David Edgar's play about the writing of English Bibles in religiously turbulent Tudor and Jacobean England reverberates with echoes of our time
Pity poor Ely, the middle-of-the-road bishop in David Edgar's new play "Written on the Heart". He has a revelation - no, maybe it's just an inutition - as a young man, in Queen Elizabeth's reign. He is a trusty servant of the Queen's, travelling as he preaches against pomp and the Romish cult. And when he comes across a parish that seems to be harboring a fondness for the old ways, he reports them. And so we find him presiding over the smashing of a stained glass window depicting saints and even the mother of Christ.
Two things happen that day. First, his ecclesiastical senior reminds him of the primacy of love and mercy. These parishioners may be misguided, but they are not to be despised. Second, the mallet wielding henchman tries to recruit him to an extremist groupuscule - a group of men (men only) who hold property in common, believe that faith and not good works are the path to salvation, and that the monarch is not above God's law.
The henchman had the same wise ecclesiastical senior as a teacher, and both he and Ely seem to understand the importance of his insistence on the primacy of love - of having the gospel written on the heart. The senior provides the link back to William Tyndale, the first great translator of the Bible into the plain English vulgate, with whom the play opens as he prepares for his martyrdom. Tyndales wants to set The Word free - for anyone, whatever their standing, to be able to make their own truth. And he is burnt for that ideal. His ghost returns to haunt the main scenes of the play nearly a century later, as the official King James version is finalised, and its final words are his warning: "I am still here".
So why poor Ely? First, as a trusty servant of the queen's, he has the henchman imprisoned and eventually executed. "Did you betray me?" asks the henchman, at the last moment. "No. You betrayed yourself." Second, he knows that the lesson from Tyndale about love and mercy was right, but he does not know how to live up to it. We see him later, as an old man, a bishop. He has the reputation of being at prayer five hours a day - five hours! what a waste of time! But we the audience see the truth - it is not prayer he is in: he is consumed by self-loathing and abandoned by God. But his apartments are nicely furnished.
The play is a rich and clever account of the process of creation of James I's authorised version of the Bible. Much, but crucially not all, comes from Tyndale. Remember, for example, that wonderful line, just after the fall, that the King James Version has as: "There were giants in the earth in those days"? Well, Tyndale has "There were tirantes in the world in thos dayes". The story goes on, here the KJV:
And God saw that the wickedness of man was great in the earth, and that every imagination of the thoughts of his heart was only evil continually. And it repented the Lord that he had made man on the earth, and it grieved him at his heart.
But a trusty servant of the king's, however touched by Tyndale, could not leave "Tyrant". Giants had to be invented, because the word was too radical: God could not have judged absolute rulers to be wicked as such. Instead, we have those mysterious giants. And so with "congregation" for "Church", "flock" for "fold", or "penitance" for "penance". In each case, the first works against dominant power and the second with it. Obviously in the first case - it gives scriptural existence to an institution never conceived of in the scriptures. Less obviouslt for "flock" and "fold" - the fold, Edgar tells us - Tyndale tells us - is a constraint, a way of controlling something. And "penance", of course, because it is important to make forgiveness dependent on repayment through hardship - the concept is of fines and indebtedness more than forgiveness.
But Edgar does not propose any simple solutions. The salt of the earth, the attractive maid whose potential as a puritan zealot one can easily guess, is not the sort to whom anyone with love and mercy written on the heart would want to cede much power.
So yes, poor Ely. He is touched by a youthful revelation of an important political truth; in perfectly good faith he betrays that revelation; yet the obvious path of radicalism is seen as equally suspect. Just tragic times? Perhaps, and one imagines that many times have been like this, and many Ely's have risen to positions of power.