Fifteen years ago in England John Osborne’s play Luther was first produced. Later it came to the New York stage. More recently the American Film Theatre included it in its series of filmed plays. The theater released this version last summer for rental to schools, colleges, and other interested groups. Osborne’s portrayal of Martin Luther is gaining a wider audience. But who is Osborne’s Luther? Osborne gives us the answers by the way in which he structures the scenes and handles the dialogue.

Act One opens with the ceremonies marking Luther’s formal acceptance into the Augustinian order. Osborne dramatizes the actual practices at such ceremonies; even the theatrical prostration of the candidate with arms extended in the form of the cross is historically authentic. Martin’s father, Hans, asks, “What made him do it?” As we know from Luther’s later writings and table talk, Hans was indeed puzzled and even resentful, but he stayed home on this occasion. Osborne includes him to introduce the audience to the strained relationship between father and son, a prominent situation throughout the play.

The next scene shows Martin’s life in the cloister and includes a period of communal confession. The other monks confess infractions against the rules of the order, as they were supposed to do at such times; Martin vividly confesses his dreams and his fears. How, he wonders, can he justify himself? Martin addresses no pleas to God. Rather, he grovels about his own identity and tells of dreams a modern audience recognizes as loaded with psychiatric material.

As the monks are in the choir, chanting one of the offices, Martin, moaning, comes out of his stall, “muscles rigid, breath suspended, then jerking uncontrollably as he is seized in a ...

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