Monday, May 20, 2013

The Zeal of Thy House

It wouldn't have been an obvious connection to me, four weeks ago, but reading Dorothy Sayers' chancel drama, "The Zeal of Thy House," is directly related to my reading of Karl Barth on Mozart. Late in April one of my professors, David McNutt, gave a fascinating lecture on "A Surprising Correspondence: Dorothy L. Sayers and Karl Barth on Artistic Creativity." You can listen to it starting here.

Then, just days later, my last reading assignment for grad school was Karl Barth, Dogmatics in Outline, in which twice Barth mentions Sayers as both essayist and playwright. It was clear to me that I would be reading Sayers this summer!

I've read quite a bit of Sayers over the years. Lord Peter Wimsey stories, of course, but also her essays, and her radio drama, "The Man Born to be King" (to which Barth refers in his little book on the Apostles' Creed). Professor McNutt's lecture reminded me of the title of "The Zeal of Thy House," which I promptly put on my summer reading list. This weekend was my time for that.

Sayers was once considered the preeminent English detective mystery writer. She considered her work translating Dante's Divine Comedy to be her best work. She was a clear and incisive apologist of the Christian faith; many know two of her essays: "The Dogma is the Drama" and "The Mind of the Maker." In the latter she makes artistic creativity an analogy for the Trinity. And that is the tie to the play at hand. It is hardly a "spoiler" to cut to the end and summarize her vestigia Trinitatis argument:
First: there is the Creative Idea . . . and this is the image of the Father.
Second: there is the Creative Energy . . . and this is the image of the Word.
Third: there is the Creative Power . . . and this is the image of the Spirit.
And these three are one, each equally in itself the whole work, whereof none can exist without the other; and this is the image of the Trinity.
(Don't rush to judgment about Sayers without reading her where I have put in elipses!)

In much the same way as Barth on Mozart, in no small part this little play can be read as a dramatic treatise on general grace. But only much in the same way. For - and here, I will  be careful to not give spoilers - this is a work about the work of the church, and there must necessarily be special, particular revelation, judgment and redemption.

The choir (a section of the cathedral)
image from, glossary of medieval art and architecture:
 of Canterbury Cathedral has been burned after the martyrdom of Thomas Becket. Was it the judgment of God? But now the choir is to be rebuilt, and three architects are finalists in the selection. The committee select the cynical foreigner (a Frenchman, of course!) whose religion is his work. And whose work is his pride: "At my age one learns that sometimes one has to damn one's soul for the sae of the work. Trust me, God shall have a choir fit for His service. Does anything else really matter?"

Does anything else really matter? That is the theme that runs through the play. It plays out in the conversations among workmen and between clergy, and with both in exchanges with William of Sens, the architect. Throughout, the veil is pulled back so we see the archangels Michael, Gabriel and Raphael, who have God's work to do in all this. And we hear the voice of the choir - that is, the human voice of the monks in hymns and chants - which carries on even if there is no finished space for their worship.

Theater doesn't work well when it answers questions. And in that sense, perhaps, "The Zeal of Thy House" might not be excellent drama. But as I read it, I again found myself eager to be in a setting where "chancel drama" like this could be done well and effectively. Sayers wrote a number of plays for performances in sacred spaces and for ecclesiastical events. Not unlike Benjamin Britten's chancel operas and the medieval mystery plays from which they are drawn, and T. S. Eliot's "Murder in the Cathedral," Sayers' work doesn't really belong on the stage as such, but in spaces where people gather for Christian worship, and in which audiences might be challenged to think, and even to worship.
Dorothy L. Sayers, "The Zeal of Thy House" (Canterbury: H. J. Goulden, Ltd., 1937)

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