Book review: “Luther” by John Osborne

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Book review: “Luther” by John Osborne

Perhaps the core of Luther, the 1961 play by John Osborne, can be found midway through the play in a scene set on the steps of Castle Church in Wittenberg. It is October 31, 1517, and the monk-theologian has nailed his 95 theses to the church door.

In the sermon that follows and takes up the entire scene, Luther rails against all the magical aspects of Christian belief, such as relics and indulgences, and tells his listeners:

For you must be made to know that there’s no security, no security at all, either in indulgences, holy busywork or anywhere in this world. It came to me while I was in my tower, what they call the monk’s sweathouse, the jakes, the john, or whatever you are pleased to call it….And I sat on my heap of pain until the words emerged and opened out. “The just shall live by faith.” My pain vanished, my bowels flushed, and I could get up.

osborne -- luther

His dung-throwing

Throughout Osborne’s drama, Luther complains often about the sensitivity of his bowels and shows a willingness, even glee, to employ excretory metaphors for those he disagrees with — such as his father who, he says, is as contented as “a hog wallowing in its own crap.”

But it’s the church hierarchy wearing beautiful robes and living amid gold and jewels, who are the main targets of his verbal dung-throwing.

Under attack from the Vatican, Luther says, “If I break wind in Wittenberg, they might smell it in Rome.” An official document from the Pope “has come to me from a latrine called Rome.” Leo X, the Pope, is “an over-indulged jakes’ attendant to Satan himself, a glittering worm in excrement.”

Not exactly the best way to win friends and influence people.

Yet, Luther uses such language not just against his enemies, but also against himself as well. He is, he says, “like a ripe stool in the world’s straining anus.”

“Oh, God!”

Luther’s theology is born out of his own fear and hate and confusion and ego and, yes, the pain of constipation. Life is an emotional chaos for him, and he latches on, for dear life, to an idea that changes Western civilization — that the just shall live, not by works, not by the actions of themselves or other people, but only by faith.

“Oh, God! Oh, God! Oh, thou my God, my God, help me against the reason and wisdom of the world.”

Luther’s father dismisses him as “a young man, learned and full of life,….abusing his youth with fear and humiliation…You’re running away and you can’t help it.” The Pope’s emissary calls him “a man struggling for certainty, struggling insanely like a man in a fit, an animal trapped to the bone with doubt.”

Without question, Luther isn’t running away. And, without question, he is filled with doubt.

“Went off in us”

Luther is a difficult messenger to accept, but his message cannot be ignored. A character known as Knight, an observer of much of the action, describes Luther when he appeared at the Diet of Worms in 1521 to defend himself:

His scalp looked blotchy and itchy, and you felt sure, just looking at him, that his body must be permanently sour and white all over, even whiter than his face and like a millstone to touch. He’d sweated so much by the time he’d finished, I could smell every inch of him even from where I was. 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 nothing could stop it….

No bargains

The result was the Protestant Reformation — a time of religious wars and political battles that were stained by torture, persecutions and executions. At the center of it all was Luther’s assertion that each individual has to live according to his or her own conscience, not according to the dictates of a leader.

You can’t strike bargains with God…Only you can live your life, and only you can die your death.

Osborne has framed Luther’s ideas and words into a drama about the existential dilemma faced by every human. We are born to die. Or, as Luther says, “Every sunrise sings a song for death.”

At one point, the peasants in Germany, inspired by Luther, rebel. And — to their shock — Luther tells the German princes to quash the revolt. He wants change, but not too much change.

“Not peace, but a sword”

Still, he is not apologetic:

But I can still think of nothing better than the Word of God being the cause of all the dissension among us. For Christ said, “I have not come to bring peace, but a sword. I have come to set a man against his father.”

He flummoxes his enemies. And his friends are chagrined. Staupitz, his former religious superior, tells him:

You’ve taken Christ away from the low mumblings and soft voices and jeweled gowns and the tiaras and put Him back where He belongs. In each man’s soul. We owe so much to you. All I beg of you is not to be too violent. In spite of everything, of everything you’ve said and shown us, there were men, some men who did live holy lives here [in the monastery] once. Don’t — don’t believe you, only you are right.

The Knight tells Luther that he is very much unlike those people in the pews who listen to him. And their understanding of his message isn’t his, but their own.

Martin, you’re a poet, there’s no doubt about that in anybody’s mind, you’re a poet, but do you know what most men believe in, in their hearts — because they don’t see in images like you do — they believe in their hearts that Christ was a man as we are, and that He was a prophet and a teacher, and they also believe in their hearts that His supper is a plain meal like their own — if they’re lucky enough to get it — a plain meal of bread and wine! A plain meal with no garnish and no word. And you helped them to begin to believe it!

“Not the father of yourself”

In the final scene, Luther is married. His infant son awakens, and, like many a father, Luther walks around the home with the baby in his arms, hoping to soothe the child back to sleep with quiet words.

You know my father had a son, and he’d to learn a hard lesson, which is a human being is a helpless little animal, but he’s not created by his father, but by God. It’s hard to accept you’re anyone’s son, and you’re not the father of yourself. So, don’t have dreams so soon, my son. They’ll be having you soon enough.

You’re not the father — or mother — of yourself. This is the flipside of the existential reality of death.

I will die. And, as much as I may feel in control of my life, I’m not the reason I’m here now. It all happened without my control.

Life — the life between conception and death — is not in our control. For Luther, it was in God’s control.

He fought to believe that.

Patrick T. Reardon
7.22.14

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