The Play (Masterplots II: Drama, Revised Edition)
Luther opens with a knight appearing on the stage, clutching a banner and announcing (as he will at the beginning of each of the play’s three acts) the time and place of the following scene: the convent of the Augustinian Order of Eremites at Erfurt, Thuringia, 1506. The audience next sees a man in his early twenties kneeling in front of a prior, in the presence of an assembled convent, within a small chapel. He is Martin Luther, being received into the Augustinian Order. After being robed in habit, hood, and scapular, he vows to give up the world of men, to spurn his former self and live in obedience to God, the Sacred Virgin Mary, and “the Rule of our Venerable Father Augustine until death.”
Martin’s father, Hans, is in attendance, together with Lucas, Martin’s former father-in-law, both of whom dominate the center of the stage briefly after Martin has spoken his vows and been escorted out of sight. A hard-talking coal miner, Hans expresses bitter cynicism about his son’s decision to join the Order, just as he will a year later (in the third and final scene of act 1), when he attends the first Mass that Martin performs (act 1, scene 2). Hans laments over the loss of his son, as well as over Martin’s choice to give up the career he could have had as a lawyer to an archbishop or a duke.
Beginning with the first scene, Martin is troubled throughout the play, not by his missed professional opportunities but by his...
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Dramatic Devices (Masterplots II: Drama, Revised Edition)
Through the use of a dark screen as backdrop, dim lights, and the seemingly cramped enclosure of a small chapel in the play’s opening scene, Osborne establishes an intimate and private atmosphere for Martin’s introduction. In the second scene, through the use of various dramatic devices, the playwright directs the audience’s attention to the interior, psychological realm of Martin’s life. By so doing he indicates that the play will not simply be a reenactment of historic events, expresses the internal battle Martin is fighting with himself, and primes the audience to consider Martin’s psychology in the following scenes when such devices are absent.
The second scene is overshadowed by a huge knife, “like a butcher’s,” hanging several feet above the stage with its cutting edge turned upward; across the blade hangs a man’s naked body, the head hanging down. Below the knife is an enormous cone, “like the inside of a vast barrel,” and this object—surrounded by darkness—is filled with intense light. When Martin appears onstage, he walks slowly through the cone to its opening downstage. He is about to perform his first Mass, and it is clear by what he says to himself that he is racked with spiritual doubt. The central focus of his soliloquy is on his lost innocence, spoken of as a child: “I lost the body of a child; and I was afraid, and I went back to find it. But I’m still afraid. . . . The lost body of a child, hanging on a...
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Germany and the Holy Roman Empire
In 962, the Holy Roman Empire was revived. Its territory included Germany and northern Italy, but ongoing disputes between the pope and the emperor prevented any strong central government from developing. Over time, the Holy Roman emperors gave up most of their power to German princes, who ruled their own territories, in exchange for military support. At the time of the Protestant Reformation, Germany, although making up the core of the Holy Roman Empire, included about three hundred independent states.
Martin Luther was born in the mining town of Eisleben in Saxony (Germany) in 1483. His parents were prosperous and able to provide Luther with a good education. Following his father’s wishes, he began to study law at the University of Erfurt, but, after a pledge made during a terrible thunderstorm, he entered the Reformed Congregation of the Eremetical Order of St. Augustine at Erfurt in 1505. He was ordained a priest in April 1507 and performed his first mass that May. A gifted scholar, Luther was chosen for advanced theological study. In 1510, Luther journeyed to Rome, where he was shocked by the levity and spiritual laxity he found among the Roman clergy. In 1512, Luther earned his doctorate in theology and became a professor at the University of Wittenberg.
Luther was increasingly plagued by anxieties about his own salvation. He turned to the Scriptures, where he...
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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...
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Compare and Contrast
1500s: In the 1500s, the Roman Catholic Church in Europe falls into disunity due to the Protestant revolt, led by Germany’s Martin Luther, France’s John Calvin, and England’s King Henry VIII. With the exception of Henry (who split with the church to secure a divorce from his wife), Protestants want to restore the Christian faith described in the Bible. They succeed in weakening the hold of the Roman Catholic Church in all of northern Europe, parts of central Europe, and in England and Switzerland.
Today: The Roman Catholic Church falls prey to scandal as revelations come out about child abuse committed by priests. Amid calls for reform, church leaders call a historic meeting in Rome to address these issues.
1500s: Prior to the Protestant Reformation, western Europeans, including German-speaking peoples, follow the Roman Catholic interpretation of Christianity. While the pope, residing in Rome, is titular head of the church, his power is diluted by cardinals, bishops, and local nobles. Many of the popes are noted for their corruption, extravagance, and moral laxity.
Today: There are more Roman Catholics in the world than there are followers of any other religious tradition. At the beginning of the 1990s, the church’s membership is about 995.8 million, or 18.8 percent of the world population. The church’s greatest numerical population lives in Europe and Latin America. However, Lutherans still...
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Topics for Further Study
Conduct additional research on Martin Luther. Do you find Osborne’s portrayal of him to be historically accurate? Explain your answer.
Conduct research on the Protestant Reformation. Write a report analyzing its causes and its effects on Europe.
Read Erik Erikson’s psychobiography Young Man Luther. Compare Erikson’s Luther with Osborne’s Luther and the Luther of historical imagination.
Read Bertolt Brecht’s The Life of Galileo. Write an essay comparing the two plays. Pay close attention to theme, conflict, and structure.
Choose one of the scenes from the play and represent it in a piece of artwork.
Examine artwork depicting religious themes from the period before and after the Reformation. Are religious images presented differently in these works of art? What do these works of arts tell you about the time period in which they were created?
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What Do I Read Next?
Osborne’s Look Back in Anger, first performed in 1957, established the playwright and ushered in a new movement in British drama focusing on realistic, often squalid portrayals of workingclass life. It features ‘‘angry young man’’ Jimmy Porter who stands at the threshold between lower class and middle class but sees his upward climb threatened by those with greater privilege.
The structure and style of Luther takes its shape from German playwright Bertolt Brecht’s The Life of Galileo (1943). Renaissance scientist Galileo is forced to recant his theories that the earth revolves around the sun rather than the reverse. The play explores the conflict between scientific truth and religious authority.
George Bernard Shaw’s St. Joan (1923) chronicles the life of Joan of Arc: her leadership of French troops in victory against the English invaders; her capture by the English and conviction of heresy; and her burning at the stake. The play’s epilogue focuses on the church’s overturning of the heresy conviction in 1456 and her canonization in 1920.
Luther’s Ninety-Five Theses, translated by C. M. Jacobs and published by Fortress Press in 1957, includes an introduction that summarizes Galileo’s main points and explains the circumstances under which Luther posted the theses.
Ronald Herbert Bainton’s Here I Stand: A Life of Martin Luther (1995) is a readable,...
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Bibliography (Cyclopedia of Literary Characters, Revised Third Edition)
Sources for Further Study
Banham, Martin. Osborne. Edinburgh: Oliver & Boyd, 1969.
Carter, Alan. John Osborne. Edinburgh: Oliver & Boyd, 1973.
Denison, Patricia O., ed. John Osborne: A Casebook. New York: Garland, 1996.
Ferrar, Harold. John Osborne. New York: Columbia University Press, 1973.
Gilleman, Lu. The Hideous Honesty of John Osborne: The Politics of Vituperation. New York: Garland, 2000.
Goldstone, Herbert. Coping with Vulnerability: The Achievement of John Osborne. Washington, D.C.: University Press of America, 1982.
Hayman, Ronald. John Osborne. London: Heinemann, 1972.
Page, Malcolm, and Simon Trussler. File on Osborne. London: Methuen, 1988.
Trussler, Simon. The Plays of John Osborne: An Assessment. London: Gollancz, 1969.
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