Whole story of Luther's life on trial onstage

Max McLean
Max McLean

by Retta Blaney


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Feeling like he'd rather have dental surgery than go to an off-off-Broadway play about Emily Dickinson, Max McLean went for the sole reason that he wanted to be supportive of an actor friend in the cast. As it turned out, the performance that most impressed him was that of the playwright, Chris Cragin-Day.

McLean, a producer, writer and actor, was so wowed, in fact, that he thought Cragin-Day should be the one to write the play he had been envisioning, one about the life of Martin Luther, a man McLean considers "a huge Shakespearean personality."

"He was placed in a particular moment in history that sparked a powder keg," McLean said. "All this pressure in one man who was clearly gifted yet emotionally unstable. I knew his story was theatrical enough to be told."

That thought had been simmering in McLean for about a decade, since he watched an episode of the PBS series "Empire" about Luther. Looming in his mind over the ensuing years was the 500th anniversary in 2017 of Luther's rebellion against the Catholic church by nailing his 95 Theses to the door of Wittenberg Cathedral in Germany. In 2012, McLean approached Cragin-Day, who said she'd do some research on Luther's life and get back to him.

"Luther would have his moment in the zeitgeist so it was important to be ahead of the curve," McLean said. "I knew we were chewing off something pretty big. Luther brings up so many sacred cows, so many sensitivities -- on the Protestant side, the Catholic side and the Jewish side."

The dramatist in Cragin-Day saw the great possibility and she began to write. The result can be seen May 12-22 when "Martin Luther on Trial" has its world premiere at the Lansburgh Theatre in Washington, D.C. Plans for the show, which is being produced by McLean's company, Fellowship for Performing Arts, include a run in Chicago before a return to New York in the fall.

McLean and Cragin-Day spoke about their collaboration during a conference call with NCR in March.

During the development process, Cragin-Day shifted from a naturalistic approach to the freer form of the final product, which has Luther being tried in purgatory with St. Peter as judge, the Devil as prosecutor, and Luther's wife, Katie Von Bora, as the defense. Witnesses include Adolf Hitler; Sigmund Freud; Rabbi Josel, the 16th-century advocate for German and Polish Jews living within the Holy Roman Empire; and Pope Francis.

At the start of the play, the audience is given a feel for the magnitude of Luther's influence. A stack of books reaching beyond sight rises at the side of the stage, prompting a dialogue between St. Peter and the Devil:

Peter: That is an impressive stack of books.
Devil: Only six people in all of history have had more written about them.
Peter: Shakespeare, Jesus, Michael Jackson, Mao Ze Tung, Mohammed and the Virgin Mary?
Devil: Shakespeare, Dante, Goethe, Cervantes, Lincoln and Dickens. Jesus is 51st.

Knowing she was taking a risk in speaking for Francis, the only living character in the play, Cragin-Day read his books and many interviews with him to calculate his thinking. The audience at a laboratory performance at off-Broadway's Pearl Theatre in February was engaged in the pope's questioning:

Francis: Papal power, where there was no separation of church and state, was not what Christ wanted.
Katie: So then, if you had been pope in 1517, and read Martin Luther's 95 Theses, how would you have responded?
Francis: The medieval church would have never made me pope.
Katie: But if it had. The you that you are now, not some medieval version of you ... if you were the medieval pope, and read Martin Luther's theses ...
Francis: I would feel that it was my duty, as the bishop of Rome, to be open to suggestions which could help make the exercise of my ministry more faithful to Christ.
Devil: Well, if nothing else, modern popes have certainly learned to be more diplomatic.
Francis: I don't know what I would have done. Luther put God's word in the hands of the people. And the word accomplishes what it wills in ways that surpass our calculations, my calculations, even Luther's.
Katie: Then you do think that God was in it.
Francis: God always works to restore balance. And imbalance results when we speak more about law than grace, more about the church than Christ, more about the pope than God's word.
Katie: Then, you think Luther was right.
Francis: I think ... I think Luther was right sometimes.

The Devil, sensing a softening toward Luther, asks Francis how he can be so generous toward the Catholic church's greatest enemy.

"That would be you," Francis replies.

It was important to McLean that this be emphasized rather than the unfortunate result of Christian division. "That's the most unifying moment because it defines the common enemy," he said.

McLean had recorded Luther's "Here I Stand" for a radio special. He said many accounts of the reformer's life end there in his "great moment," but that the whole story of Luther's life, including his shift to anti-Semitism and his depression, need to be presented.

Cragin-Day did the writing, then sent her work to McLean for editing.

"We did a lot of talking about what excited us about the Reformation and how to portray that to an audience," she said.

One way was through her "secret ingredient" -- humor.

"Humor is one of the only ways you can talk about faith to non-Christians that makes them feel comfortable," she said. "It does so much to bring people together to talk about things that are hard to talk about. It's always my go-to place."

The creators hope their play will find commercial appeal, attracting nonbelievers as well as people of faith.

"Luther has a huge influence now, more than most people realize," Cragin-Day says. "The whole concept of the separation of church and state -- he had a big part in articulating that."

Cragin-Day had not known until the telephone interview that Francis would be taking part in a Lutheran-Catholic service in October in Sweden kicking off a series of events commemorating the 500th anniversary of the Reformation. She had included him as one of her characters because he is so ecumenical and, as McLean pointed out, "he's also a controversial figure."

"I just love him so much," Cragin-Day said. "Everything he does I want to stand up and cheer. I never followed a pope before, except John Paul II a little because he was a theater artist. The Catholic church was not on my radar growing up."

She knows many people who share her admiration for this pope. "He has a heart for unifying a Christian church in a way that Protestants can get onboard," Cragin-Day said.

Probably even Luther.

"I think Luther would love Pope Francis," she said. "He's so passionate about Scripture and that's what Luther was passionate about. I think they'd be great friends."

[Retta Blaney is an award-winning journalist and the author of Working on the Inside: The Spiritual Life Through the Eyes of Actors.]

A version of this story appeared in the April 22-May 5, 2016 print issue under the headline: Whole story of Luther's life on trial onstage.

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