Welsh dramatist gives talks on St. Francis

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D.J. Britton, award-winning dramatist and director, explains the research behind the “Sultan and the Saint” at Prothro Theater in the Harry Ransom Center.

Photo Credit: Claire Schaper | Daily Texan Staff

D.J. Britton, dramatist and Swansea University creative writing director, showcased his current research on the history of St. Francis of Assisi in a lecture Friday at the Harry Ransom Center.

The lecture was part of Swansea University’s Texas Showcase — a week-long tour presenting Welsh university’s research with stops at UT, Texas A&M University and the University of Houston.

Britton said the project, a collaboration with experts from both UT and Texas A&M, focuses on St. Francis’ role during the early 13th century as a peacemaker for the Middle East.

“I am personally very interested in the relationship between the ‘long view’ and the ‘short view,’” Britton said. 

Britton said he was a journalist before becoming a dramatist. According to him, journalists are focused on the short view, which are current events and factual information. As a dramatist, he gets to have a little more freedom by writing in what he calls the long view, which consists of creatively imagining what happens between the facts.

“As journalists, we tend to talk about things in the short view,” Britton said. “In a piece of theater, what you can explore are the things between the facts.”

Britton said the project’s work on the “Sultan and the Saint” is comprised of the collaborative efforts from researchers from various fields, including medieval studies, religious studies, poetry, journalism and Islamic studies.

“I’ve never seen a project so disciplinarily diverse,” English professor Kurt Heinzelman said. “Especially one with so many objectives, both in the short term and the long term.”

In Britton’s presentation, he focused on the meeting of St. Francis and Sultan Malik al-Kamil of Egypt during the Crusades. In 1219, St. Francis sought to gain an audience with the Sultan by crossing enemy lines during the Fifth Crusade. St. Francis travelled to the Sultan’s camp on the bank of the Nile River in hopes of converting him to Christianity. Britton said St. Francis did not succeed but came back with ideas about reconciliation between Islam and Christianity.

“We know that they met, and we know that it wasn’t a hostile meeting,” Britton said. “We don’t know what they said … now that’s a great opportunity for a playwright.”

Britton said he wants to explore what little is known about the Sultan and St. Francis’ meeting. That research, he said, will eventually come to life on stage.

“It’s a very unlikely friendship between these two people,” Britton said. “Let’s just imagine one afternoon that they are together acting out their parts.”