likeness of God), which would have been more appropriate given their use of the term “impersonation.” This confusion of sight and sound continues throughout the advertisement, and toward the end of Rev. H.H. Martin’s letter to the BBC, which is included in the protest, he states that the BBC should “refrain from staging on the wireless this revolting imitation of the voice of our Divine Saviour and Redeemer.” From this line it is apparent that Martin and the LDOS were confused by more than just the senses; they are also puzzled by the medium of radio itself, and suggest that a physical production in a theater is akin to a play created for radio.

Luckily for Sayers and the BBC, the Lord Chamberlain’s Office made a more decisive distinction between the stage and radio—between the mediums of sight and sound. It was determined that because the character of Jesus was to be heard on the air, no impersonation was taking place. However, the Lord Chamberlain warned that if the productions were to be translated for the stage or screen (be it film or television) the ruling would be very different (Welch 33).13 Thus, in order for The Man Born to Be King to be broadcast, a division had to be made between sight and sound; the radio had to be declared strictly an aural medium. This is certainly a distinction that has been made since the play-cycle’s production, most famously perhaps by Marshall McLuhan, who notes a difference between television as a “cool” medium that stimulates multiple senses and radio as a “hot” medium “that extends one single sense in ‘high definition’” (36). But the claim that radio is exclusively an aural medium at the expense of the visual sense is an inaccurate depiction of the way the medium really works.

In fact, that radio listening required audiences to both hear and see had been well established by the time Sayers presented The Man Born to Be King. Seven years prior to the play-cycle’s first broadcast, American psychologists Hadley Cantril and Gordon W. Allport argued in “Judging Personality from Voice” that the radio voice conveys correct information about its speaker’s personality, although no listener receives a one hundred percent accurate image (49).14 Regardless of accuracy, it is significant to note that as early as the mid-1930s radio theorists recognized that the medium did not abide by an aural / visual split. Instead, radio required both senses. This was certainly the case for the audience of Sayers’ first biblical radio drama He That Should Come (1938). In their letters to the BBC, listeners emphasized the role that sight played in their listening experience. As one listener remarked, “‘None of us realized before how much we had just accepted the story without properly visualizing it. It gave us a new vision of it all and the tiny infant’s cry brought home to us as never before the real humanity of Jesus’” (qtd. in Brabazon 171-72). This visualizing process was only exacerbated in The Man Born to Be King, where listeners not only heard the cry of the infant Jesus, but also received the message of the Gospels from their source.

Even Sayers, who once wrote to Val Gielgud that radio is a medium of “speech-without-sight,” seemed aware of radio’s ability to draw both aural and visual responses (Letters 238). Throughout The Man Born to Be King there are numerous references to blindness and seeing, which is in large part an allusion to Christ as “the light of the world.” But Sayers also uses Jesus’ scene with Jacob the Blind Man in the seventh play, “The Light and the Life,” to emphasize the significance of voice when one does not know and cannot see the speaker. Jacob, who is cured of his blindness by Christ, attempts to describe to the Elders of the synagogue just how this miracle came to pass. He explains that he followed a speaker’s command to wash himself in the Pool of Siloam because “voices mean a lot when you’re blind,” and that he knew “that voice meant well by [him]” (The Man 208). Jacob’s belief in the goodness of Christ based on voice alone serves him well, for it is his faith that cures him. More striking, however, is that upon seeing Jesus a few pages later Jacob is able to identify the miracle worker without introduction; as Jacob exclaims, “Here, I say! I ought to know that voice…. Sir, speak again. For God’s sake, speak again.… I never set eyes on your face before—faces mean nothing to me—but you look the way you ought to look if you’re the man I take you for” (The Man 212). Through Jacob, Sayers presents the very same phenomenon as Cantril and Allport in “Judging Personality from Voice”: the speaker’s voice leads the attentive listener to accurately determine both inner (that Jesus has a good nature) and outer (Jesus’ physical attributes) characteristics.

The characters’ physical attributes were in fact so important to Sayers that she included detailed descriptions of their physical features in her extensive notes for the cast and the plays’ producer Val Gielgud. These notes, which contain the ages of the characters, back-stories, psychological profiles, voice descriptions, and even a seating chart for the Last Supper, were intended to help the cast gain a mental image of the roles they were portraying, even though they would never be seen live by an audience sharing the experience in a public space. Take, for example, Sayers’ description of Ephraim in the first play: “He has a peevish, bleating voice like an agitated goat, and (if we could see him) a little thin beard, and an expression of permanent anxiety” (The Man 62).15 From descriptions such as these, it would seem that Sayers had a very distinct idea as to the voice and look of each of her characters, and it was her intent that both actors and listeners should visualize them as she imagined.

Thus, the LDOS was not wrong when it used the term “impersonate” to protest the broadcasting of The Man Born to Be King. In fact, the religious Society was in many ways right to be concerned, for as Mladen Dolar points out, the acousmatic voice has the ability to leave a more powerful impression on its listeners than a strictly visual image: “the voice, as opposed to the gaze, does not conceal, it is given in a seeming immediacy and immediately penetrates interiority, it cannot be quite held at bay” (78). With the disembodied voice, there is no impediment to the message: the absence of a physical body speaking to the audience gives the words of the speaker direct access to an active listener. But it is the listener’s own process of imagination that gives the disembodied voice its power—the radio listener re-embodies the voice internally, thereby increasing the influence of the spoken words. Part of the reason the radio voice resonates so strongly among its listeners is due to the private spaces in which radio is listened to. Unlike the cinema or theater, which the public attends outside the home, radio enters the private sphere, creating what appears to be an intimate connection between broadcaster and listener, what Theodor Adorno famously calls an “illusion of closeness” (81). This connection, however, is not as personal as the listener believes, for the radio’s voice is being heard in homes around the country. Thus the radio acts as both public and private medium. With regard to The Man Born to Be King, this meant that Jesus’ voice was additionally effective because it reached the listener at home—his message became part of the private environment, rather than say a shared public experience in a church. But while the individual listener or family heard Jesus’ voice in the private sphere, two million other Britons were duplicating this listening experience. Thus the BBC was able to reach a large, but private audience—the perfect recipe for effective wartime propaganda aimed at rebranding Britain’s national image among Britons themselves.16 Yet Sayers’ intention was not to create a mass listening audience. Instead, her radio plays were meant to start a religious conversation (and conversion) with the active individual listener.  

For Sayers, conversion (and therefore British unification) was to be achieved through the power of Christ’s voice, which commands the blind to see and quiets the seas. In fact, Sayers and Gielgud’s astute awareness of the similarities between the Gospels and the radio added to The Man Born to Be King’s effectiveness. Just like the radio, which casts voices into the air, the Gospels (originally oral tales) feature a multitude of disembodied (or acousmatic) voices. In both Old and New Testaments, God often speaks in an acousmatic voice, whose power exists precisely because its source cannot be seen. This disembodied voice is paradoxically both “less-than-presence” and “more-than-presence” (Connor 25), and this omnipresence leads to what Dolar calls “divine effects” (62). The radio shares many of the attributes that make the divine voice so powerful. The choice of radio as the medium for the plays also lends itself to the dual nature of Christ (human/divine): the voicing of Jesus certainly made the character more human than a shaft of light on the stage, but it is this very voicing on the air that also implied Jesus’ divinity to listeners at home. Speaking on radio’s unique attributes in their introduction to Broadcasting Modernism, Debra Rae Cohen, Michael Coyle, and Jane Lewty unintentionally expose the medium’s value for religious broadcasting:

Radio was present even where it was absent, which is, of course, the paradox at the very heart of the medium. Despite its precise reproduction and breathtaking range, radio opened up a void. To scatter words abroad in space, either through auditory sign or lonely inscription, serves as a reminder of the absent other, as well as of the dissolving of the individual into massed ranks. (3)

For Sayers, Christ was the ultimate “absent other,” and thus perfect for radio. In its presence-absence paradox, the radio mirrors the message of Christianity: God is near even when there is no physical sign. The very form of radio, therefore, emphasized Sayers’ religious message.17

Some aspects of Jesus’ message, however, were muddled or lost when the plays were translated from written script to oral broadcast. For example, a dozing or distracted listener could have easily mistaken any reference Jesus makes to the heavenly Father as a reference to his earthly patriarch, Joseph, as the capitalization that distinguishes between the two fathers cannot be heard over the air. Take, for instance, the phrase “Just as my Father knows me and I know Him.” By reading we know that Jesus is speaking of God the Father, but by context alone (and without the printed script) a listener could easily have mistaken this line as a reference to Joseph (The Man 213). The same difficulty arises when Jesus provides his divine name “I AM” in response to Simon’s question: “In the name of God, what are you? Who’s there?” (The Man 169-70). Contextually, answering Simon’s query with “I am” makes sense, but the divinity claim that Jesus makes by using the phrase “I AM” is lost upon the listening audience just as it was lost upon the disciples, a point Sayers insists upon throughout the broadcasts.18

The skepticism and confusion of the disciples throughout The Man Born to Be King reflects what Sayers believed to be an epidemic of disbelief and disillusion among her fellow Britons. Therefore, when Jesus speaks to his disciples in the play-cycle, Sayers also intended that he speak to the listening audience at home. Sayers, who makes numerous analogies between the time of Christ and 1940s Europe, positions the audience as the new disciples who, after hearing these broadcasts and the Gospel of Christ, are meant to go and share the good news. But this play-cycle was not only meant to be religious instruction; instead, the broadcasts had a very specific wartime function: Britain’s literal and spiritual rebirth. Sayers believed that the future of Britain depended upon a resurgence of Christianity and a belief in and understanding of the Christian doctrine. World War II was an opportunity to re-imagine the world—“not an end,” according to Sayers, “but a beginning” (Begin 11).19 Yet for Sayers the beginning could only emerge if the British recognized that the war being fought was, at its core, a holy war. This position was one she shared with the BBC’s religious department, whose goal, according to the 1942 BBC Handbook was “‘to expound the Christian faith in terms that [could] easily be understood by ordinary men and women, and to examine the ways in which that faith [could] be applied,’” especially in a time of war (qtd. in Bray 29).

A Christ for World War II

It is likely that The Man Born to Be King was always intended to be political propaganda. In 1940, one year before the BBC began broadcasting the play-cycle, Sayers published the wartime essay, Begin Here, which illustrates just how intertwined she believed religion and politics to be. Throughout this essay, Sayers claims that Germany and Britain belong to very different histories—Germany’s being Anglo Saxon and pagan, and Britain’s being “Western, Mediterranean, and Christian”—and therefore, she states, it is no surprise that the two nations are at war (Bray 31).20 Although she fails to argue convincingly for the religious divisions between the two nations, not least because she ignores Germany’s role in the Protestant Reformation, this essay is pivotal to understanding Sayers’ interpretation of World War II as a religious struggle.21 Even the language she uses to describe the impact the war was having on Britain’s cultural foundations mixes images of aerial bombings (an event with which the London-based Sayers was all too familiar) and the language of the Gospels. As she writes: “War, by dropping a metaphorical bomb into the structure of our lives, puts our foundations to a critical test, and offers an unequalled opportunity for finding out whether our house was built upon rock or upon sand” (qtd. in Bray 20-21). By referencing Matthew 7:24-27 here, Sayers suggests that the Second World War is a religious trial for the British population, a time to discover whether or not the nation is built upon the Christian ideals that will keep its foundations strong. It is her position that the only means of saving British culture is to fight for Christianity, upon which, she insists, British culture was built.

Sayers was not alone in depicting the war in religious terms. Phyllis Lassner suggests that this viewpoint was common among British women writers, including Phyllis Bottome, Ethel Mannin, and Vera Brittain. For Bottome in particular, Christianity was at the root of the conflict: “‘The really stubborn core of what Hitler is fighting against in Great Britain is the unconscious Christianity of the British people’” (qtd. in Lassner 42). Such religious positioning was also used by the MOI and the Minister of Information, Duff Cooper, as well as other members of Churchill’s cabinet. As Ian McLaine indicates, the MOI felt little concern about bringing religion into their representation of the conflict. In fact, they viewed it as necessary:

Germany’s claim to be the sole bulwark of Christian Europe against Bolshevism was reason enough for the Ministry to insist that a true reading of the situation pitted Christian Britain against pagan Germany. But the constant theme of Britain as a Christian nation, and a nation of Christians, also derived from the received opinion which stated that belief in Christianity informed the country’s secular virtues. There seem to have been few qualms about pressing religion into the service of propaganda. (151)

Films also depicted the war as a religious struggle, often through indirect means. Take, for example, Leslie Howard’s Pimpernel Smith (1941) in which a Nazi officer exclaims, “In Nazi Germany, no one can hope to be saved by anybody.” Although speaking about the rescue of prisoners from concentration camps, this line takes on religious implications when, at the end of the film, the protagonist declares that Germany is “pagan.”22

But The Man Born to Be King also needs to be understood as an attempt to reimagine British religiosity for political purposes, especially since Sayers’ interpretation of the Gospels heavily relies upon claims for an analogous political climate in first-century Jerusalem and early-1940s Britain. Sayers believed that the same historical situations kept occurring, and this included Britain’s role in the current war. In a letter to her son, she remarks upon this phenomenon: “England is back in the centre stream of her tradition—she is where she was in 1588 and 1815. Spain held all Europe, France held all Europe; they broke themselves upon England; we have to see that the same thing happens to Germany” (qtd. in Reynolds 342). However, this time it seemed as if Britain’s future was less secure. Sayers was extremely sensitive to the fact that her own time was a defining moment in the course of the Western world; this naturally made it perfect for comparison to the era of the Gospels, which she referred to as “the turning-point of history” (The Man 31). And radio, with its ability to encourage imaginative listening, was the perfect medium to create such trans-historical connections. As Jonathan Sterne asserts, radio was part of a larger group of sound-reproduction technologies that enabled “people’s ears [to] take them into the past or across vast distances” (1). Thus, it was hoped that Britons listening-in to Sayers’ play-cycle would mentally visit Christ’s Jerusalem and conflate figures from the past with present-day political leaders.

Sayers, it seems, was well aware of the current political climate’s influence upon her writing, and writes of this historical recycling in the introduction to her play-cycle:

This question, […], was just as acute for the men of the first century as it is for us; under the pressure of the Roman Imperium, their minds were exercised as ours are by problems about the derivation of authority, the conflict between centralised and decentralised government, the sanctions behind power politics, and the place of national independence within a world-civilisation. No force of any kind was needed to bring the story into a form that was sharply topical. (The Man 48)

Because Sayers interpreted the war as essentially a struggle for Christianity, The Man Born to Be King should also be read as propaganda. The plays were part of the BBC’s “white” propaganda campaign that sought to “influence hearts and minds” and “foster […] the British people’s innate will to win” (Nicholas 2-3). With the play-cycle, therefore, the radio, already a mouthpiece for wartime propaganda, also became the site where religious and political interests mixed. This politicization of religion, however, was Sayers’ intent. Within both the broadcasts and her accompanying notes there are numerous references to the rise of Nazism, Britain’s disastrous appeasement policy, and the contentious relationship between church and state. Although The Man Born to Be King is littered with references to the Second World War, I will limit my discussion to the main characters: Jesus, Pontius Pilate, and Caiaphas. With each of these characters, Sayers clearly communicates her faith in Christian dogma; but, more importantly, she expresses her dismay with current political leadership and presents a future democratic path for a Britain grounded in the Gospels.

For Sayers, the core focus of Britain’s rebranding needed to be nation-wide religious education; only those fortified in Christianity could, she believed, truly lead Britain in a successful war and post-war campaign. This education involved relearning Christ’s peaceful message, which she believed to be as misunderstood in the first century as it was in the twentieth. For Baruch the Zealot, an invented character who Sayers describes as the “pure politician,” Jesus is the leader for whom the political factions have been waiting. As Baruch states: “The party is ready, as you know. All we need is a figurehead, a leader, a spell-binder to fire the imagination of the masses and make them fall in to march behind the party.... Brains aren’t enough. You’ve got to appeal to the emotions—stir these peasants out of their slave mentality and give ’em something to fight and die for” (The Man 160). It is easy to see the correlation between Baruch’s rebellious party and the early formation of National Socialism. Sayers comments upon this similarity in her notes to the fifth play: “Baruch sees Jesus as the Nazi party may have seen Hitler—the Heaven-sent spell-binder, rather mad but a valuable political tool in the right hands” (The Man 154).23 Like Baruch, the disciples also fail to understand that Jesus’ rebellion is spiritual rather than martial; only at the crucifixion do they begin to realize that Christ’s revolution will not lead to the physical overthrow of Rome. In one telling dialogue between Jesus and Andrew, the disciples’ lack of understanding is made blatantly apparent, with Andrew encapsulating what many thought Christ’s arrival would bring: “armies and banners, and a big procession” (The Man 105). Like Baruch, this was the military action the disciples expected (action that would have resonated with a British audience, who watched Nazi Germany march into Paris on 14 June 1940).

Throughout the notes and the broadcasts, Sayers consistently equates the political environment of the first century with the present, thereby ensuring that her audience never forgets to connect the message of the Gospels to their own lives. But by making such comparisons, Sayers also invokes the message and voice of Christ for military purposes. With The Man Born to Be King, Sayers broadcasted a peaceful Christian message to millions of Britons, who in the process also heard about Britain’s Christian duty to win the war. The clearest representation of the Second World War within the plays, however, emerges around the struggle for rule between Pontius Pilate and the Jewish Elder, Caiaphas. This analogy blurs the line between ally and enemy, and by the end of the twelfth broadcast, it still remains unclear as to whether a) Pilate represents Nazi Germany or the British Empire and b) Caiaphas represents the Chamberlain government or the Nazi-appointed clergy.

Although Sayers depicts Pilate as the lesser of two evils in comparison to Caiaphas, his position as the Roman Prefect of Judaea, a leading member of an expanding Empire, certainly ties him to the Nazis and their march across Europe. The image of the golden eagle, a symbol of Caesar and later Hitler, emphasizes this correlation when it appears in the first play. The likeness between Rome and Nazi Germany becomes more apparent when one considers the role of Caiaphas as the appeaser of the Roman government.24 His response to Rome’s rule in Judaea is strikingly similar to Neville Chamberlain’s policy of appeasement in the 1930s. Caiaphas, like Chamberlain, wants peace by any means necessary; this includes crucifying a man who poses no political threat. As he says to Joseph of Arimathea, “Accept the inevitable. Adapt yourselves to Rome. It is the curse of our people that we cannot learn to live as citizens of a larger unit. We can neither rule nor be ruled; for such the new order has no place. Make terms with the future while you may, lest in all the world there be found no place where a Jew may set foot” (The Man 320). Caiaphas’s “adaptation” is done out of a desperate desire to remain in Rome’s good graces; but the second half of this statement on Jewish wandering is also disturbing, given the persecution and systematic elimination of Jews taking place at that moment in Nazi-occupied Europe. Sayers, however, who was extremely critical of Chamberlain’s policy of appeasement, most likely meant this as a criticism of Britain’s prior political strategy which had allowed the war to escalate. Thus Caiaphas’s statement is most effectively read as a warning to the British public that the consequence of “peace at any cost” is that one never attains peace.

But Sayers also describes Caiaphas as an official who uses this peace to further his own political and religious career, thereby equating him to the Nazi-appointed clergy. Take, for example, his exclamation that “it is the duty of statesmen to destroy the madness which we call imagination. It is dangerous. It breeds dissension. Peace, order, security—that is Rome’s offer—at Rome’s price” (The Man 320). Sayers presents Caiaphas as wary of new religious interpretations, which Jesus represents, viewing them as a challenge to the religious order, and thus ultimately a challenge to the Imperial status quo. In her introduction to the plays, she describes Caiaphas as an “ecclesiastical politician” who is “appointed, like one of Hitler’s bishops, by a heathen government, expressly that he might collaborate with the New Order and see that the Church toed the line drawn by the State” (The Man 41) Although not directly compared to the Nazis, which would have been an even more troubling depiction of the Jewish leader, Caiaphas is shown to be sympathetic to Rome, which has allowed him to maintain his puppet-religious power. In this reading then, Rome again represents Nazi Germany. However, the fact that it is Caiaphas and his fellow Elders and not Pilate who want Jesus crucified, a representation that borders on anti-Semitism, complicates this allegorical version.

A final possibility is that Rome represents the British Empire. This correlation is certainly plausible given Sayers’ claim in Begin Here that Britain stems from the “Western, Mediterranean, and Christian” culture of Rome. Throughout the plays there is frequent mention of the British Empire, especially in the notes to the actors. Sayers compares the role of the soldier Proclus to an Anglo-Indian, Herod to an Indian Maharajah “exercising sovereignty within the British Raj,” and Barabbas the murderer to a member of a nationalist organization like the Irish Republican Army (The Man 132-33, 63, 285). In all of these descriptions, Sayers aligns Britain with Roman power. She even describes Pilate in terms of the British Empire: “There is nothing remarkable about his ratifying a Jewish sentence. He is in the position of a British magistrate in, say, Kenya. The natives are encouraged to administer their own law, and the foreign government will uphold the findings, if the trial has been properly conducted according to native code, and if the over-riding Government code is not infringed” (The Man 258). This note to the actors helps explain why Sayers makes Pilate a more sympathetic character than Caiaphas. Pilate, like Sayers and the British public, is subject to the laws of the Empire. Caiaphas is not. Or at least this is how she understands the inner workings of an imperial system in which she had never fully participated.

Sayers, however, was fully aware of Britain’s guilt when it came to imperial atrocities such as fostering the transatlantic slave trade, mass imprisonment of native peoples, and the destruction of local environments and economies for its own gain. As she states in Begin Here, “We must remember while we wage [war] that we ourselves have in time past often been the oppressors. Our hands are not clean—the hands of no man are clean” (90). Thus the confused allegorical images of Rome as both the British Empire and Nazi Germany as they appear in The Man Born to Be King are understandable in light of Sayers’ own ambivalent view on British imperialism. Ultimately, however, such analogies between Britain and Rome were meant to bring the story of Christ closer to the British public. Sayers wanted her listeners to understand that “God was executed by people painfully like us, in a society very similar to our own—in the over-ripeness of the most splendid and sophisticated Empire the world has ever seen” (The Man 41).

Despite being a national broadcast, The Man Born to Be King has a transnational legacy. Its triumph as religious propaganda was acknowledged in 1945 when the BBC Yearbook claimed that “the religious effect of [the plays] is greater than the religious effect of hearing a hundred broadcast services.” In fact, the plays were such a success that they were rebroadcast in Canada, South Africa, Australia, and New Zealand (43). Regardless of these rebroadcasts, Sayers’ play-cycle needs to be understood as a transnational production for both its international subject-matter and its part in the national campaign to court U.S. sympathy. With the airing of The Man Born to Be King, the voicing of Jesus was no longer simply religiously divisive; it was nationally divisive. The radio representation of Christ and his message set against the backdrop of political upheaval was certainly meant to remind Britons of their nation’s religious history and martial power; but this play-cycle also belongs to the larger tradition of late-modernist literature and propaganda that sought to culturally unify the British nation. Sayers, therefore, achieved what Baruch could not; she successfully made Jesus into a weapon of war, where emotional pleas to remember Christian dogma ultimately function as a wartime claim for Christian right over heathen (German) wrong.

Thus, in her effort to re-educate the British public about Christian doctrine, Sayers also participated in the larger wartime rebranding campaign that worked to revise the national image and better define the differences between Britain and Germany. Even today, Britain during the Blitz is remembered (or rather romanticized) in the cultural memory as resilient and egalitarian, a struggling nation that fought a People’s war. But Sayers’ vision for Britain does not entirely comply with the Blitz myth. While she presents a historically stable nation and a “total war,” Sayers also undercuts the notion of a single wartime representation by presenting individual responses to Jesus’ message and by extension the wartime experience. This presentation of the war coincides with more recent historical accounts. As Kristine Miller argues, the Blitz was ultimately experienced individually and therefore “different civilians imagined the People’s War in very different ways” (11). These more recent dismantlings of the Blitz myth also resonate with the anticipated response to Sayers’ plays. Although she desired to educate the British public about Christianity, it bears remembering that it was not Sayers’ intent to create a single mass listening response (what one might find in church via the frequent use of call-and-response). Instead, she hoped that the plays would encourage the individual listener to better understand his or her own political environment though an analogous presentation of the Gospels, and therefore join the war in both the name of Britain and Christ.


1 See Wolfe (226). I would like to thank The Space Between readers and editor for their tremendously helpful and insightful feedback on this article. A version of this article has been published in Modernism at the Microphone: Radio, Propaganda, and Literary Aesthetics during World War II. London: Bloomsbury Academic: 2015.

2 The LDOS advertisement also ran in The English Churchman on 18 Dec. 1941, the Church of England Newsletter on 19 Dec. 1941, and the Sunday Dispatch on 28 Dec. 1941. See Wolfe (588) and Briggs (567).

3 By reading Sayers’ play-cycle as participating in the national wartime rebranding campaign, I call into question Patrick Deer’s presentation of wartime writers as resisting the dominant government image of the war. While I agree that authors like Sayers complicated “official visions” of war culture, such as “partiotic Englishness, fortified masculinity, and compliant feminimity,” and “challenge[d] its grand narrative productions” (Deer 5), this does not mean that other aspects of war culture, such as recycled time and “total” war, were not present.

4 Promoting American-British goodwill through radio was common practice, especially following Pearl Harbor. As Siân Nicholas notes, in the weeks after the U.S.’s entry into the war, tributes to the U.S. replaced normal broadcasting on the BBC (174). Even radio dramas contributed to the efforts to generate transatlantic solidarity: Louis MacNiece’s Christopher Columbus (1942), played over the North American Service, celebrates the U.S.’s founding on its 450th anniversary.

5 See Cull (69-125) and Hilmes (87-104) on transatlantic wartime relationship.

6 The Blitz myth, that Britons (particularly Londoners) had a homogenous experience of the war, has been exploded by Agnus Calder in Myth of the Blitz and by Kristine Miller, who writes, “The experience of the Blitz itself was not the same across classes, since people had very different routines and sheltering practices depending on social background” (14). Sara Wasson notes specific instances of inequality that have been erased from Blitz memory, such as struggles to find shelters in the East End (17). See also Cull (105).

7 See also McLaine and Deer.

8 Although not focusing on sound, Mia Spiro disputes the Blitz’s “myth of equality” and shows that even authors who challenged the Nazis’ anti-Semitism, homophobia, and misogyny also included these features in their work.

9 Like Sayers, T.S. Eliot understood religion and culture as co-evolutionary partners: “The first important assertion is that no culture has appeared or developed except together with a religion […] the culture will appear to be the product of the religion, or the religion the product of the culture” (13). Both writers believed that religion, and therefore British culture, was in decline; thus plays such as The Man Born to Be King were welcomed antidotes.

10 Nicholas describes the BBC as an “instrument of war.” Not only did the BBC work alongside the government and the MOI, but it also worked “independently [and] was responsible for fostering a more pervasive image of the Home Front, everyone making her or his vital contribution to the war effort” (2, 108).

11 See, for example, René Descartes’s Treatise of Man where Descartes divides the body from the soul and privileges vision over hearing. This continues throughout the Enlightenment, whose very name favors sight. But this division, which persists through to Derrida’s phonophobia in Of Grammatology, is a false dichotomy, as recent scholars such as Veit Erlmann in Reason and Resonance and Michel Serres in The Five Senses have asserted.

12 In Theater of the Mind, Neil Verma argues that radio drama should be understood as a “positive” medium, rather than one that “fabricates lack,” as it “evok[es] scenes through speech, reverb, filter, segue, and other devices directed at an imaginary allowing itself to be instructed” (9).

13 The Lord Chamberlain also asked that no audience be present at the broadcast, as this would blur the line between stage and radio where a voicing might become an impersonation.

14 Seventy years later, Mladen Dollar makes an even stronger claim for listener accuracy when identifying a speaker from voice alone: “We can almost unfailingly identify a person by the voice, the particular individual timbre, resonance, pitch, cadence, melody, the peculiar way of pronouncing certain sounds. The voice is like a fingerprint, instantly recognizable and identifiable” (22).

15 Sayers’ description of Matthew in the notes as having “oily black hair and rapacious little hands” has added to the charge of anti-Semitism against her (The Man 131).

16 See also Robert S. Fortner’s Radio, Morality, and Culture: Britain, Canada, and the United States, 1919-1945 and Bill Kirkpatrick’s “Sounds Local: The Competition for Space and Place in Early U.S. Radio” in Sound in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction for a discussion of space and radio broadcasting.

17 See Friedrich A. Kittler’s Discourse Networks 1800 / 1900, John Duhram Peters’s Speaking into the Air, and Jeffrey Sconce’s Haunted Media on the supernaturalism of radio broadcasting.

18 “I AM” is a reference to John 8:58, where Jesus states: “In very truth I tell you, before Abraham was born, I am.” This is taken from “I AM that I am” which is the English translation of the answer God gave to Moses when Moses asked his name; see Exodus 3:14. Thus, by stating “I AM” Jesus declares his divinity, but this declaration is lost upon a listening audience (Oxford Study Bible).

19 Priestley and George Orwell also spoke of Britain’s rebirth, but in political terms. Priestley spoke about a “new world order” and a “new democracy” for Britain and her colonies post-war (Priestley 200). Orwell, who broadcasted for the BBC’s Indian Section, wrote of England’s democratic-socialist future in The Lion and the Unicorn.

20 Sayers’ war work extended beyond literature. Before the war broke, she wrote for the War Office. She also worked with the MOI, was an air-raid warden, and published letters and articles about the war.

21 Sayers’ claims for Germany’s paganism at the expense of Christianity need to be questioned in light of recent historical studies. Although some Christian leaders were persecuted under Nazism, new historical evidence shows that Germany’s Protestant Church “actively supported the regime and fought for a Germanically sanitized version of Christianity that dispensed with the Old Testament on the grounds that is was ‘Jewish’, and rebranded Jesus Christ as a proto-nazi Nordic hero.” Paganism, it seems, was a less effective recruiting tool than the Protestant Church’s “Nazified Christianity” (Evans 6). See also Nicholas Goodrick-Clarke’s The Occult Roots of Nazism; Richard Steigmann-Gall’s The Holy Reich; Susannah Heschel’s The Aryan Jesus; and the special issue of the Journal of Contemporary History in which Evans’ introduction can be found.

22 Religion and morality were also central to Britain’s American propaganda: “They stressed that Britain fought for Christian civilisation against an enemy bent on restoring the heathen pantheon of Wagnerian fantasy” (Cull 163).

23 It is worth noting that the name “Baruch” means “blessed” in Hebrew. Sayers’ choosing of this name for a character she aligns with Nazism is extremely problematic. Not only does this choice suggest that Nazism was sanctified by God (the antithesis of her larger argument), but it also adds validity to the claim that Sayers was anti-Semitic. Much has been written on Sayers’ ambiguous anti-Semitism. See, for example: Brabazon’s biography, Adele Reinhartz’s “‘Rewritten Gospel,’” and Robert Kuhn McGregor’s Conundrums for the Long Week-End. I would like to thank one of The Space Between readers for bringing this (and footnote 24) to my attention.

24 Although Sayers uses this analogy to critique the British government’s appeasement policy leading up to World War II, her failure to acknowledge the Jewish Elders as victims of Roman persecution once again reveals her highly questionable position on Judaism. This is especially true given that during the same months that the play-cycle was broadcast, Thomas Mann was broadcasting on the persecution, internment, and death of Jews in occupied Europe via the BBC Overseas Service to Germany.

Works Cited

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