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...
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