Yesterday we had a Christmas nativity fact, concerning the curious origins of T. S. Eliot’s Christmas poem ‘Journey of the Magi’. Today, another nativity story, but this time, concerning a perhaps unlikely nativity play. For today’s pick of our favourite Christmas facts we’re moving forward from Eliot’s poem written in the 1920s, to the dark time of the Second World War.
Jean-Paul Sartre is best known for his role in the philosophical movement known as Existentialism, and for plays such as No Exit, which is famous for the line ‘Hell is other people.’ But did you know that Sartre’s first ever play was a nativity play, performed at Christmas 1940 by his fellow prisoners of war?
The play was called Bariona ou le fils du tonerre (or ‘Baronia, or The Son of Thunder’) and was performed at Stalag XII at Trier in Germany, where Sartre was himself a prisoner during WWII. Sources differ on precisely when the play was performed – some say it was Christmas Eve 1940, while the Selected Writings of Jean-Paul Sartre (Northwestern University Press) has it as Christmas Day.
Sartre himself, in 1962, said that it was on Christmas Eve, suggesting it was possibly a late-night performance. Sartre made it clear that his position on Christianity didn’t change during his captivity, but that he drew on the Christian nativity story as a way of working with the priests who were his fellow prisoners to ‘bring about, on that Christmas Eve, the broadest possible union of Christians and unbelievers.’
In the play, Sartre portrays Jesus Christ as a member of a sort of Jewish Resistance, challenging the Roman Empire’s occupation of Judea. This obviously reflected Sartre’s own time, and the French Resistance to Nazi Germany’s occupation.
There is a detailed and helpful summary of the play here, but the plot might be summarised as follows: the title character, Bariona, refuses to believe the Messiah has been born, and so sets off to kill the infant that is being hailed as the Messiah in Bethlehem.
In order to spare the Jewish people the false hope of believing their Saviour has come, Bariona decides that slaying the baby will save everyone further disappointment and suffering. However, a conversation with one of the Wise Men at the manger convinces Bariona otherwise …