The Timeless Theme Of Luther John Osborne

John Osborne’s Luther, which debuted in London in 1961, is a drama with a historical setting and a timeless theme. As Osborne told an interviewer in 1961 (as quoted in Alan Carter’s John Osborne), ”I wanted to write a play about religious experience and various other things, and this happened to be the

almost incidental.” The play focuses on Martin Luther, the sixteenth-century monk who publicly spoke out against age-old practices and beliefs of the Roman Catholic Church, thus beginning the Protestant Reformation. Osborne, however, focuses on Martin Luther’s intensely personal reaction to his religion, his faith, and his God; the transformations he wrought in Europe exist more as an aside in this drama. As he did in earlier works, such as his groundbreaking Look Back in Anger, Osborne profiles an individual in conflict with authority, which in Martin Luther’s case is the vast authority of the Roman Catholic Church. In posting his 95 theses, Luther risked inevitable excommunication and brought the wrath of the highest church leaders, including Pope Leo X, upon him. He did this despite his uncertainty about what would come next, for, as he tells Cajetan at the Diet of Worms (a city in Germany) about the Roman Catholic Church, ”A withered arm is best amputated, an infected place is best scoured out, and so you pray for healthy tissue and something sturdy and clean that was crumbling and full of filth.” Osborne dramatically depicts how Martin Luther followed his convictions in the face of great doubts, and so transformed Christianity forever.

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Plot overview

Act 1

Luther is set in Germany during the 1500s and follows several important events in the life of Martin Luther, the religious reformer, instigator of the Protestant Reformation, and founder of the Lutheran faith. Act 1 opens at the convent of the Augustinian Order of Eremites in Erfurt, Germany, in 1506. In the presence of the other members of the convent and his disapproving father, Luther is received into the order. After the oath has been sworn, Luther’s father, Hans, complains of his son’s choice. Later, after his father has left, the monks gather for their meal; Luther has the job of waiting on the others. A reader lectures the men on their duties to God, doing His good works, and the rules they must follow. The men then make their confessions, but while most of

the monks confess to trifling sins, Luther continually castigates himself harshly, calling himself a ”worm,” and sharing visions that are filled with images of sex and violence. At the end, Luther has a fit and has to be dragged away by two other monks. Scene 2 takes place one year later as Luther is about to perform his first mass. Beforehand, he talks with Brother Weinand about his doubts, revealing that he still feels envy and impatience, and that he believes that God hates him. Weinand says it is not God who is angry with Luther but Luther who is angry with Him.

Scene 3 focuses on the meeting between Luther and his father, Hans, following Luther’s mass. Hans still cannot understand why Luther would give up earthly pleasures such as fortune and family life to become a monk. Hans suggests that Luther only became a monk through fear, the result of a promise made during a thunderstorm.

Act 2

Act 2 opens at the marketplace in Juterbog in 1517, where John Tetzel is selling indulgences. Scene 1 is Tetzel’s monologue exhorting people to buy the indulgences and ensure their swift assent to heaven. Scene 2 shifts to the Eremite Cloister in Wittenberg, where Luther talks with his mentor, Johann Von Staupitz. Through the conversation, Luther’s scholarly success (he has earned a doctorate in theology) is revealed, as are his continuing doubts and discontent. Luther has become obsessed

with the rules of his order, according to Von Staupitz, because it protects him from admitting that he cannot submit to anyone’s authority but his own. Stauptiz points out that Luther demands from himself an ”impossible standard of perfection” and

notes that he has been unable to keep all his vows but that God should still grant him salvation because of his love of Christ. Von Staupitz also talks about the Duke’s annoyance with Luther’s sermons against indulgences. Scene 3 shows Luther arriving with his 95 theses at the Castle Church in Wittenberg. In a monologue, he gives a sermon to the crowds, telling the common people there is no security in the purchase of indulgences and repudiating the idea that doing good works leads to personal salvation. ”The works are just if the man is just,” he says. ”If a man doesn’t believe in Christ, not only are his sins mortal, but his good works.”

Scene 4 takes place at the Fugger Palace in Augsburg in October 1518 as Cajetan, a church leader, confronts Luther about his actions. Cajetan explains to Luther the pope’s three demands: he must retract his sermons, not spread his ideas in the future, and stop causing disturbances among the church. Despite Cajetan telling Luther that his actions threaten the unity of Christendom, Luther will not retract. Cajetan has no choice but to refer this

difficult matter to the pope. Scene 5 takes place in a hunting lodge in northern Italy in 1519. Pope Leo X reads a letter he has received from Luther in which Luther says he will not retract his theses. The pope sends a letter to Cajetan that excommunicates Luther and banishes him from Germany. Scene 6 takes place at the Elster Gate in Wittenberg in 1520. In this brief monologue, Luther reveals that he has been served excommunication papers. He burns this paper, called the papal bull.

Act 3

Act 3 opens on April 18, 1521, at the Diet of Worms, where Germany’s Christian princes have called Luther to ask if he will retract the beliefs he espouses in his books dissenting with church doctrine. Luther explains that his writings fall into three categories: the first deal with certain values of faith and morality that both his supporters and his enemies agree are harmless; the second group attack the power that has tyrannized Germany; the third criticizes the enemies of his religion, even if they are ”holy” individuals, and defends the teaching of Christ. Luther declares that he cannot retract any of these works, for to retract the first group would be to condemn the things that those in favor and those against Luther agree upon; to retract the second group would be to invite more tyranny on Germany; to retract the third group would be to allow such situations to continue. Luther asks if anyone can expose his errors through Scripture; if this can be done, he will retract his books. Von Eck refuses his proposal. ”Do reasons have to be given to anyone who cares to ask a question?” he asks. ”Why, if anyone who questioned the common understanding of the church on any matter he liked to raise, and had to be answered irrefutably from the Scriptures, there would be nothing certain or decided in Christendom.” Von Eck further points out that Luther’s disobedience threatens the stability of the church by casting doubt upon it, yet Luther refuses to recant. Scene 2 takes place in Wittenberg in 1525. Luther and the Knight speak of the Peasants’ Movement, a revolt which had begun the previous year and which was quickly suppressed. The peasants

had been encouraged by Luther’s ideas of independence, but the Knight’s speech reveals that Luther opposed the peasants. The Knight tells Luther that he could have brought freedom and order if he had stood on their side, but Luther explains his lack of involvement because ”[T]here’s no such thing as an orderly revolution.” The Knight accuses Luther of siding with the princes and killing the spirit of independence he had helped foster. Luther, growing angry, says that the peasants deserved to die because

they ignored authority. At end of the scene, with the Knight watching, Luther marries former nun Katherine Von Bora. Scene 3, the final scene of the play, returns to the Eremite Cloister, twenty-four years after Luther joined the order. It is no longer a monastery but Luther’s home, where he lives with his wife and six

children. Von Staupitz joins them for a meal, and the two men discuss all that has happened since Luther posted his theses: the development of Germany and the German language, and the accessibility of Christianity to the common people. After hearing Luther’s repudiation of the Peasants’ War, Von Staupitz asks Luther not to believe that he is the only one who is ever right. Von Staupitz departs, and Katherine enters the room, carrying their young son, Hans, and Luther takes him from her.



Loss of Faith

Martin Luther’s religious crisis-and the resulting Protestant Reformation-stemmed from his loss of faith in the teachings and practices of the church. Osborne does not analyze the social, political, and economic causes of the religious reformation that swept Europe in the 1500s; instead, he focuses on Luther’s personal struggle. Luther takes action, posting the 95 theses, that makes him the first protestant, but even before this, his doubt is evident. The man who joins the monastery is prone to despair, histrionics, and self-castigation. His anxiety arises from his uncertainty about the vows that he upholds. Eventually, Luther’s doubts about Roman Catholic doctrine, as well as his disgust for the moral laxity of church leaders, lead him to reject both. Yet, even when doing so, Luther is not certain of his actions. As he reveals to Von Staupitz decades later, he waited a day to answer the questions posed at the Diet of Worms because he was not sure: ”I listened for God’s voice, but all I could hear was my own.” It is important to remember, however, that Luther’s rejection of the church does not equate with a rejection of God. When called to the Diet of Worms to recant his beliefs, Luther refuses to do so because his ”conscience is captured by God’s own word.” Upon receiving the papal bull excommunicating him, Luther asks God for help. ”I rely on no man, only on you,” he says. ”My God, my God do you hear me? Are you dead? Are you dead? No, you can’t die. You can only hide yourself, can’t you?” Luther’s doubts in God’s ability to help him in his isolation are clearly expressed here as are his belief in God’s eternal presence. By the end of the play, which takes place toward the end of Luther’s life, Luther demonstrates far less doubt about his relationship with God. In sharing the story of Isaac and Abraham, he emphasizes man’s obedience to God. In a conversation with Von Staupitz regarding the rebellion of the Peasants’ War, he declares, ”for there is no power but of God: the powers that be are ordained of God. Whosoever therefore resistant that power resistant the ordinance of God. ” In these words, Luther implies more certainty than in previous years, for if he had actually showed the obedience that he exalts, he never would have rebelled against the church and its practices and leaders.

Father-Son Relationships

Martin Luther’s relationships with the various father figures in his life each present their own set of complexities. His attitude toward these ties is best summed up by his words in act 1: ”I suppose fathers and sons always disappoint each other.” His father, Hans, is a driving force in his life. The play suggests that one reason that Luther became a monk was to get away from his father’s domination. Hans wanted his son to become a lawyer or a magistrate, anything but a priest, a profession that takes him away from

the material world. Hans believes that his son chose to become a monk because he has given up and needs to run away from life. Luther, however, tells his father, ”All you want is me to justify you,” clearly showing that he feels like a pawn for his father, one with the purpose of fulfilling the older man’s expectations. This relationship remains difficult throughout Luther’s life; as he reveals to Von Staupitz in the final scene, ”He [Hans] was never pleased about anything I did. . . . Only when Katie and I were married and she got pregnant. Then he was pleased.” This revelation suggests that Hans is also concerned with the continuation of his family line, which can only be carried on by Luther since his other two sons died in the plague. Luther’s relationship with his spiritual Father is as difficult if not more so. At various points throughout the play, Luther entreats God for guidance and casts himself as a helpless child. After his excommunication, Luther sees himself as a lost child, a stillbirth, and pleads with God to ”[B]reathe into me . . . yes, my mighty fortress, breathe into me. Give me life, oh Lord. Give me life.” In this instance, God takes on the role of the father, creating the son. At other times, Luther rebels against God, much as he rebels against his earthly father. To this Luther, God is an angry being, one who ”demanded my love and made it impossible to return it.” Another father figure exists for Luther: Von Staupitz. Like a father, the older theologian tries to set Luther on an easier path than the one he consistently seeks for himself. By the play’s final scene, Luther openly refers to Von Staupitz as ”Father” and asks questions that children are likely to ask of their parents, such as ”Are you pleased with me?” The play ends on yet another representation of the father-son relationship: Luther is holding his young

son, appropriately named Hans.

Resistance to Authority

As Luther resists the authority of his father, he also resists the authority of the church but with far greater consequences. The church leaders, parroting the beliefs of the pope-the highest religious authority expect complete allegiance; Luther must not question church doctrine. ”I ask you:” says Von Eck at the Diet of Worms, ”don’t throw doubt on the most holy, orthodox faith . . . This faith has been defined by sacred councils, and confirmed by the church. It is your heritage, and we are forbidden to dispute it by the laws of the emperor and the pontiff.” While in earlier scenes, Luther has been seen adhering too strictly to the rules of his order, as Von Staupitz points out, in the words of Herbert Goldstone writing in Coping with Vulnerability, Luther ”actually ridicules authority to set himself up as the only authority capable of determining his relationship to God.” In doing so, Luther challenges the church hierarchy that forces regular people to deal with God through the mediation of a priest; in the case of a priest, the pope and other high church officials are the mediators. In his letter to Pope Leo X, Luther shows his own sense of self-importance when it comes to religious matters. Luther alone dares protest the complaints that the German people hold about the ”avarice of the priests.” While everyone else is too filled with terror at the pope’s reaction, Luther strives to protect the glory of Christianity by publishing his 95 theses on the Castle Church in Wittenberg. ”And now, most holy father, the whole world has gone up in flames,” he writes, but, a mere few lines later, Luther asks the pope for his help because Luther is ”far too insignificant to appear before the world in a matter as great as this.” Luther’s words are seemingly disingenuous, particularly so for a man of his superior intellect and sensitivity, as he has recently elected him as the one person to stand up and defend God and His purity. Luther grows more conservative in his views, particularly by 1525, when he critiques the failed Peasants’ War, which his religious rebellion helped spark. However, he still flouts the authority of the clergy by marrying, notably, a former nun. He also nostalgically looks back on his former actions, telling his young son, ”You should have seen me at Worms. . . . ‘I have come to set a man against his father,’ I said, and they listened to me.”


Epic Theater

Most critics agreed that Luther aimed at being epic drama along the lines of the work of German playwright Bertolt Brecht. Epic theater is a form of drama that presents a series of loosely connected scenes. Often, a narrator figure will address the audience with analysis or argument. As practiced by

Brecht, epic theater sought to use ”alienating” effects to cause the audience to think objectively, not emotionally, about the play and its characters. In technique, Luther shows a strong Brechtian influence,

notably, that of his play The Life of Galileo. Like Brecht’s drama, Luther is a series of short scenes, most of which could function as stand-alone units. The stage decorations, which Osborne clearly describes, are evocative and imbued with symbolism and iconography. A choral figure, in this case the Knight, announces the time and setting of each scene and narrates background details particularly concerning Luther’s role in the Peasants’ War. Osborne, like Brecht, also wanted to portray contemporary social problems and realities on stage; in Luther, the title character is the Angry Young Man of 1960s British society, a young man who feels rage at the established sociopolitical system in which he lives. While many critics saw Luther as epic theater, scholar Simon Trussler staunchly disagreed with

this assessment. In his Plays of John Osborne, applying Brecht’s criteria that epic theater appeals ”less to the feelings than to the spectator’s reason,” he contended that the play is ”dramatic” rather than epic, for Luther’s ”primary appeal is indeed emotional rather than rational.”


Perhaps the most notable symbolism that Osborne uses in Luther is Luther’s poor physical health. He suffers from seizures, insomnia, boils, and chronic constipation. His pains express his mental battles, and his inability to purge himself bodily represents his difficulty breaking free from the church’s beliefs. Luther himself views his religious upheavals in terms of the physical body. For example, in his discussion with Von Staupitz, just before he posts his 95 theses, Luther likens himself to ”a ripe stool in the world’s straining anus, and at any moment we’re about to let each other go.” When he finally formulates his own doctrine (that salvation is based only on faith in God and not on good works), it is while experiencing another bout of constipation; with the realization that ”The just shall live by faith,” Luther recalls, ”[M]y pain vanished, my bowels flushed and I could get up.” On another level, however, as Alan Carter pointed out in John Osborne, ”To show Martin’s constipation, his indigestion, his excessive perspiration, is to show him as an ordinary human being. A man who would appeal to the earthy German peasantry, and who would be able to incite them to action. He is a direct contrast to the effeminate, sophisticated Latin churchmen of the period.” This ”common folk” appeal is important for, as the Knight points out, Luther helped the people begin to believe in an image as Christ ”as a man as we are . . . that His supper is a plain meal like their own . . . a plain meal with no garnish and no word.”


Luther does not have a strong narrative drive in the traditional sense; encompassing several decades, it does not tell the complete story behind Luther’s protest. Alan Carter wrote in John Osborne that because Osborne is ”weakest as a story-teller,” he ”makes the play resemble a medieval historical pageant, full of vivid theatrical moments.” The play in its entirety shows explicit change in Luther’s development of a more personal relationship with God and implicit change in the references to the transformation his beliefs have brought to Germany. The narrative drive focuses more on Luther’s interior battles with his own lack of faith than exterior battles with church leaders.


Critical overview

Luther was Osborne’s second consecutive historical play, and English audiences who had, for the most part, failed to respond to the first (A Subject of Scandal and Concern) were very curious to see how it would fare. For the most part, it was declared a success by the public and the critics alike, creating as much of an impact as Look Back in Anger had. Kenneth Tynan, writing for The Observer (quoted in Alan Carter’s John Osborne), described the play as ”the most eloquent piece of dramatic writingto have dignified out theatre since Look Back in Anger. While some reviewers contended that the play was not historical enough, other critics welcomed Osborne’s more universal portrayal of Luther as a rebel to whom audiences of any period could relate. Carter, as well, wrote in his study John Osborne that while Luther had a historical setting, its theme was quite modern. In 1963, Luther went on to a welcoming reception in the United States, where it was widely hailed and appreciated for its universal themes. It won several awards, including a Tony for best play of the 1963-64 season. Luther also solidified Osborne’s international reputation. Since its debut, and as Osborne’s stature continued to rise, many scholars have examined Luther with regard to how it fit in with themes and characters in the playwright’s body of work. Herbert Goldstone wrote in Coping with Vulnerability that Luther ”presents still another variation on success failure” as seen in one of Osborne’s earlier plays, The Entertainer. He also compares Luther to Jimmy Porter, the hero of Osborne’s pivotal Look Back in Anger, in both characters’ need to be different from others. However, Goldstone also pointed out that, unlike Osborne’s earlier characters, Luther attempts ”to cope with his feeling of helplessness and despair in realizing himself . . . openly and forcefully, both privately and publicly.” Katharine J. Worth wrote in her 1963 article ”The Angry Young Man” that Luther was also the ”first of Osborne’s heroes to be shown in conflict with his intellectual equals.” She forecast that the play ”marks a new phase in Osborne’s dramatic art. Its increased range and flexibility suggest interesting possibilities for his future development.” In 2001, Luther was re-produced on the London stage; even forty years later, Osborne’s words were stirring and powerful. ”This is a big, angry, eloquent play,” wrote John Peter in the Times (London). ”Seeing it again after so long, what impresses me is how deeply Osborne had immersed himself in his subject without making his play ponderous.” Like their predecessors, several critics also noted the timelessness of the piece, which showed that Osborne was, in the words of Michael Billington writing in the Guardian, ”far more than a chronicler of contemporary anger.”

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