Luther, by John Osborne

John Osborne - Luther

BBC Radio 3

Broadcast: Sunday 6th November 1983

In "Luther", John Osborne returns to the central concern of all his major works. Like "Look Back in Anger" and "The Entertainer", this play is an intense psychological study of a flawed anti-hero, pitted against his world. This time, Osborne's central figure is one of history's greatest religious thinkers and revolutionaries, Martin Luther, whose personal struggle with God led, inevitably, to a battle with the Church that set in motion the Protestant Reformation.

This private and public epic unfolds through a series of portraits of 16th-century Europe, showing the Catholic Church in all its wisdom, corruption and glory failing to embrace one of its most astonishing sons.

Osborne's portrait of Martin Luther is ambiguous, subtle and many-faceted. Although the play includes many of Luther's actual speeches, it is not simply a dramatised biography. It concentrates on the inner man and why Luther became a passionate reformer.

Adapted for radio by John Tydeman from John Osborne's stage play, "Luther", which premiered at the Theatre Royal, Nottingham, on the 26th of June, 1961, starring Albert Finney in the role of Luther.

With Clive Merrison [Martin Luther], James Kerry [The Prior, the Head of Erfurt's House of Augustinian Eremites], Geoffrey Matthews [Hans Luther, Martin's Father], John Hollis [Lucas, an Peasant Entrepreneur], Eric Allan [Brother Weinand, a Member of Martin Luther's Order], Peter Bull [John Tetzel, a Dominican Friar], Cyril Luckham [Johann von Staupitz, the Vicar General of the Augustinian Order], Timothy Bateson [Cajetan, Cardinal of Don Sisto, General of the Dominican Order], Scott Cherry [Pope Leo X], John Pye [Karl von Miltitz, Chamberlain of the Pope's Household], James Bryce [Johann von Eck, the Secretary of the Archbishop of Trier], Kerry Francis [The Narrator / A Knight], and Eileen Tully [Katherine von Bora, a Former Nun]. Directed by John Tydeman.

Re-broadcast Sunday 16th January 1994 @ 7:30 p.m. as the first of five plays being broadcast by Radio 3 and Radio 4 over the month as part of the John Osborne Season series. 2 hr. 30m.


    The Prior:

    The head of Erfurt's house of Augustinian Eremites presided over a well-filled monastery of 52 inmates. He was responsible for Luther's reception into the monastery and for inducting him into its necessary hardships, putting him in the care of a senior, experienced brother.

    Martin Luther (1483-1546):

    Monk, scholar, theologian, university professor, excommunicated heretic, political outlaw, church reformer. Out of his despair of achieving salvation through his own unceasing efforts as a monk, Martin Luther edged towards the discovery, from St Paul's Epistle to the Romans, that sinners were forgiven -made acceptable, "justified" - not through their own actions, but passively, through their reception in faith of Christ's redemption won on the Cross. Catholicism's elaborate structures of aids to salvation including, crucially, indulgences, could not sit with this discovery, and from late 1517 Luther moved into an unavoidable split with the Roman Church. From the early 1520s he turned from destroyer to builder, and began, in Electoral Saxony, constructing the first model of the reformed Luther church.

    Hans, Martin's father (d.1530):

    Peasant, entrepreneur. Luther senior paid for Martin's education and hoped to see him a successful lawyer, not a monk. There was recurrent conflict between these two powerful personalities, and the extent to which Luther's initially fearful attitude to God was grounded in friction with his earthly father is open to speculation.


    The character of Lucas has no historical counterpart. Along with Hans, he represents the entrepreneur class emerging from the peasantry at that time.


    The Augustinian Order to which the monk Luther belonged was incorporated by Pope Innocent IV in 1243 and by 1450 was grouped in a thousand "chapters" or divisional sections throughout Europe. The Augustinians had a brief of preaching, pastoral and parish work, as well as of contemplation and prayer. Attempts to head off laxity in the Order led to the establishment of the "Observant" wing to which Luther belonged by virtue of joining the Erfurt house. His fellow German Augustinians showed sympathy in 1518 with Luther's theological stand, but in that same year his Augustinian superior, Staupitz, released him from his monk's vows.


    The Dominican Order, or "Order of Preachers" was founded by the Spaniard Dominican de Guzman (1170-1221) in order to counter heresy and broadcast Catholic doctrine. They established a reputation for intellectual distinction (the great Catholic theologian Thomas Aquinas [d.1274] was of this order) and for unyielding defence of Catholic orthodoxy. Luther's foes Tetzel and Cajetan were Dominicans.

    Brother Weinand:

    The composite figure of Weinand represents the mixture of sympathy and puzzlement that the intensely self-preoccupied "brother Martin" aroused in the monastery.

    Johann Tetzel (c.1465-1519):

    Dominican friar, preacher. Tetzel's shameless promotion of indulgence sales, retailing forgiveness of guilt, formed an easy target for Luther's critique of indulgences in 1517.

    Johann von Staupitz, Vicar General of the Augustinian Order (c.1460-1524):

    Monk, spiritual adviser. Staupitz was the senior figure in Luther's Augustinian Order in Germany and the leading light in the strict or "Observant" wing of it. Luther frequently praised the spiritual comfort Staupitz had given him, though the older man did not join Luther's movement.

    Cajetan, Tommaso di Vio, Cardinal of San Sisto General of the Dominican Order (1468-1534):

    Senior Churchman. This Italian minister-general of the Dominican order of Preachers was one of the most influential Catholic theologians of the early sixteenth century.

    Pope Leo X: Leo Giovanni de'Medici (1475-1521):

    Of the Florentine family of Medici, Giovanni was created cardinal at the age of thirteen and elected pope as Leo X in 1513. A generous patron of the arts, he took up the building of Rome's St Peter's basilica, to fund which he sponsored the indulgence sale which aroused Luther's protest in 1517.

    Karl von Miltitz, Chamberlain of the Pope's Household (1490-1529):

    Papal diplomat. The high point in Miltitz's career was his mission in 1518 to present Luther's overlord and protector, Frederick the Wise [Frederick III, Elector of Saxony], with the papal decoration of the Golden Rose, a strategy aimed at silencing the reformer. ECK Johannes Maier von Eck (1486-1543). Academic, disputant, author. The chancellor of the University of Ingolstadt, with whom Luther debated doctrine at Leipzig in 1519, Eck moved the papal excommunication of Martin Luther in 1520.

    Johannes von Eck, Secretary to the Archbishop of Trier

    The Knight:

    Osborne's anonymous figure of the embittered knight successfully typifies a large class of men of noble rank, "left over men, impoverish'd, ho'd seen better days" lacking a clear function in a changing German Reich.

    Katherine von Bora:

    The Cistercian nun Katharina von Bora (1499-1552) was converted to Luther's doctrines in the early 1520s and left her convent in 1523, marrying Luther in 1525. Their son Hans, the eldest of six children born between 1526 and 1534, is an apt reminder of the former celibate monk Luther's enthusiastic adoption of family domesticity.


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