The Play

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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...

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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 overwhelming feelings of unworthiness before God, his ceaseless and self-abusive pursuit of perfection, and his inexhaustible striving after a life in total harmonious accord with the will of God. Only gradually, beginning in act 2, does he begin to expect of others (including the Roman Catholic Church and the papacy) the same selfless, servile attitude before God that he has striven to achieve. Whereas the play’s tension in the first act derives primarily from Martin’s struggle with himself, and secondarily from his father’s bitterness over Martin’s choice to reject the mundane world, by the opening of act 2, when the audience witnesses John Tetzel browbeating the citizens of Jüterbog into purchasing indulgences, does the play’s focus widen beyond Martin’s personal life.

Although his discussion with Johann von Staupitz in the second scene of act 2 (1517) indicates Martin is still grappling with the spiritual demands he believes his religion imposes upon him, the play now concerns his disapproval of the Church’s practice of selling indulgences. He has recently begun to criticize the practice, asserting publicly that people cannot bargain with God or buy their way into heaven, and Staupitz informs him that his position against indulgences is upsetting powerful people. Martin refuses to stop his criticisms of the Church and of people who buy indulgences for entry into heaven; in the third scene of act 2 (1517), he preaches that “there’s no security . . . either in indulgences, holy busywork, or anywhere in this world.” He then steps down from the pulpit of the Castle Church in Wittenberg and nails to the church door his ninety-five theses for disputation against indulgences.

Less the result of the theses than of his sermon, in 1518 (act 2, scene 4) Martin is summoned to the Fugger Palace, Augsburg, to stand before Thomas de Vio (Cajetan). Pope Leo X has sent Cajetan to present to Martin three propositions: He must retract all sermons of his critical of the Church; he must promise to abstain from propagating his opinions in the future; and he must behave with greater moderation and avoid offending the Church in any way. “The Roman Church is the apex of the world, secular and temporal,” Cajetan tells Martin, “and it may constrain with its secular arm any who have once received that faith and gone astray.” Despite this threat, Martin refuses to retract his infamous sermon, and Cajetan informs him he will be released from the Augustinian Order. Although Martin later writes to Pope Leo X and pleads for an interview, in 1519 (act 2, scene 5) the pope views him as a “wild pig in our vinyard” that “must be hunted down and shot.” Thus, in 1520 (act 2, scene 6), soon after receiving from Rome the papal bull of condemnation, Martin and his followers in Wittenberg burn the bull, books of canon law, papal decretals, and all documents relating to the Catholic Church and Pope Leo, who, according to Martin, is “a glittering worm in excrement.”

Because much of the play’s first two acts consists of dramatic reenactments of historical events germane to Martin Luther’s religious career, the first two of three scenes in act 3 derive their substance from two such events: first, the Diet of Worms (April 18, 1521), during which Martin is brought before Emperor Charles V, and Ulrich von Hutten, the archbishop of Trier, and Johan von Eck; second, a scene in Wittenberg at the bitter end of the Peasants’ War (1525). In the former scene, Martin is interrogated and told he must retract his numerous books—many of which supposedly contain heretical statements—or be officially excommunicated from the Catholic Church. Martin refuses to retract them. In the latter scene, Martin is accosted by a battle-weary knight who berates him for turning his back upon the German peasants after being the catalyst for their revolt against the ruling class and the Catholic Church. With his opposition to the now-ended war transformed into his expressed belief that the slaughtered peasants got what they deserved, Martin dismisses the knight and waits in a small chapel for his bride, Katherine von Bora.

Noticeably tired in the final act’s third scene, and now the father of an infant son five years after his marriage to Katherine, Martin confesses to Staupitz that, instead of God’s voice, in the past he has heard only his own. Moments before he slips into prideful reverie by recalling his rebellious stance in Worms, he prays: “Oh, Lord, I believe. I believe. I do believe. Only help my unbelief.”

Dramatic Devices

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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 mother’s tit, and close to the warm, big body of a man, and I can’t find it.”

Afraid that he cannot find the lost sense of belonging he once knew, he is also afraid, he says, of “the darkness.” The cone from which he emerges into darkness, therefore, represents the mental tunnel back to his past, a tunnel narrow at one end (distant past) and wide at the other (recent past). Outside the tunnel, in Martin’s present of self-doubt and insecurity, is bewildering darkness. The knife and body suspended over it clearly represent the torturous ordeal Martin is suffering and the requisite severance of his head and heart from his sexuality and mobility—a severance effected through living according to vows of celibacy and poverty. Although neither the butcher’s knife nor the cone appears after this scene, the knife is alluded to in relation to God in act 3, wherein Martin asserts, “In the teeth of life we seem to die, but God says no—in the teeth of death we live. If He butchers us, He makes us live.”

Instead of interior, symbolic imagery, in the remaining acts Osborne employs simply painted backdrops suggesting flatness rather than depth, caricature rather than portraiture, and “men in time rather than particular man in the unconscious.” In other words, once Martin’s unconscious matrix and related complexes have been exposed for the audience’s consideration, all he says or does afterward finds its impetus in his pre-Augustinian psychological and emotional needs. Understanding history, Osborne suggests, demands that one delve below the surface of recorded historical events.

Historical Context

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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
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 found a loving God who bestowed the gift of salvation upon faithful people, even sinners; Luther came to believe that only faith in God could bring about salvation. As a result of his new convictions, in 1516, Luther began protesting the dispen sation of indulgences guaranteeing salvation. On October 31, 1517, he posted his 95 theses on the door of the Castle Church in Wittenberg. In 1520, Luther wrote three publications that further explained his ideas for church reform and advocated German control of its own religious matters; he also appealed to German princes to help bring about a reformation in Germany. In 1521 Holy Roman emperor Charles V ordered Luther to the city of Worms to appear before the Imperial Diet, a council of rulers in the empire. When Luther refused to recant his writings, he was excommunicated and banished from the empire. However, he had the support of many German princes, and his patron, Elector Frederick the Wise of Saxony, hid him in the Wartburg, a castle in southeastern Germany.

Luther spent most of the rest of his life translating the Bible into German thus ensuring that ordinary people would be able to understand the Scriptures and developing and spreading his new gospel, known as the ‘‘priesthood of all believers,’’ which stated that an individual did not need the help of a priest or anyone else to have a relationship with God. This doctrine was profound because it meant that there was no need for a priesthood or a church hierarchy. Luther also established the Lutheran Church, which kept religious practices as simple as possible. Lutheran clergy, called ministers, were less important than Catholic priests; they merely guided their congregations to true faith. The Lutheran Church only permitted baptism and communion instead of the seven sacraments of the Roman Catholic Church. Soon Lutheranism was the state religion of most of northern Germany. In 1525, Luther married Katherine von Bora, a former nun. He became more conservative in his later years and complained that his protest had resulted in the destruction of the unity of Christendom. Luther continued to write essays and pamphlets until his death in Eisleben in 1546.

The Protestant Reformation
By the beginning of the fifteenth century, a group of European thinkers and scholars, led by the renowned biblical scholar Erasmus, were openly complaining about corruption and lax morality in the Roman Catholic Church. They also feared and resented the power of the pope, who used his authority to raise armies and conquer territory. Another concern was the church’s efforts to raise money through the selling of indulgences. These were pardons issued by the pope that people could buy to ensure they did not have to spend much time in purgatory, which was the halfway point to heaven where people worked off the sins they had committed while they were alive. When Pope Leo X approved the sale of indulgences in Germany in order to raise money for the construction of Saint Peter’s Basilica in Rome, Martin Luther posted his 95 theses on the door of the church at Wittenberg Castle. In his theses, he challenged the sale of indulgences and other papal practices and stated his own views that Christian practices must come from the Bible and that all other practices should be abolished. His action began the Protestant Reformation, which saw Europeans protesting the practices of the Catholic Church.

The Reformation spread rapidly through northern Europe. However, though people broke free from church doctrine and practices, some reformers held differing views from Luther’s. As a result, many Protestants began to form their own sects, each of which had its own ideas about salvation. For example, Calvinism, which first developed in Switzerland, believed in predestination, or the idea that God knew who would be saved even before a person was born.

By 1560, England, Scotland, Sweden, Denmark, and parts of Germany, France, Poland, Switzerland, and the Netherlands all had large Protestant populations. Church leaders launched a reform movement of their own, the Catholic Reformation, also known as the Counter-Reformation. By the mid- 1500s, the sale of indulgences and church offices had been banned, and new rules for the conduct of the clergy had been put in place. The church, however, rejected the Protestant emphasis on selfdiscipline and the belief that an individual could find faith without the intermediary of a priest.

The Church of England
In the 1500s, England also saw a protest against the Roman Catholic Church but for different reasons. King Henry VIII had defended the church against Luther; however, in 1529, he asked the church to grant him a divorce from his wife, who had failed to produce a male heir. When the pope refused this request, Henry rejected papal authority and proclaimed himself head of the Church in England. He forced the English bishops to grant his divorce. The new Church of England made little attempt to alter the practice of Catholic rituals, but England’s break with Rome was essentially ensured when Henry, in need of funds, closed England’s monasteries and convents and sold most of these estates to English nobles.

The Peasants’ War
The Peasants’ War, which was an uprising of German peasants and other poor classes of town dwellers, broke out in 1524. Sparked by Luther and his reforms, these peasants came to believe that they might be able to bring about reform in their own lives, including the right to choose their own pastors, pay fewer tithes and taxes, not serve as serfs, and face fair courts. While other Protestant leaders supported the revolt, Luther did not. His condemnation of the peasants contributed to their eventual defeat in 1526; some 100,000 peasants were killed.

The Wars of Religion
Tensions between Catholics and Protestants erupted throughout Europe. In 1545, Holy Roman Emperor Charles V attacked Protestant strongholds in Germany. Protestant princes and free cities joined together for protection, but, in 1547, Charles defeated them in battle; however, he was unable to break their power or the power of the Lutheran Church. In 1555, Charles and the Protestant princes signed the Peace of Augsburg, allowing each prince to choose the religion of his territory; the majority of princes in northern Germany selected the Lutheran Church. Bloody civil wars also took place throughout the 1500s in the Netherlands and France. And in 1588, Spain launched an unsuccessful invasion of England in an attempt to depose the Protestant monarch.

Literary Style

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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.

Compare and Contrast

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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 outnumber Catholics in Germany. In 1995, just under 41 percent of all Germans were Lutheran, compared to just under 34 percent who were Catholic.

1500s: Germany, which is part of the Holy Roman Empire, consists of about three hundred independent states, which are ruled by Christian princes. Their representatives participate in the Diet, the legislature of the Holy Roman Empire, often dominating it.

Today: Germany is a federal republic with a chancellor sitting as head of the government.

Media Adaptations

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Luther (1974) was filmed in America. It starred Stacey Keach as Luther and was directed by Guy Green. The film was adapted by Edward Anhalt.


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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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