Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 501
In the first of its twelve episodic scenes, Luther opens in Germany in 1506 with the young Martin Luther joining an Augustinian monastery against his father’s wishes. Luther has chosen a life of austere asceticism, while his father, a miner with entrepreneurial aspirations, had wished for his son a professional life with greater social stature. In this and subsequent scenes covering much of Martin’s life, Luther displays naïveté, anger, and an almost pathological self-hatred. At one point, Martin says, “I’m like a ripe stool in the world’s straining anus.” Throughout the play, Martin is obsessed with physical health and, most specifically, with the working of his bowels.
In the second scene, a year later, Martin prepares for and performs his first Communion Mass, with his estranged father in attendance. In the crucial third scene of the play, Martin talks with his highly judgmental father after the celebration of the Communion, and an argument ensues in which Martin’s father accuses his son of running away from life. At one point, Martin says “you make me sick,” and this otherwise casual, colloquial phrase is the key to the scene. Martin’s chronic constipation is a symbolic representation of his frustrated love for his father, his failure to please his father, and his conflicted attempt to run away from his biological roots. During the play, Martin adopts a more positive father figure, a high-ranking member of the Augustinian order, Johann von Staupitz, but that relationship clearly never compensates for Martin’s initial loss of his father.
Martin’s revolt against the Catholic Church is an extension of his conflict with his biological father, and Martin’s friendship with Staupitz is an attempt to find peace with authority figures. In the scenes comprising the middle of the play, Martin battles several authority figures in the established Church—a seller of phony papal indulgences, a distinguished cardinal, and even the pope himself. Martin’s father had believed that humans were not saved by their works, their good deeds; Martin adopts this view, adding to it the revolutionary notion that faith alone was the spiritual alternative to Catholicism. Consistent with the play’s scatological theme, Martin reports that his inspiration for his famous and revolutionary Ninety-five Theses came to him while he was straining to empty his bowels.
In leading the Protestant Reformation, Luther liberated the common people to approach Christian salvation individually, without patriarchal intermediaries. Osborne, however, implies that this great historical revolution might have had a very prosaic foundation. In the penultimate scene of the play, the unruly Peasants’ Revolt in Germany of 1524-1525 has failed, and Martin helps to crush it. In the final scene, set in 1530, Martin is a tired, middle-aged man, now married to a former nun and the father of a child himself. In the last moment of the play, Martin tenderly and hopefully addresses his own infant son, named Hans after Martin’s father. The cycle of father and son relationships has come full circle.
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