Brett Foster

Written on the Heart

Early English Reformers in a drama of translation.

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Sitting in London's Duchess Theatre recently, I took in a well-written, well-acted production about the English Reformation, and, at the level of words and beyond, the difficult negotiations that those who lived through it had to face. This play, David Edgar's Written on the Heart, stages the heroic work of William Tyndale and the conflicts of conscience felt by the later Anglican divine Lancelot Andrewes as he ponders throughout the play what is owed to Tyndale's legacy, linguistically and theologically. (The two, the play aims to show us, are finally inseparable.) The play's opening questions capture well these tensions of inheritance—how we're to recognize it and whether or not we're faithful to it: "Who are you? Do I know you? Are you there?"

Written on the Heart primarily dramatizes several contested word choices in the translation of the King James Bible into English. The play's opening and closing scenes take place in 1610, as select bishops and translators wrestle with options and work toward a final version of this new translation, whose continuing cultural veneration and vast influence they of course could not foresee. They are concerned about the dual threats of Catholic recusancy and Puritan separatism, or, in their words, tyranny and anarchy. To complicate matters, some among their number seem to advocate for one or the other of these two extremes. With these clerical scuffles in mind, a recent canon at St Paul's Cathedral praises Written on the Heart in the playbill for its willingness to "challenge the idea that the KJB is some fixed cultural entity to be put on a pedestal and worshipped for its own sake." He continues, "The Bible did not fall from heaven in 1611—it reflected the preoccupations of its age and time."

To some this may sound like a subversive's grinning gambit, but overall the play's participants in the construction of the King James Bible come off positively, if a little overwhelmed and cornered by circumstances. Audiences encounter the high seriousness of Reformation efforts at scriptural translation, tricky questions of authorship and translation, and the deep learning of those involved. Archbishop Richard Bancroft, whose offstage frailty is frequently mentioned in the play and factors in the staged wranglings in 1610, had a personal library of nearly 9,000 volumes, which he left to the library at the archiepiscopal palace at Lambeth.

Yes, Bible translation was a decidedly sensitive task politically, and one vulnerable to political pressures, but in Renaissance England nearly everything was politically sensitive—births, oaths, mobility in careers, theater-going, traveling abroad, you name it. It may seem bizarre to us today that the Protestant printer John Day would print the Duchess of Suffolk's coat of arms in an octavo edition of Tyndale's New Testament translation, but this inclusion fits the times. Anyone dealing boldly with English Bibles had great need of influential Protestant patrons, and compromises were almost always necessary. In this light, it is unsurprising, then, that some of the word choices that make the translators most nervous involve renderings of rulers. How would an English monarch respond, for example, to the "higher powers" or "powers that be" (of Romans 13), or Ephesians 6's "worldly rulers"? And better, perhaps, to go with "giants" rather than "tyrants"—wouldn't want to give a sovereign reader the wrong impression, or cause for royal anger.

Late in Written on the Heart, Edgar strikingly foregrounds the dissonance created in William Tyndale (or rather in his revenant) when he discovers, during a ghostly visit to Andrewes, that the Bible is indeed available in English, and yet his own dreams, decades earlier, of a full, robust reformation of the English church have been only partially fulfilled. The old, tired Andrewes defends the current state of the English church and maintains Tyndale's central influence: "We have not spit you out," he assures the disappointed ghost. However, the visual contrast between Tyndale and Andrewes, excellently played by Stephen Boxer and Oliver Ford Davies respectively, is telling. Tyndale's ghost is no shadowy, spectral wraith: his soiled face and hands, and his prisoner's torn clothes, signify the sufferings and revolutionary spirit of the early reformers. He resembles a chimney sweep or coal-miner. Conversely, the silver- haired Andrewes, utterly composed in his Stuart ruffs and black-and-white bishop's vestments, represents a church of "soft and downy times" and of worldly accommodation.

In a humorous moment, Andrewes is embarrassed to have Tyndale's ghost overhear when his servingman enters to ask him about preferences for altar napkins in his personal chapel, and does he want violet or crimson fabric for his kneeler? This is a far cry from the living Tyndale in the second scene. There he gives powerful voice to his good glad recovery and dissemination of Paul's insights into the "unspeakable riches of God's kindness." Meeting Andrewes in the fourth and final scene, he fears the gospel message has receded well into the distance.

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