Theatre review: Written on the Heart

A secular pilgrimage to Stratford to celebrate the 400th anniversary of the King James Bible.

Do you, from time to time, set your house in order, fall flat on your face, pour out your heart and by the skin of your teeth know for a certainty how the mighty are fallen? In which case, you are a man after my own heart (1 Samuel 13:14) and are thinking along lines first carved out, or smoothed into popular use, by the King James Bible.

Written On the Heart, currently being performed by the RSC at Stratford's Swan Theatre, takes its place amongst the many theatrical events this year that mark the 400th anniversary of the KJB's genesis. Writer David Edgar focuses on its birth pangs - the hard labour of the translators, and especially of the brilliant cleric in charge of the enterprise, Lancelot Andrewes.

Alongside the incense, one catches just a breath of the ancient passions that once animated this country, when the word of God was quite literally a burning issue. England had tacked violently between Catholicism and the Reformation, and it took the accession of an unusually tolerant monarch (James I) to draw a divine line under the bloodshed. Andrewes steered a compromise course between popery and puritanism, mindful always of the Royal fiat to enshrine kingly authority snugly alongside God's.

This sober play takes on one big chunk of complicated ecclesiastical history. It is in effect a dramatized colloquy. Fortunately it's nowhere near as tedious as it sounds, thanks to a magisterial performance from the white and whiskery Oliver Ford Davies as Andrewes, and the wit and earthy beauty of Edgar's own language. Gregory Doran's direction keeps the parleying cassocks nicely animated, the staging quietly impresses, and the sacred singing loads some holy frisson.

The action - though action is putting it strongly - takes place in 1610, but we are also whisked back to 1536 to visit the gifted linguist William Tyndale, the first to translate and print an English bible from Hebrew and Greek texts. He is in a Flemish prison; his botched strangling, then burning, still to come.

His reproachful presence underscores the huge and largely unacknowledged debt the KJB owes Tyndale (who we can thank for apple of my eye, salt of the earth, fat of the land and bald as a coot, amongst much, much else). Edgar goes as far as to dramatically resurrect him as the conscience of the troubled Andrewes. Has the translator sacrificed meaning for majesty? Tyndale, played with an austere ardour by Stephen Boxer, favours plainer speech. His Satan says"Tush!" to Eve. And is Andrewes right to replace "tyrants" with the less royally contentious "giants"? If there are no prelates and there is no purgatory in the bible, why does the church cling to them?

Not all the dramatic tricks work so well. The flouncing in of royal princes just looks like an excuse to show off some rather peachy pumpkin breeches. The young prince's request to the bearded clerics that they "show" how they arrived at their translation seems an inelegant entrée to the process - and this is a pity, as the process was innately theatrical. The translators read bits aloud to each other; this bible was conceived as a performance above all else.

Andrewes himself didn't care too much for his cesarean creation, preferring to preach from the Geneva bible (a more radical descendant of Tyndale's). He would have been amazed at the longevity of his own version. Amazed, too, that we "cultural Anglicans" laud it less as an attempt to ventriloquise The Word, than as literature in its own right.

It's this enduring workmanship in his mother tongue that perhaps we don't get much of a sense of from Edgar's tight period focus. Trekking to see the play in Stratford, I formed part of the freezing mass of secular pilgrims visiting the birthplace of Shakespeare, his more flashy contemporary. I was reminded of Andrewes's 1622 Christmas sermon, so lovingly plagiarised by TS Eliot in The Journey of the Magi:

A cold coming we had of it,
Just the worst time of year
For a journey, and such a long journey:
The ways deep and the weather sharp,
The very dead of winter.

Just reading it makes your cheeks ache in the solstitial winds.

Photo: Getty
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Poo jokes and pessimism – the scatological legacy of British humour

Is it simply a testament to our good nature, or a sign of a darker kind of cynicism?

Many Brits will have amused themselves this summer by packing a tent, stashing their narcotics and heading over to a muddy field in the middle of nowhere to brave the torrential rain at a music festival.

Wallowing in the mud and other more faecal byproducts to the soundtrack of up-and-coming bands is considered the peak of hedonism for many in the UK, and there is something quintessentially British about the way we willfully embrace the general state of depravity that most of our festivals inevitably collapse into.

One internet meme that perfectly epitomises the difference between British and American festival culture shows an image of a woman at a US event pulling a sad face as she reveals the worst thing she’s seen: “Spitting on the ground.” On her right, a British man slumped in a camping chair holds up his sign, reading: “A man covered in his own shit sniffing ketamine off his mate’s unwashed scrotum.”

There’s a cheerful pride with which Brits embrace bodily dysfunction as a part of our comic culture, and a common trope of British humour involves undermining the stiff upper lip attitude associated with English people, often with an act of complete depravity that dispels any illusion of class and respectability. Britons have always been partial to a good old-fashioned dose of scatological humour, from Chaucer’s bawdy fabliaux that celebrate obscenity, to Shakespeare’s Falstaff, or Bottom in A Midsummer Night’s Dream, or Swift’s "Scatological Cycle".

Much of the comic effect that these writers create derives from undermining high-brow intellect or spirituality with the low-brow of the rear end – for example the part in Chaucer’s Summoner’s Tale, where the division of an old man’s fart into 12 serves as a parody of the descent of the holy ghost at Pentecost.

Faeces has long since been ingrained in our past literary and historical culture – after all, as the great Shakespeare was writing some of the western world’s most seminal pieces of English literature, his chamber-maid was most likely throwing pieces of his own faeces out of the window next to him.

In English literature, scatological humour can be juvenile, but it has also been used to represent wider social anxieties. In turning bottoms up and exposing the rear end, "shiterature" is often about breaking taboos, and exposing the dirty underbelly of society. Part of the "civilising" process that societies perform to reach a high level of sophistication involves distancing oneself from one’s own excrement, and scatology reverses this by shedding a light on our dirtiest natural habits. Swift’s excremental vision asked us to peel back the mask of genteel individuals, revealing their true and disgusting selves.

Scatology can also represent collective self-disgust, and has been used to question the integrity of a British national identity that has in the past denied its colonial wrongdoings. In Tristram Shandy, the protagonist's porous and leaking diseased body has been interpreted as a metaphor for the British Empire, and indeed the whole being of the Shandean gentleman is sub-textually supported by British colonialism, being as they are descended from merchants who profited from eastern goods sold to the European bourgeois and aristocrats.

Scatology has been used to represent hypochondria, the crisis of the aristocracy, self-disgust and sexual disgust – incidentally all things that we might find at an English festival.

The onslaught of the modern era hasn’t managed to dispel our fondness for injecting sophisticated comedy with snippets of scatological humour. In Peep Show for example, a show largely appreciated for its dry wit and irony, a hilarious scene involves Mark suffering from uncontrollable diarrhea as his boss watches on in disgust. Another brilliant scene is where Jeremy’s employer at the gym confronts him with a plastic bag filled with a human stool, which Jez had used to frame another employee for pooing in the pool.

In a similar vein, one of the most famous scenes in The Inbetweeners is where the uptight Will manages to poo himself during one of his A-level exams. In the second movie, there is another disgusting poo in the pool scene.

In the dark comedy series The Mighty Boosh, characters reference "taking a shit" on objects ranging from a salad, to a swan, to even "your mum". Almost all of these characters (Mark from Peep Show, Will from The Inbetweeners and The Mighty Boosh's Howard Moon) see themselves in some way as representative of a modern British gentleman – prudish, well educated and well spoken. Each of them at points embarrasses themselves and their image with reference to their bowel movements.

It’s a cliché that British humour is about losers, and that we are more prone to self-deprecation than our friends across the pond – a cliché that is not without some truth. 

Admittedly nowadays, much American humour similarly relies on self-deprecation and laughing at the sorry fate of "losers", but cynicism and irony are more fundamental to British comedy. On commenting on the difference between the American and British versions of The Office, Ricky Gervais once said that in the UK: "Failure and disappointment lurk around every corner… We use (irony) as liberally as prepositions in every day speech. We tease our friends. We use sarcasm as a shield and weapon." 

It is certainly true that in Britain, we are particularly pre-occupied with laughing at the failures of the self, and this can manifest itself potently through deprecation of the body.

Maybe the general sense of pessimism that is alluded to so much in the UK is due to our dismal weather, and maybe our ability to laugh at ourselves and our dysfunctions is a simply a testament to our good nature, and something to be applauded. Perhaps it is just something in the air rising from our manure-ploughed green and pleasant lands that inspires in our British comedians the desire to return time and time again to the scatological trope. Or perhaps, if we dig a bit deeper into our dung-fertilised lands, we might find that an anxiety about the foundations of British identity is behind the relentless desire to represent the permeability of the personal and national body.

Should we be embracing our tendency towards self-deprecation, or does it lead to a more problematic kind of cynicism that is restrictive, making us resistant to the idea of radical change? Perhaps we are destined to remain stuck in the mud forever, grumbling about the bad weather as we desperately shelter from the rain under a gazebo, sipping on the dregs of warm beer, pretending we’re having a good time – and who knows? Maybe this is what a good time looks like. Swift once told us to bless the "gaudy tulips raised from dung" – British comedy continues to do so quite literally.