Angels in the Market Place
ANGELS IN THE MARKET PLACE
Imagining the Pioneers of English Christianity
Paul BurnhamAugustine’s Mission to England: an Historical Play
Burnham’s enjoyable, historical play deserves producing even if it has to be modified. Spanning some 40 years, it covers St. Augustine’s papal mission to Kent in 597 AD and concludes 30 years later. It is Bede-based history but not necessarily Bede-like, with some nice inventions. His theme is the tension between freedom ‘in Christ’ and authoritarian rigidity, especially that of the Pope. His well-researched history reminds us how Kings and courts led the way in our accepting of Christianity. There are some contemporary frissons, too. Papal authority, as portrayed, was based on ‘Do it because the Pope says so.’ Today our freedom to trust someone or some information is becoming dependent on our asking, ‘Can I trust this person to give me truth and to treat the truth well?’
I can certainly trust Burnham fully in his reconstruction of the spread of Christianity in what is now England and Wales. There are some vivid scenes. Bishop Liudhard, Queen Bertha’s chaplain, appears briefly and then, we assume, suffers his off-stage fate. Absent, he remains a presence in our thoughts, a Christian of courage and common sense whom we miss. Why? Because he is married to Hilda (a Burnham invention) and, when challenged by Pope Gregory about this, stoutly defends clergy marriage. The Pope is not amused or flexible. There is lively and firm dialogue, which is often very fit-for-purpose. There are good guys (Edwin and Lilla) and baddies (Aethelfrith and Eumer) and deaths occur on stage as well as off. And the division of the story into three acts helps the reader to know who is who and to relate to varying locations.
My read-through came especially to life when Liudhard was fending off the Pope’s insistence on clerical celibacy; and at Bertha’s unexpected tenderness to her husband Aethelbert when dying (Act 2 Scene 4). The telling and showing of one’s feelings and principles is surely central to drama. I was at times confused by the long cast list of Act 1: I could not find Lawrence (it is the priestly name for Gilbert). A performance helps characters to become known by their physical traits and actions as well as their words. On the page they can remain names engaged in dialogue. But the few new characters, thereafter, are distinguishable within their setting and by role or ethnicity. Augustine was ordered to learn English but on his arrival in Canterbury, he still spoke in Latin, which was then translated. This slowed the pace down and could be avoided.
There is a purpose and pleasure to reading plays aloud or silently, alone or with others. A play-reading could be achieved, at the least – with or without an audience. Angels in the Market Place would work as a play in a big enough acting space or as a film or video. I hope there will be more plays about Christian material for reading and seeing. The one-voice sermon has its limitations in taking us into earlier past worlds.
Reviewed by Jeremy Harvey
Church History - Biography
Try the search facility. (Top right-hand corner of the page.)
Be imaginative with the words you search for! - We might have used different terms from what you'd use.