Thursday, 10 May 2012


8/5/12, Duchess

An uncommonly intelligent play by David Edgar about translating the Bible into English.  Dr T left at the half, complaining she was bored, which seemed unusually dense of her.

The Archbishop of Canterbury himself was in the audience, across the aisle from us and just behind.  I was told afterwards that he gave every impression of enjoying it hugely.  Interesting, since one of the central characters is Bishop Lancelot Andrewes, played by Oliver Ford Davis, who I could have sworn modelled his portrayal of a highly-intelligent but rather tortured man of religion on Rowan Williams.

Andrewes' contemporaries in 1610 thought him a puritan. But we see him in flashback sparring with a puritan zealot whom he later visits in jail: had he put him there?  His contemporaries also thought his presence in the Parliament on the occasion of the Gunpowder Plot must make him a natural anti-Catholic (and thus a puritan sympathiser on the principle that my enemy's enemy is my friend).  But Edgar knows nothing is ever that simple.

Andrewes' position is subtler, and could be read as a type of that of the C of E throughout.  Ideological and theological purity are less important than a workable compromise which ensures peace and stability.  Translating the Bible is an intensely political act.  Deciding between "church" and "congregation" or "love" and "charity" as translations of the original Greek is not a neutral business.  Never mind what is most accurate: the King has laid down certain rules; there is the health of the body politic to consider; not to mention a prudent consideration of one's own well being and chances of advancement.

At the end of the play, in fact, Andrewes (who we are told spends hours every day in prayer) explicitly repudiates temporal ambition and recommends another man for the post of Archbishop of Canterbury.  In the flashback scene we seem him, with the zealous puritan, "visiting" a church in Yorkshie in the reign of Elizabeth, where the locals are suspected of theological (and thus political) unsoundness in trying to preserve some of the cherished paraphernalia of Catholic worship, perhaps not surprisingly given the U-turns of the previous two reigns.

Throughout Andrews' approach is contrasted with that of William Tyndale, who built on Miles Coverdale's pioneering work of translating the Bible into English, and who we first meet awaiting execution in Dutch prison but still gamely translating the Old Testament in his prison cell, a translation he passes secretly to an English Catholic priest sent to win him to repentance but who is instead won over by Tynbdale's passion and commitment and smuggles the manuscript back to England.

Tyndale's ghost visits Andrewes.  They spar, agreeing on the importance of giving ordinary people access to the word of God, but not on whether they should be guided in its interpretation by the heirarchy of the church.  Tyndale is comically horrified to discover that there are still bishops in Andrews' time.

No-one does a tortured soul better than Oliver Ford-Davies.  Stephen Boxer was warm and sympathetic as Tyndale.

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