17 August 2009

A Play of St Constantine

I’ve just begun reading Dorothy Sayers’s play, The Emperor Constantine: A Chronicle (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1976), about St Constantine the Great and the Council of Nicaea. The play was written for a festival at Colchester (named for ‘old King Coel’, traditionally the grandfather of St Constantine). In the Preface, Sayers introduces St Constantine with a passage remarkably level-headed for a non-Orthodox treatment of the man who ended the persecution of Christianity:

The first Christian Emperor was thus, in the economy of Providence, the instrument whereby Christendom was brought face to face with two problems which have not yet found their full resolution: the exterior relations between Church and State; the interor relation between orthodox and heretic with the Church. It has long been fashionable to lay the blame on Constantine for the corruptions incidental to any alliance of the spiritual and temporal powers—for the rise of secularism and institutionalism within the City of God—for the unedifying spectacle of a Church compromising on the one hand with the world and on the other hand employing the arm of the State to police and persecute her own dissident members. But such criticism is scarcely helpful. The problem of power is not to be evaded; the changes were in the nature of things inevitable, and would have come about in course of time, if not by Constantine then by some other means. If the Gospel was to be ‘preached unto every creature’, then Christianity must some day cease to be the cult of a minority, and the power of purse and sword must eventually come into Christian hands—as indeed the Lord Himself had told His disciples that they must. And sooner or later the Church must needs use her intellect to define her faith, lest identity be lost, and the truth once delivered to the Saints be merged in the welter of Gnostic and semi-pagan cults which proliferated upon the decaying remnants of Hellenistic philosophy and the old religions. (pp. 5-6)

I would also commend Sayers for her detailed and down-to-earth account of how well her play gels with history, an account that contrasts markedly with the dramatic and misleading notes prefacing the sadly overrated novels of that hack, Dan Brown:

The outline of the main events is . . . faithful to history and tradition, and the substance, if not the form, of the great theological argument which ‘split the Church for an iota’ is that which was heard at Nicaea.

Of the two possible dates for the birth of Constantine I have, for dramatic convenience, chosen the later (see A.H.M. Jones, Constantine and the Conversion of Europe, pp. 1-2). The prayer issued for use by the army (Act I, Sc. 3) is historical, though connected with a later campaign. Historical, too, is Constantine’s letter to the bishops in Act II, Sc. 7, as also his speec to the Council, and the letter from Arius to Eusebius of Nicomedia, in Act III, Sc. 5. The song sung by the Fishmonger’s Boy in Act III, Scs. 2 and 3 is a (very) free adaptation from the Thalia—a popular poem composed by Arius and sung to ‘the tune of a bawdy song’. That Fausta accused Crispin of attempted incest was alleged by the later historians to explain the double murder; but the suggestion that this accusation was part of a plot to dethrone Constantine is my own, and I have put back the date usually given for the execution of Licinius by a few months in order to tie up the ends of the plot more neatly. Similarly, to make the action more compact, I have caused Constantine to be baptized upon his death-bed, although in fact the ceremony took place a few days earlier, in a church near Nicomedia. The characters of Togius and Matibena have no historical foundation, neither has the prophecy spoken by Coel. (p. 8)

Contrast this with Brown's, 'Fact: All descriptions of artwork, architecture, documents, and secret rituals in this novel are accurate. The Priory of Sion, a European secret society founded in 1099, is a real organization.'

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