David Edgar has created a fascinating play examining how the King James Bible was created 400 years ago – and why it is so crucial to our language. Diane Parkes reports.
It is a book which is quoted thousands of times a day, familiar from christenings, weddings and funerals and is often cited as helping form the language we speak today.
But the Authorised King James Bible may not be quite the authority we think it is.
This is the decision reached by Birmingham playwright David Edgar after months of research into the long process which resulted in the historic translation which celebrates its 400th birthday this year.
David’s new play Written on the Heart, which has been commissioned by the Royal Shakespeare Company and is due to premiere at the Swan Theatre this week, examines the birthing pains of the Kings James Bible.
The idea for the play came out of a series of discussions held in Stratford.
“It began four years ago when I spotted the anniversary was coming up and obviously the proverbial two most important works in the English language were published within 12 years of each other and there is one of each in Stratford,” recalls David, when we chat at his Balsall Heath home.
“Stratford has a first folio of Shakespeare but also, at Holy Trinity Church, it has a King James Bible first edition.
“Proverbially, the language was created by those two works. I think you could argue about that but certainly that is the popular view.
“I have been working for the RSC since 1975 so for all of these reasons they seemed the people to go to. They were very keen on the idea of doing something to mark it and we held a conference in 2008.”
This led David to take up two biblical challenges. He has created a short play, Concerning Faith, inspired by the New Testament book 1 Timothy, which will be performed in Westminster Abbey as part of a 12-hour theatre marathon and at the Bush Theatre in London over 24 hours based on the books of the Bible called Sixty-Six Books.
And it led him to Written on the Heart.
“There were a lot of experts at the conference and we were really inspired by the story of the Bible and our realisation of what a weird thing it is to have become so overwhelmingly central to so many things,” he says.
“For a start it was written by a committee and it wasn’t really a translation, it was basically a compilation of the best bits of previous translations.
“It was commissioned as a kind of afterthought at a conference which was trying to reconcile the Puritan and more, what we would call, Anglo-Catholic wings of the church. And it was intended to draw a line under the history of the English Reformation – and of course 30 years later the Civil War breaks out.
“So in all respects, at that time, it was a failure and it was a very odd set-up to create something which has such a reputation.”
And yet that reputation holds. David believes its success was because times had changed by the time King James commissioned his most famous book. In the play, David is keen to place this translation into its historical context.
“We start in 1610 with a group of rather comfortable clerics, including a couple of bishops and the Dean of St Paul’s who meet together to resolve the finer issues of contention in the Bible translation. None of them are going to die for translating the Bible – in fact two of them might become Archbishop of Canterbury as a result of their efforts.
“And we then flash back to William Tyndale, who was the first translator of the Bible from the original languages and also the first translator of the Bible whose work was printed – and who died at the stake as a result. As did two of his successors.
“Two other translations of the Bible which were important to our translation of the Bible were undertaken by people in exile. So the play is really about the contrast between the people who originally translated the Bible when translating the Bible into English was a burning offence and the people who very comfortably put together this King James Bible.
“What the play does is challenge these comfortable clerics with the legacy of which they were a part and whether or not they were selling out that legacy. So the legacy of William Tyndale confronts the Bible translators at a very crucial moment when they are taking decisions which, for William Tyndale would be a sell-out, but for them are necessities.”
And the new Bible was about much more than simply being a book.
“My belief is that the story of the Bible is the story of the Reformation because the crucial Protestant demand was to remove the intermediary between man and God, the intermediary was the church and the only way you could directly relate to God was through his word and the only way you could do that was to have the word in your language.
“People were prepared to die horribly for beliefs which now seem to us quite arcane – whether or not there is a presence of God in the sacrament, whether or not good works get you to Heaven, whether or not Purgatory exists, whether or not anything which isn’t in the Bible is idolatrous. These seem to me very unimportant because we are so used to the idea of faith but not obscure points of doctrine.
“Part of this play is to open a window into a world which is quite strange to us but which has produced these extraordinary works of art.
“So the English language Bible is not just a side benefit, it is essential to it and William Tyndale was a reformer who became a translator because he was a reformer and not the other way round.”
If David sounds well-informed there is a reason – he has been reading up on the subject for months.
“We have a joke in rehearsal which is ‘David’s osteopath’ and even before then I was lugging Bibles up and down the M1 because we were rehearsing in Clapham,” he laughs.
“I also realised, to my shame, that I didn’t know that much about the English Reformation and had a very enjoyable period learning more about it. All of the Tudors are interesting. I had approached it before because my only foray into film was that I did the screenplay for a film that Trevor Nunn directed in the late eighties called Lady Jane whose main contribution was to launch Helena Bonham Carter in her first movie.”
David admits that he comes to the Bible and its story in terms of scholarship rather than faith.
“I am not a believer but I am interested in belief,” he says. “And one of the interesting things is how belief, whether that belief is in religion or in politics, has common patterns. One rather obvious one is that people who believe things very strongly are not necessarily the people you want to have round for dinner.”
The King James Bible story may be set 400 years ago but David believes it has echoes in society today.
“The analogy between the Protestant fundamentalism and Muslim fundamentalism is very close. It is a religion of The Book, it is hostility to music, it is hostility to images in worship, it is beards, it is a belief that the church and the state should be the same thing. There are lots and lots of comparisons and, most of all, the belief in the truth of The Book, which make this a very relevant and contemporary story.
“There is some idea that the King James Bible has an authority, that the translators were touched in a unique way and that it is closer to the word of God.
“And yet some of it is not as good. In some cases Tyndale is better. You do realise it is a human construction. They were very diligent, there is no doubt of their scholarship and the evidence that we have got, which is very limited, of the translation process is that they were very hard-working and they went back to things again and again and again. There were two wholesale revision processes of the whole thing and they were discussing it in minute detail.
“They certainly didn’t set out to produce a literary masterpiece and it didn’t sell very well when it came out but in places they have the best versions of verses. They got lots of things right. The King James is probably best most of the time. It has a combination of majesty and simplicity.
“It is a great picker, of looking at the earlier versions and picking the best bits. It is a great editor.
“Also a lot of the earlier versions, such as the Tyndale Bible, were designed to be read in silence but the King James Bible was designed to be read aloud. And that is how they did the translation, they read it out verse by verse. And that is why it has become the version of choice.
“I have Christian friends who berate me and other non-believers who are affectionate towards the King James Bible on the grounds that it is inaccurate and because it is obscure. If you are reading it as a Christian the meaning is much more important than the music.”
David has a long connection with the RSC with former collaborations including Days of Destiny, The Jail Diary of Albie Sachs, Maydays, Pentecost and the Prisoner’s Dilemma, as well as his award-winning adaptation of Charles Dickens’ Nicholas Nickleby.
But his connection to the theatre goes back even further as his aunt, Nancy Burman, who also managed Birmingham Repertory Theatre, was production manager at the RSC under Sir Barry Jackson.
“I have seen Shakespeare in Stratford from the age of 11 when I saw Peggy Ashcroft playing Rosalind in As You Like It,” he recalls.
“It has been a very important part of my life. I have been going for years and years throughout my life and have been involved with it since Days of Destiny in 1976 – so 35 years. It is very nice to be back especially with the new Royal Shakespeare Theatre.”
* Written on the Heart is on at the Swan Theatre, Stratford-upon-Avon, from October 27-March 10.