When I was asked by friends in a church in Bangor if I would compose a play for them about Martin Luther, I knew it would be a challenge.
Firstly, how could I handle such a big topic? Love him or loathe him, Luther is one of the most significant figures in church history. The story of Protestant faith is impossible to understand without looking at him. Even a three-hour epic wouldn’t cover his life adequately.
Secondly, how should I deal with a subject that holds a lot of controversy. It doesn’t need repeating that here in Northern Ireland, the relationship between Catholic and Protestant is still sensitive and to be honest, Luther had some offensive things to say about the Pope and the Catholic church, once he ‘got into his stride’. Then there were also the ugly things he said about the Jews and his lamentable failure to show sympathy with the Peasant’s Revolt.
In the end, I decided to focus on Luther’s story up to the moment when he published his famous 95 theses in October 1517. These theses were a call for reform of the church and at that stage Luther was still a devout friar. I thought that maybe, on another occasion, I could write a play which tackled Luther’s vigorous clash with the Pope and also some of his more unsavoury views.
After much deliberation and a few changes of thinking, I decided to imagine Luther as an older man, looking back to his younger life – a man who is asking himself a few questions. I thought that to be a good way to frame the narrative.
At the former monastery where he lived with his wife, the middle-aged Luther loved to entertain guests who had come from far and wide to hear this charismatic man talk. This would be a perfect setting for the play, I thought. Food was consumed and beer was drunk with gusto on these occasions. Some of his students would write notes on their hero’s conversations with his guests, later to be published as Luther’s ‘Table Talk’. The picture that comes across in these accounts is an engaging and sometimes rude man but nonetheless a fearless fighter for what he believed to be the cause of religious freedom and Christian truth.
However, no writer of a play works alone. He or she depends on their team, on-stage and off-stage. It was a great privilege to have Brian Payne in the Ballycrochan church who is a versatile actor with the talent to undertake the challenge of delivering a one-man show about the young Martin Luther.
Plays which involve only one actor can be very exciting. The performer has to portray many different characters as he or she moves the story rapidly along. The audience will be impressed by Brian Payne’s performance and hopefully will learn a lot about the early life of one of the most fascinating and controversial figures in European history.
The play will be staged this Sunday the 29th Oct at 7pm in Ballycrochan Presbyterian Church, Bangor. Entry is free and all are welcome…
Philip Orr lives in Carrickfergus and he is a writer, a community project worker and a teacher, specialising in oral history, identity issues and drama. He has written several plays in recent years that deal with local history and commemoration. Last year his play Halfway House toured community venues in Northern Ireland, dealing with the legacy of 1916, which was the year of the Battle of the Somme and also the Easter Rising.