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Quick Draw: Did atheist Jean-Paul Sartre write, direct and star in a nativity play?

Read Monday, 18 Jul 2016

In Quick Draw, Sophie Quick provides short and sweet answers to the obscure literary questions you never actually asked.

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Yes. Jean-Paul Sartre, avowed atheist and existentialist, did write, direct and even star in a nativity play. He was 35 years old at the time.

Sartre wrote his nativity play, called Bariona ou le Fils du tonnerre (Bariona or the Son of Thunder), while in a German prison camp in 1940. An outspoken atheist for most of his life, Sartre was persuaded by a Jesuit priest to write the play in solidarity with his fellow prisoners, many of whom were Christians. The play was performed at Stalag XII at Trier in Germany on Christmas Day that year and, unsurprisingly, had political undertones. In an interview some years later, Sartre said:

‘The play was full of allusions to the situation we were in, and each of us understood them perfectly well. In our minds, the Roman envoy to Jerusalem was the German. Our captors saw him as the Englishman in his colonies!’

He also admitted that the play was boring as hell: ‘Why didn’t I revive Bariona later? Because it was a bad play. It gave too much place to long, demonstrative speeches.’

Still, 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 performed in the play himself, taking the role of myrrh-toting wise man Balthazar. This was not a casting decision that played Sartre’s natural attributes to their best advantage. It would have been so much cuter if he’d cast himself as an oversexed, pipe-smoking toad who nudged his way past the lowing cattle to get a close-up view of baby Jesus.

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