The Man Born to Be King is a set of twelve radio plays depicting the life of Jesus. The plays cover most of the major events described in the Gospels, and Sayers has gone to great lengths to create believable, historical personalities. The biblical text has ambiguous or conflicting chronology of events, and often does not supply motives for events. Sayers relies on Who Moved the Stone (Frank Morison) for a possible resolution in some cases, and in other cases creates her own. The play feels historically, biblically, and humanly accurate, and brings the biblical text to life in a new way.
The character of Jesus is pretty well established in the Gospels, and most of what he says is simply the biblical text with a colloquial twist. The Disciples are limited to John, James, Judas, Matthew, Andrew, and Philip, each of whom get a personality in line with the text. John is an emotional guy who simply believes. His brother James seems to take his personality from the need to protect John. Matthew, as a former tax collector, is simply eternally grateful for Jesus taking his sin away and transforming his life, but since he has a head for money, he notices certain irregularities with Judas. Philip is mostly Judas’ friend, and a bit of a simpleton.
Judas is probably the most complex character, and arguably who the play actually revolves around (although that might just be the amount of performance notes devoted to explaining him). Sayers figured that Judas had to be someone who Jesus would rationally choose; Jesus was too canny to pick someone he knew would betray him. So Judas is an insightful, competent man, capable of great good in the Kingdom. However, he is an idealist who insists that his messiah must be willing to give his life sacrificially. Judas begins to suspect that Jesus is partnering with the resistance movement to gain political power, and his suspicions run away with him until he betrays Jesus because he would rather kill his messiah than give up his ideals (or, apparently, talk to Jesus about his fears).
Sayers arranges the transition from faithful disciple to betrayer very cleverly. A resistance fighter named Baruch tries to use Jesus and his popularity to start a rebellion against Rome. He has arranged a horse and a donkey at a house outside of Jerusalem for Jesus to ride into Jerusalem, sending him a letter saying that if he wants to come as a king at war, to take the horse; if he comes as a king at peace, to take the donkey. Judas bribes the messenger but only gets half the message. Consequently, he misinterprets Jesus’ choice of the donkey, and his suspicions run away with him.
Judas is a really disturbing character. Sayers has, probably deliberately, made him an intellectual who is always whole-hearted, but who lets suspicion color his worldview until he actually ends up betraying Jesus. Judas is sympathetic; you think “wow, I could have been Judas,” which I think is Sayers’ intention. In fact, Judas occupies such a central role that his character arguably eclipses Jesus. From a literary standpoint, the plot seems to revolve around Judas, not Jesus. It could be simply that Judas’ motives need a lot of explaining, so the notes to the producer talk a lot about Judas and little about Jesus. But there definitely is this sense that the play is about the decline and fall of Judas.
Herod, Pilate, the centurion, and various minor characters are well-researched and fit in with the times. They add color to the picture and context to the story. When it really happened, nobody thought that anything unusual was happening, and Sayers constructs a likely context for why the people did what they did. You come away thinking that the Sanhedrin was guilty of ram-rodding legal irregularities in Jesus’ conviction, but that everyone else’s hand was, at some level, forced. Pilate wanted to free the innocent man, but his fear of having yet another riot on his record was greater than his desire for justice. The soldiers did the procedures they always did, the Disciples and the women could only react as best they could.
It is very difficult to criticize much in these plays. One minor criticism is that the time spent making Judas’ fall accessible only serve to emphasize his role (which may be why the Gospel writers ignore any motivation he had). The other is that the play feels more like a tragedy than it conveys the feeling that the Kingdom is near, and is actually now attainable. The tragedy overshadows what the Kingdom is like: a community where Holy Spirit brings freedom from disease (healing), freedom from bondage (sin), and freedom to relate to God Himself. Granted, Sayers writes from a Catholic perspective, so one should expect a Gospel of the Kingdom perspective. Still, I would have liked to have a feeling of victory and of the reign and rule of heaven is ours to bring to earth.
These plays do a great job of placing the Gospel stories in a very clear, understandable, historical context. Often actions in the terse biblical account seem pretty one-sided, or even out of character with people. Sayers constructs a very concrete window into the larger world and gives us (potential) context not included in the original. She also does a great job of humanizing the stories, so that it is not just a Sunday school story, but an action in time. What would it have been like to be there? Sayers gives us a plausible portrait.