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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1843

Osborne’s Luther is a series of connected scenes, most of which highlight important episodes in the life of sixteenth-century religious reformer, Martin Luther. The play does not attempt to develop the entire story of his monumental decision to protest the practices and beliefs of the Roman Catholic Church nor the...

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Osborne’s Luther is a series of connected scenes, most of which highlight important episodes in the life of sixteenth-century religious reformer, Martin Luther. The play does not attempt to develop the entire story of his monumental decision to protest the practices and beliefs of the Roman Catholic Church nor the theological reasonings that he put forth. Such intellectual arguments, as several critics have noted, are not the stuff good drama is made of. Instead, Osborne focuses on Martin Luther’s personal trials with his faith and his God.

Osborne opens his play as Martin Luther takes his monastic vows and, even more significantly, as the prior performing the ceremony reminds Luther that ‘‘once you have committed yourself, you are not free, for whatever reason, to throw off the yoke of obedience, for you will have accepted it freely, while you were still able to discard it.’’ Of course, only a few years later, Luther will choose to disobey the prior’s words and his own vows when he openly rebels against the church, thus causing, as he writes in his letter to Pope Leo X, the ‘‘whole world’’ to go ‘‘up in flames.’’

The first act of the play focuses on Luther’s inner psychological world. The three scenes all demonstrate some of the numerous anxieties he feels about his relationship with his father or about his religious doubts. In scene 1, the audience meets Luther’s father, Hans, who resents the path Luther has chosen because ‘‘[H]e could have been a man of stature.’’ Hans’s evident bitterness sets up the ongoing conflict between the two men that will persist throughout their lives. It also sets forth the idea that one reason Luther joined the church was to get away from his domineering father; however, what he found in the monastery was an authority of even greater magnitude. Scene 1 also shows Luther’s self-castigating, doubtful nature; it culminates with Luther experiencing a dramatic seizure and having to be dragged away by his fellow monks. In the words of Alan Carter writing in John Osborne, the final bit of dialogue in this scene, Martin’s disjointed protest, ‘‘Not! Me! I am not!’’ show Luther’s ‘‘realisation of God’s task for him’’ and his ‘‘protest at being selected for special victimisation.’’

Scene 2 marks the event of Luther’s first mass but, as importantly, it introduces the audience to the idea, put forth by Brother Weinand, that Luther is a young man angry with God, an understandably difficult position for a man of the cloth. In scene 3, which takes place after mass has ended, Hans and his son meet. Their interaction is filled with ambiguous messages. While Hans is concerned over Luther’s ill appearance, he still takes the opportunity to belittle his son for almost failing to complete the religious ceremony. ‘‘I thought to myself,’’ he reports with some amount of relish, ‘‘‘he’s going to flunk it, he can’t get through it, he’s going to flunk it.’’’ As Luther reveals, however, he does know the words for the ceremony flawlessly, but ‘‘[W]hen he entered the monastery, I wanted to speak to God directly.’’ The elaborate ritual that is part of Catholic rites prevents this one-to-one closeness between a person and the divinity; it is this type of direct and personal relationship with God that Luther will advocate in his 95 theses and other writings and that will become essential to the Lutheran Church and other Protestant sects.

Scene 3 also shows a significant act of foreshadowing: Hans, awaiting his son, asks Brother Weinand if ‘‘one bad monk’’ could get his entire order ‘‘liquidated.’’ Brother Weinand answers that ‘‘the Church is bigger than those who are in her’’ and that people have tried, unsuccessfully, to discredit it. However, the situation alluded to between Hans and Brother Weinand is what will come to pass: Luther, the possessor of one small voice in a world that is very large, will bring down the hegemony of the church.

Act II shifts the play to the world’s stage—the one in which Martin Luther’s personal uncertainty will unfold into public rebellion—and this transformation is marked by an abrupt change of pace: a monologue given by John Tetzel, as he sells indulgences in the market place at Jûterbog. The play’s notes explain that Tetzel has ‘‘the powerfully calculating voice, range and technique of a trained orator,’’ and the speech he makes is filled with propaganda to convince people to buy the indulgences. He uses religious imagery such as the cross and symbols of the pope. He refers to sacred icons, such as the apostles, martyrs, and popes, as well as Moses’ burning bush. Most importantly, however, he appeals to his audience’s fear of spending time in purgatory after death. Through his speech, Tetzel clearly equates salvation with money: ‘‘As soon as your money rattles in the box and the cash bell rings, the soul flies out of purgatory and sings!’’ This scene, while not a part of Luther’s life proper, shows some of the reasons that he was driven to take such drastic steps against the church.

Scene 2 again delves into Luther’s psyche, but the conversation between Luther and his mentor, Johann Von Staupitz, helps explain Luther’s drive to make his personal beliefs about faith and God known to the rest of the world.

According to Von Staupitz,

[Y]ou think you admire authority, and so you do, but unfortunately, you can’t submit to it. So what you do, by your exaggerated attention to the Rule, you make the authority ridiculous. And the reason you do that is because you’re determined to substitute that authority with something else—yourself.

If he makes the church’s faith and beliefs unworthy of respect, Luther can allow himself to reject them and replace them with his own religious faith and beliefs.

He shares these beliefs for the first time in scene 3, sermonizing while he posts his 95 theses on the door of the Castle Church in Wittenberg. He begins with a weighty premise: ‘‘We are living in a dangerous time.’’ He goes on to explain the doctrine that would cause the greatest break from the Catholic Church: ‘‘The just shall live by faith alone.’’ This scene parallels scene 1 in structure, but whereas Tetzel appealed to the common folk by offering them a better reward, Luther denigrates them should they believe such propaganda. Holy relics that are really ‘‘trinkets’’ are just ‘‘empty things for empty men.’’

In scene 4, Luther is called before Cajetan, the highest church authority in Germany, and he refuses to recant his theses. Like Von Staupitz, Cajetan sees through Luther’s psyche: Luther is ‘‘a man struggling for certainty, struggling insanely like a man in a fit, an animal trapped to the bone with doubt.’’ When he questions Luther, ‘‘How will men find God if they are left to themselves each man abandoned and only known to himself?’’ Luther’s answer is telling: ‘‘They’ll have to try.’’ In a sense, Luther is inflicting upon the followers of the church the same trials he has been through with his loss of faith. Since he worked his way through this diffi- culty without the ‘‘comfort’’ the church offers, so can others.

The final two scenes of act II focus on a pivotal point in Luther’s life: his break with the church. Pope Leo X, who sees only that Luther has placed himself above church authority, orders Martin Luther’s excommunication from the church and banishment from Germany. When Luther receives these orders, he responds with harsh language, calling Rome ‘‘that capital of the devil’s own sweet empire’’ and likening papal decrees to ‘‘the devil’s excretals.’’ Despite his disgust for the papacy, Luther’s actions once again affirm his belief and faith in God, for the second half of the monologue radically shifts in tone as he pleads to God for help. Thus in this short scene, Osborne juxtaposes the two very different images of God that are presented in this play: the God of the corrupt Catholic Church and the God that Luther loves.

Act III of the play comprises three scenes that show the aftermath of Luther’s actions. In scene 1, at the Diet of Worms, political and religious leaders again try to convince Luther to recant his heresy, but again he refuses. This is the third scene in which Luther is asked to recant; that so many scenes concern this issue emphasizes the fact that Luther’s ideas about faith were the cause of great commotion throughout the Holy Roman Empire, even if the play does not talk about ensuing problems or con- flicts. Luther’s theses, and his refusal to reject them, throw ‘‘doubt on the most holy, orthodox faith,’’ but Luther must continue to do so ‘‘since to act against one’s conscience is neither safe nor honest.’’

If Luther’s motivations seem pure based on his reactions at the Diet of Worms, act III, scene 2 questions that assumption. Taking place four years later, after the failed Peasants’ War, this scene depicts Luther on the side of law, opposing free thought and independence. The Knight recalls how he felt at the Diet of Worms, hearing Luther speak of personal faith and belief: ‘‘But he fizzed like a hot spark in a trail of gunpowder going off in us, that dowdy monk, he went off in us and there was nothing we could do, any of us, that was it. I just felt quite sure, quite certain in my own mind nothing could ever be the same again, just simply that.’’ However, Luther failed to live up to his perceived promise, and though he was ‘‘the only one who could have ever done it . . . brought freedom and order in at one and the same time,’’ he chose to oppose the peasants because they ‘‘kicked against authority, they plundered and bargained,’’ all using the name of God as their justification.

The play’s final scene takes place twenty-four years after Luther took his orders. It is a quiet, thoughtful scene that focuses on a conversation between Luther and Von Staupitz. Luther tells the older man, ‘‘Seems to me there are three ways out of despair. One is faith in Christ, the second is to become enraged by the world and makes its nose bleed for it, and the third is the love of a woman.’’ By the end of his life, Luther has tried all three of these antidotes, but the question remains: did he ever find a way to break free from his uncertainty? Perhaps the best answer is his reply to Von Staupitz about why he needed an extra day at the Diet of Worms to refuse to retract his writings since he had his answer for months: he wasn’t certain of his response; ‘‘I listened for God’s voice, but all I could hear was my own.’’

Source: Rena Korb, Critical Essay on Luther, in Drama for Students, Gale, 2004.

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