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Away in the manger —conclusion



Now I’m moving on to Jean-Paul Sartre’s nativity play—but not just yet, as I’m following the journalistic principle of saving the best until last. Two other bits about nativity plays first, one serious, one comic. In a previous column I explained to readers how much I enjoyed taking short breaks at the Trading Post Adventures lodge, Ramabanta (I wonder, is the lodge still up-and-running, or has it been ravaged by the pandemic?) Just before you reach Ramabanta, coming from Roma, there is a Catholic institution called Fatima. At the rear of this there is a great lawn, surrounded by lovely murals of the Stations of the Cross. Here, apparently, a nativity play was performed every year, complete with cattle and donkeys (I’m not sure whether they ever stretched to a camel. They might have done, because Colonel Gaddafi of Libya once presented the king of Lesotho with a couple of camels). How I would have loved to have seen the play. Now, a joke, and I hope readers won’t be offended by it. A primary school in England (though it could be anywhere) is planning to mount a nativity play. One of the kids, Josh, fancies himself as a budding actor and is determined to be cast in one of the major male roles, either as Gabriel or as Joseph. In the end he is assigned the minor role of the Innkeeper and is extremely disgruntled. So aggrieved is little Josh, he determines to sabotage the play. At rehearsals he follows the script, but the actual performance is a different matter. When Mary and Joseph arrive at the inn and knock at the door, he opens it and demands to know what they want. “Is there any room at the inn?” asks Joseph. The Innkeeper (Josh) replies “Yes, yes, plenty of room. Come right in.” And the play collapses at that point. And now, finally, the nativity play by Jean-Paul Sartre, written, as I have said, when he was a prisoner in a Nazi internment camp. As I have only just come across this play, I am relying on printed sources to account for it but, of course, like any good journalist, I am acknowledging them. Writing in the on-line journal Books, reading and writing, in a regular column in which she “provides short and sweet answers to questions you never actually asked” (which, when you think about it, is an Existentialist joke), Sophie Quick tells us the following: “[When imprisoned by the Nazis], although an outspoken atheist for most of his life, Sartre was persuaded by a Jesuit priest to write Bariona ou le Fils de tonnerre (Bariona or the Son of Thunder) in solidarity with his fellow prisoners, many of whom were Christians. The play, unsurprisingly, had political undertones. It was a hit on the night. There is even a story of one of the prisoners sinking to his knees and converting on the spot.” Sartre himself directed the play and took on the role of the myrrh-bearing wise man Balthazar (who is sometimes depicted as a Black African, as in Hieronymous Bosch’s beautiful painting “The Adoration of the Magi.”) Writing in The Irish Times just a few weeks ago, the Rev. Thomas Casey says the following: “Sartre’s positive take on Christmas was so out of character that years later his companion Simone de Beauvoir claimed he had never written the play in the first place, as a result of which Sartre himself was forced to confirm that he was indeed the author. He explained that the play did not signal any essential change in his atheistic stance but was a particularly fitting way to foster unity among the prisoners during that Christmas of 1940.” Well, maybe the play knew Sartre better than he knew himself. Casey then quotes the following outstandingly beautiful passage from the play, which has one of the characters describing Mary gazing in wonder at her son: “She looks and thinks, ‘This God is my son. The divine flesh is my flesh. He is made from me. He has my eyes, and the shape of his mouth is the shape of mine. He takes after me. He is God and he takes after me. No other woman has ever had her God fall to her lot in this way. A small God whom I can take in my arms and cover in kisses. A warm God who breathes and smiles. A God who lives and whom I can touch.” Chris Dunton

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