Dorothy Sayers: “The dogma is the drama”

A gifted public communicator, Dorothy L. Sayers (1893–1957) believed that those who slept through church had no idea what dynamite the gospel really was. Through her plays and essays, she tried to get people to see, as she said, that “the dogma is the drama.” And she succeeded brilliantly—opening up the power and truth of orthodox Christianity for many who had abandoned the lukewarm cultural faith of England’s religious establishment. CH&B senior editor Chris Armstrong talked recently with Sayers’s friend, biographer, and collaborator in Dante translation, Dr. Barbara Reynolds, from her home in England.

An accomplished scholar in her own right—for 22 years lecturer in Italian at the University of Nottingham, a Dante translator, and general editor of The Cambridge Italian Dictionary—Barbara Reynolds is also the president of the Dorothy L. Sayers Society (with a membership around 500), author of the New York Times notable book Dorothy L. Sayers: Her Life and Soul, and editor of five volumes of Sayers’s letters. Dr. Reynolds’s 1989 book, The Passionate Intellect: Dorothy L. Sayers’ Encounter with Dante, is one of this interviewer’s favorite works of intellectual biography.

What was Dorothy L. Sayers like as a person? The portraits of her that I have read leave the impression of a person who was larger than life-even intimidating.

She radiated intellectual ardor. Dante called this “the mind in love"—it was a gift Dorothy possessed all her life. This passionate intellectual energy could sometimes be quite overwhelming. She would come and stay with me, and we would talk and go out to meet people and come back late at night; then she would start on some very difficult point in Dante, such as Ptolemaic astronomy, what the position of the stars might be at a certain point; and this would go until two or three in the morning. I was a great deal younger then; I was 21 years younger than she was, and she was in her 60s. But she was going strong, and her mind was not missing a thing. Perhaps I mislaid a star or two, and she would say, “Where are your wits, woman?”

Exceptional, really. I have never met anybody who compared with her in energy and expanse of mind or breadth of vision. I was amazed at this great tidal wave that flowed over me, and when she had been to stay, I used to go to bed for a couple of days to recover!

One of the best-known creative products that flowed from this “tidal wave” of intellectual energy was her mystery stories, which have never been out of print. What is it about these that still compels and speaks to us today?

Certainly, she told stories masterfully-plotting with care and insisting on the “fair play” rule, by which readers are given enough evidence to solve the mystery by the end of the book. And her main characters, Lord Peter Wimsey and Harriet Vane, are both attractive and interesting figures. They develop and deepen—especially in that later sequence of novels which includes Strong PoisonHave His Carcase, and Gaudy Night. This is partly because Sayers wove the threads of her own experience, thoughts, and feelings into the fabric of their characters. This depth dimension in the characters fascinates readers, and they seek out other stories in the series.

But more important for Sayers than bare story were a number of recurring ethical themes that she wove into her tales. A good example of this is Gaudy Night—one of her best novels. The story involves the dawning awareness on the part of Harriet Vane, an Oxford-trained scholar like Sayers herself, that no relationship can ever be sound that is not founded on the integrity of each party.

Harriet has continued to serve as a recognizable, living example of the modern, creative, independent woman, battling to reconcile the conflicting claims of the personal and the impersonal. Still today I hear many women, even young women, responding to Gaudy Night along these lines: “How is it that Sayers knows exactly what I feel?”

How did Sayers move from writing popular mystery stories to creating religious plays?

In 1936, Dorothy Sayers was invited to write a play for Canterbury Cathedral, where a series of dramas was being produced. One of these was the celebrated drama by T. S. Eliot, Murder in the Cathedral. At that point, Sayers was known primarily for her mystery stories. She had written only a few poems related to the Christian faith, but Charles Williams, a member with C. S. Lewis of the famous Inklings group, had read and admired one of these early works—a brief poetic drama entitled “The Mocking of Christ"—and recommended her for the task.

Sayers consented, and the result was The Zeal of Thy House [published in 1937]—a story featuring the architect William of Sens, who had rebuilt part of Canterbury Cathedral after it was destroyed by fire in 1174. Sayers’s lifelong motif of human creativity—its nature and its limits—first comes to the fore here.

And from Zeal’s success came invitations to write other plays. One of these was the BBC radio nativity play He That Should Come, broadcast on Christmas Day, 1938. A follow-up of 12 plays on the whole life of Christ, The Man Born to be King, found even greater success, captivating audiences with its lively characterizations and realistic dialogue. The Archbishop of Canterbury, Dr. William Temple, called these plays “one of the most powerful instruments in evangelism which the Church had had put into its hands for a long time past.” C. S. Lewis admired them very much and used to read them every Lent. And even today they continue to be produced.

Two more plays followed, both well worth reading today: Just Vengeance, which is in some ways her most difficult and rewarding play, and The Emperor Constantine, which is still producible in shortened form.

When she began writing her plays, Sayers was not yet doing any of the lay theological writing for which she later became renowned. How did this happen?

In April 1938, following the success of her radio play He That Should Come, the editor of the Sunday Times invited Sayers to contribute an article for Passion Sunday. She wrote “The Greatest Drama Ever Staged is the Official Creed of Christendom.” This and a companion article, “The Dogma is the Drama,” also published in April 1938 in St Martin’s Review, launched her into yet another career as a public apologist and theological writer.

A sentence from a letter Sayers wrote at the time gives you a flavor of these essays: “The dogma of the Incarnation is the most dramatic thing about Christianity, and indeed, the most dramatic thing that ever entered the mind of man; but if you tell people so, they stare at you in bewilderment.”

How did her role as a public Christian writer expand in wartime?

As soon as the Second World War was declared, her publisher Victor Gollancz invited his most marketable author to write what he called “a wartime essay.” She responded with a book of 152 pages titled Begin Here. This book and a related series of books on national reconstruction that Sayers conceived and edited—Bridgeheads, she called it—laid out four themes.

First, Sayers emphasized the irrevocable nature of time and the need for redemptive human activity: The future is here and now; the past is irretrievably gone; what has gone wrong cannot be undone, it can only be redeemed. Second, she placed creativity at the core of what it means to be human beings made in the image of the Triune God. Third, she grieved over how a mechanistic, capitalist society had devalued work from God-given vocation to a mere means of sustenance. She believed that a mechanized society has diminished the essential nature of human beings by imposing on them repetitive, numbing work. Fourth, she also believed that the prevalently economic structure of society had degraded education by directing it to commercial ends.

Underlying all these themes is a concern for individual freedom and responsibility, or what she called, in reference to Dante, “the drama of the soul’s choice.” Both the genre of the mystery novel and the peculiar powers of theater allowed her to portray people’s moral choices in powerful ways. And, when she discovered Dante later in life, his masterful handling of this theme (among others) gripped her and drew her in.

Just as she objected to over-pious, precious portrayals of Jesus that hid his true humanity (she once observed, “At the name of Jesus, every voice goes plummy"), Sayers felt that both conformity and sentimentality prevented people from acting out of their own convictions and God-given creative energy.

Her chief solution was education. As she wrote in the Statement of Aims for Bridgeheads, “Education which fits the citizen for peace must be taken at least as seriously as the armament which fits him for war, and the necessary expenditure of thought and money cheerfully incurred.” Sayers insisted that out of human disaster and calamity comes the opportunity for fresh creative efforts: “the resurrection of faith, the revival of learning, and the reintegration of society.”

You mention her work on Dante. It was this that brought you two together in the summer of 1946, when you, representing the Society for Italian Studies, invited her to come and give a talk on Dante for a summer school held at Cambridge University. How had this mystery writer and public theologian reached the point of giving scholarly talks on a medieval poet?

In 1943, Dorothy Sayers first encountered Dante through a book by Charles Williams titled The Figure of Beatrice. The following summer, as the first bombs flew overhead, she brought Dante’s Inferno with her into an air-raid shelter in her hometown of Witham, Essex. She had completed her B.A. and M.A.—among the first awarded to women students at Oxford—in French, and she more or less learned Italian in order to read Dante. In any case, she finished Inferno—in Italian—in five days. She was 51 years old.

Almost immediately, Sayers wanted to produce a new English translation of Dante—a translation that was first of all readable, that would give people access to Dante’s tremendous storytelling power. She also saw that Dante’s ideas were relevant to the lasting truth of Christianity. The notes and commentaries in her Penguin translations of Inferno and Purgatory are not merely factual glosses, they interpret what Dante says in relation to what goes wrong with society at all times.

That is her chief originality, something that I tried to continue in volume three, and it may also be found in her volumes of papers on Dante, soon to be re-released by Wipf and Stock publishers. All in all, since they were published, Sayers’s Penguin Divine Comedy has had at least two million English-speaking readers.

The theme of integrity—being true to oneself and, so to speak, to the Truth himself-seems to run throughout Sayers’s work. You talked about that as a central theme in one of her best novels,Gaudy Night. Can you leave us with another example of how that manifested itself in her life and work?

Yes, I think we find this same concern for integrity in the way she put together her dramatic BBC radio series on the life of Christ, The Man Born to be King. Before the play had even been produced, the press began reporting that Sayers had put “slang” in the mouths of the characters in a particular scene. There was an immediate response: Concerned Christians—never having heard the play itself-began a letter-writing campaign designed to pressure the BBC into toning down their writer’s language. Some even went so far as to charge Sayers with blasphemy.

Sayers responded to this criticism in a letter to Dr. James Welch, the BBC’s director of religious broadcasting, who had requested that she create the plays in the first place: “Nobody cares . . . nowadays that Christ was ‘scourged, railed upon, buffeted, mocked and crucified,’ because all those words have grown hypnotic with ecclesiastical use. But it does give people a slight shock to be shown that God was flogged, spat upon, called dirty names, slugged on the jaw, insulted with vulgar jokes, and spiked up on the gallows like an owl on a barn-door.”

In her letter to Dr. Welch, Sayers confessed to being “frankly appalled at the idea of getting through the Trial and Crucifixion scenes with all the ‘bad people’ having to be bottled down to expressions which could not possibly offend anybody.” The Roman soldiers, she insisted, “must behave like common soldiers hanging a common criminal, or where is the point of the Story?” I think this really exemplifies her deep conviction that we must be true to life both in our own artistic work and in our understanding of the Incarnation.

As it turned out, Welch saved the plays, supporting and defending Sayers staunchly through the ordeal. And when the public finally heard The Man Born to be King, it responded in an overwhelmingly positive way. Appreciative, even rapturous letters poured in from listeners of all ages, with many listeners testifying that they had been deeply affected by the broadcasts.

That, I think, was only natural: Dorothy Sayers had written, as she always did, out of the courage of her convictions—refusing to back down or water down “the drama of the dogma.” CH

By An interview with Barbara Reynolds by Chris Armstrong

[Christian History originally published this article in Christian History Issue #88 in 2005]

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