Theatre Censorship – 22: John Osborne’s Luther

John Osborne

John Osborne

John Osborne’s Luther (1961) was a major milestone along the road to the abolition of censorship. A history of Martin Luther, it traced his life from being a young, fearful monk born in the late 15th century, through his arguments with the Catholic Church, to his advocating a Reformed Church and his marriage to ex-nun Katherine von Bora. The subject matter of the play was obviously controversial and the censor feared that it might be offensive to Christians. Throughout the century the censors had been particularly strict against plays which they felt offended on religious grounds; the chief problem was that it was forbidden to portray the deity on stage, although, as Fowell and Palmer point out in their 1913 book Censorship in England, nobody seems able to trace the origin of this rule. As a result several thought-provoking and quality plays were long banned. For example, W. B. Yeats’ Noh Drama Calvary (1920), based on Oscar Wilde’s story The Doer of Good, has at its core two awkward problems; one, that Lazarus does not wish to be raised from the dead, and two, that Judas betrays Christ in order to escape the trappings of his all-encompassing religion. The Lord Chamberlain could never have permitted Christ to be vilified on stage by his enemies like that. The American Marc Connelly’s fantasy representation of the Old Testament stories, Green Pastures (1929), was also banned outright even though critical opinion felt it was good enough to win the Pulitzer Prize for Drama in 1930.

LutherFaced with the prospect of licensing Luther, the Lord Chamberlain had no hesitation in demanding fourteen cuts from the play. Osborne had been appalled at the demands made by the censor of his previous two plays, The Entertainer and The World of Paul Slickey (1959). In the latter case he employed the services of a solicitor to argue with the Lord Chamberlain over changes. Osborne decided that he had had enough unfair treatment from the censor. He refused to comply with the cuts under any circumstances and wrote a public letter to the Lord Chamberlain, who was at the time Lord Scarborough: “I don’t write plays to have them rewritten by someone else,” he said; “I am quite prepared to withdraw the play from production altogether and wait for the day when Lord Scarborough is no more…” Surprisingly, Osborne’s anger made an impression on the Lord Chamberlain’s office, and, presumably feeling threatened, or guilty, they withdrew most of their amendments. Bullies always back down when you face them openly, and Osborne’s easy victory made the censor appear weak and inconsistent. This did the public image of the Lord Chamberlain’s office no good at all. Shocked by the success of his letter, Osborne compromised, went back on his word and agreed to accept the few changes which the Lord Chamberlain continued to demand.

Earl of Scarborough

Earl of Scarborough

In the scene where Martin speaks to his father Hans after he has given his first Mass, Hans refers to the weak wine made by the monks first as “convent piss” and later as “monk’s piss”. Osborne agreed to the Lord Chamberlain’s demand to change “monk’s piss” to “monk’s wine” which takes the venom out of the term; and he changed “convent piss” to “kidney juice” which, personally, I think is even more distasteful. In the same scene, Hans refers to Martin as “piss-scared”, which Osborne had to change simply to “scared”. When Martin is discussing the nature of contentment with his religious mentor Staupitz he affirms that: “a hog waffling in its own crap is contented”. It was the word “crap” to which the censor most objected, but Osborne changed the sentence to read “a pig waffling in its own filth is contented”. The image is the same; no real damage done to the play.

The final change that the censor required was the exclusion of the phrase “balls of the Medici”. Much to the amusement of commentators, the Lord Chamberlain’s office suggested that “testicles of the Medici” would be acceptable, ignoring the fact that the coat of arms of the Medici family was a set of brass balls. This goes to show that it’s the use of slang, as much anything else, that the censor found more objectionable. That’s why “kidney juice” was not considered as reprehensible as the slang “piss”, even though the longer phrase dwells on the subject more. Osborne was outraged at the suggestion that Luther, furious with the papal bull which excommunicates him, should cast it in to flames with the dramatic declaration, “as for this bull, it’s going to roast, it’s going to roast and so are the testicles of the Medici!” Osborne complained that the censor took no notice of the double significance of “balls” in this context. The word “testicles”, he maintained, did not appropriately describe the crest; the censor, realising his error, felt compelled to withdraw the objection and “balls of the Medici” stands.

Erik H Erikson

Erik H Erikson

Had Osborne accepted the censor’s fourteen original cuts, the play would have lost much of its structure and bite, and would have been largely ruined. The cuts that he did accept, however, have left the play more or less the way he originally wanted. Nevertheless, most critics agree that the play’s structure isn’t that great anyway. Some say the play falls apart after the scene concerning the Diet of Worms, as the sudden change of the character of the knight – from supporter to enemy – is too unbelievable. As the play is mainly derived from a source work, Erik H. Erikson’s Young Man Luther, you might not necessarily expect to find any of Osborne’s recurrent themes; but Martin is surely much more of an angry young man than Jimmy Porter ever was. He is angry at the Church and angry with himself. He is angry at the fools who buy indulgences and at the Swabian peasants whose revolt against serfdom and whose demands for the pure gospel had to be exterminated. Above all, he is also a stubborn young man. He never gives way.

The language of Luther is uncomfortably but realistically uneven in two different ways. Firstly, there is an enormous range of different types of speeches and there are different speech patterns for each of his characters. Osborne offers us the stichomythic (I know, get me, look it up) conversation of Lucas and Hans, the communal speeches of confession, and general conversational speech, as well as vast debates and tirades which extend over many pages such as those delivered by Tetzel, Martin, both Martin and Eck together, and the knight. The length of the speeches grows as the play progresses and they become more philosophical and more turgid in the process. In the Faber edition of the play, only six speeches cover pages 79 – 88, because of their inordinate length. It seems that Osborne is much more at home with diatribe than with dialogue.

Martin’s visceral language provides a strong contrast with the holy conservatism of the monks, using individualistic words and phrases such as “worminess” or “warm hair and a bony heart… a scraped marrow and a dying jelly”. His sensuous vocabulary sets him aside from the penitent low-key confessions of the other monks who have no feel for language or vocabulary of their own, because they are conforming to the ideal of the platonic monk, and therefore must stifle their own personal tendencies. Elsewhere in the play his vivid linguistic imagination gives way to some splendid imagery. I really admire the phrase: “I wish my bowels would open. I’m blocked up like an old crypt.”

As well as using blasphemous language, Luther also takes up the question of blasphemy itself by pointing out the antithesis between the godly and the ungodly, the sincere and the ridiculous: “and so, the praising ended – and the blasphemy began”. This refers not only to his taking Mass – for which he feels he is insufficiently qualified, strictly in accordance with Christ’s teaching – but is also an oblique reference to the naked child he holds; one requires child-like innocence to enter heaven, but after childhood, man’s life is in itself blasphemy because he is no longer worthy of heaven. The phrase is also, even more widely, a reference to Martin’s life of rebellion against Catholicism.

Pope Leo

Pope Leo X

You don’t expect to hear particularly bad language from a member of the Church, so there’s a great shock effect from, for example, Pope Leo calling Martin a “double faced German bastard” – it puts Martin’s earlier use of the words “mother’s tit” in the shade. You expect the clergy to be polite, but they swear; indeed, their bad language is a major outlet for their blasphemy. With his argumentative nature, Martin should have been a lawyer instead of a cleric; rather than saying confession with the other monks, he’s more at home talking about his vivid, sexual, anxious dreams. But over the years Martin realises that the differences between himself and the other members of the Church are symptomatic of the rift he would set in motion.

Looking back, it’s clear how Osborne dominated this period, both in terms of drama and in his struggles against the censor. His argument with Lord Scarborough over Luther indicates the path that other dramatists were about to take but matters had not quite come to a head yet. But we’ll never know what might have been written by those who could not see the point of creating plays which could not be performed due to censorship.

In my next post I’m going to consider plays by Harold Pinter, Arnold Wesker and Samuel Beckett.