Critical Overview

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Last Updated on May 12, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 462

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...

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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 writing to 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 successfailure’’ 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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