The Play

(Survey of Dramatic Literature)

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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Dramatic Devices

(Survey of Dramatic Literature)

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...

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Historical Context

(Drama for Students)

Germany and the Holy Roman Empire
In 962, the Holy Roman Empire was revived. Its territory included Germany and northern Italy,...

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Literary Style

(Drama for Students)

Epic Theater
Most critics agreed that Luther aimed at being epic drama along the lines of the work of German playwright...

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Compare and Contrast

(Drama for Students)

1500s: In the 1500s, the Roman Catholic Church in Europe falls into disunity due to the Protestant revolt, led by Germany’s Martin...

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Topics for Further Study

(Drama for Students)

Conduct additional research on Martin Luther. Do you find Osborne’s portrayal of him to be historically accurate? Explain your answer....

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Media Adaptations

(Drama for Students)

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

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What Do I Read Next?

(Drama for Students)

Osborne’s Look Back in Anger, first performed in 1957, established the playwright and ushered in a new movement in British drama...

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(Great Characters in Literature)

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....

(The entire section is 98 words.)