I am a sucker for Christmas. I love carols, trees, glitter, lights, German markets and Nativity sets. But I am also a history teacher, accustomed to look closely at primary sources and consider their meaning. Because I am a church choir person I must have heard St Matthew's version of the Christmas story a hundred times or more and it does seem to me that his story of wise men from the east has got so loaded with traditions and myths that it has become very difficult to hear as Matthew might have meant it. This was one source for my play.
Somewhere in Evelyn Waugh's wartime diaries he meditates upon the story of the wise men and reflects what a good parable it is for artists. The Magi misunderstand what is happening, they turn up late and they cause terrible trouble, but their gifts are accepted. This comment struck home with me. Waugh was a creative artist; I was a school teacher, and it seems to me that the story of the wise men was an even better parable for those who consider themselves highly educated and learned. That was another source for the play.
Even when dealing with serious subjects I usually take my advice from Desiderius Erasmus: “What is the matter with telling the truth with a smile”, so there are many witty scenes and jokes. Being a teacher myself I felt no compunction about making fun of the profession. But the story contains many dreadful things – the tyranny of Herod, the massacre of the Innocents, the refugee flight into Egypt. I have pulled no punches on these. The play was written in the late 1980's, and it was alarming to discover, while typing it out on a computer for publication, that the scenes involving tyrants and massacres and refugees might as well have been written today, not in 1989.
Various friends and colleagues said nice things about the play. One good judge particularly liked the rhythm of the dialogue, which was very flattering. There were one or two criticisms from folk who felt I was casting doubt on the historical accuracy of St Matthew's account. My answer to that is this: If the story, and all its details, was an event in history it is certainly interesting – but it was all a long time ago and we live 2,000 years later. If, however, it is partly a work of the imagination it can be as true today as it was when first written. Take “Pride and Prejudice” as an example of what I mean. That is a made-up story, and often very funny, but it contains eternal truths about love and snobbery and women's rights.
In the play St Matthew directs events. I tried to follow his version – about the importance of the prophets, for example – rather than intrude my own.
The original cast consisted of school pupils aged 11 to 13. Some readers may have thought, wrongly, that junior pupils would have had trouble with the sophisticated concepts and dialogue presented here. This was not at all the case. Writing “down” for children is a terrible error, too often committed. No pupil who wanted to be in the show was turned away, and the many substantial parts were done superbly. It does seem to me that it would work well with older actors. Read it and see what you think.
When I wrote the play the school was boys only, so it was easy to follow St Matthew and have only one female in the play. The boy who played Mary was first rate. I see no problem for any director who wished to give any of the parts to girls or women. Twenty years later, when the school was fully co-educational, I was lucky to direct “Henry V”. We had girls as French Ambassador, Governor of Harfleur, Boy, and M le Fer. Two girls shared the role of Chorus very well indeed. There are as many parts for females as for males in this play. The whole point about acting is that on stage you are not the same person as you are off.
I hope you enjoy reading it. If you do, you will have something extra to think about every time you hear the story of the wise men. Here is the link to it: