SYNOPSIS OF DRAMA
Haunted by the Devil, the young monk has entered the convent of the Augustinian Monks despite his father's fierce objections, having envisioned the legal profession for his bright and studious son. Diligent to the letter in all his monastic duties, Martin Luther remains tormented in his soul to the point that he whips himself into unconsciousness in an attempt to subjugate his arrogant and impatient spirit. As he falls upon the floor of his sparsely furnished cell, we catch glimpses into his past beginning as a small boy awakening in the night with cries of fear because of the witches and goblins he's certain are leering at him through his window; then as a young teen profoundly ashamed of his own life when viewing the actions of a pitiful begging friar who, once a wealthy lord, has now given himself over to vigils and fasting in service to God; and finally as the youthful university student who on being felled by lightning promises to give up his studies and become a monk if God will save him from certain death. Lastly, we see Catherine Von Bora Luther sitting in her monastery living room. She has just laid her husband to rest that very day. She picks up a piece of cloth that is laid across the arm of the chair. Attached to the cloth is a needle with which she begins to put the final stitches into a tapestry she began when just a new bride. She sings to herself of each stitch weaving a memory of love that, like her tapestry, was rather colorless in its beginning. Soon Philip, her late husband's long-time friend and colleague, appears knocking at the door. Apologizing at the lateness of the hour, he informs her that he is checking in on her to see how she is holding up after the emotional events of the day. Catherine invites him to sit for a while and they begin to reminisce on the life of the deceased and his profound affect on the course of history as well as their personal destinies. We will catch a glimpse of them periodically as they draw us into the vivid history of the Reformation that weaves the portrait of Martin Luther in its myriad hues and colors.
Father Lang, prior of the monastery, becomes alarmed on seeing an untouched tray of food outside the door of Brother Luther's cell. After knocking and receiving no response, he calls for the aid of some of the other friars. Together they force open the door and attempt to rouse their brother. Sadly they realize that he has attempted to flay himself. Knowing his great love for music, they begin to sing in the hope that it will elicit some response. As the friars raise their voices in a monastic chant of "Ave Maria," slowly Luther begins to revive and sings of the consolation music affords to him; and yet, alas, even it cannot completely comfort his tortured soul. Though they try, the friars cannot really understand his dilemma. Sadly shaking their heads, they file out singing of that which offers them peace and contentment. Father Lang, remaining behind, tends to the weakened monk and helps Luther to his chair while assuring him that the esteemed Vicar General, Dr. Von Staupitz, due to arrive shortly, will be able to help the distraught friar settle his mind and heart.
The vicar is indeed a holy man and Luther pours out his fear that all the vows and promises he has made are vain and that he is sure to perish! With much empathy the wise older man declares that more than a thousand times he himself has made vows and promises which were never kept, and that if he ever comes to eternal life, it will only be because of God's favor. He urges the monk to go to Christ as a bird flees to the mountain. Luther seems to take comfort and responds to the invitation. Staupitz assures Luther that he will be a fine priest and that he has great faith in him--so much so that he is sending him back to Erfurt university to study theology in preparation for his ordination. Before parting, the doctor presents his gift to him: a copy of the Holy Scriptures, much to Luther's delight.
After several years, Luther is again back at the monastery--this time in anticipation of his ordination and first mass. The pealing of bells is heard as the honored guests arrive for the special occasion. Hans Luther arrives, having brought a substantial gift for the monastery. Hieronymus, Bishop of Brandenburg, officiates the solemn rituals of ordination. As the ceremony ends and the mass begins, Luther, the priest, falters as he offers up the paten and the host for the sins of the people. Unbeknownst to the congregation, taunting voices begin to swirl around in the young man's mind--raising doubts about himself and his right as a priest to dispense God's atonement. Regaining his composure, he continues without further interruption, anticipating the happy reunion with his father that will follow at the celebratory meal. Surely now his father understands and can see the destiny that is before him.
All hope of gaining his father's approval, however, is shattered by Hans' searing reprimand that he has not honored his father and mother and has left them to care for themselves in their old age. When Luther insists that God called to him out of the thundercloud, his father retorts that perhaps it was Satan himself. With that, Hans angrily departs, leaving a broken and devastated Luther. Father Lang tells Luther that he must shake his feelings that God is angry with him. Lang then goes on to relate the good news that Luther is to join Staupitz and teach with him at the new university which Frederick, the Duke of Saxony, has begun. When the monk starts to offer objections that he is not worthy, Father Lang reminds him gently that one of his vows is OBEDIENCE.
Upon his arrival at Wittenberg, Staupitz, accompanied by George Spalatin, Frederick's court chaplain, can hardly wait to show their new professor the relics housed in the Castle Church. They are the town's greatest attractions, having been gathered by the duke himself. As the three men are gathered outside the church, Staupitz and Spalatin sing and extol the items in the collection and their ability to buy penance for all. Taking Staupitz aside before entering the church, Luther sings, "But can they really mean what they say? Or is it a ploy to bring us to our knees and somehow an angry God appease?" He tells his mentor that if he is sinning in his feelings, he will get down on his knees immediately and make his confession. Staupitz insists he has already heard all his faults and then stuns his young protégé with the news that Luther is to begin his public preaching in the old wooden church on the square, predicting that the humble chapel will some day be transformed into a magnificent cathedral because of the truth that will be proclaimed within its walls. Soon the crowds are overflowing and the council of Wittenberg asks Luther to preach in the Castle Church--so eloquent and compelling his speech.
Upon returning from a trip to Rome where Luther was sent as a representative from his order to aid in settling a dispute, he joins Dr. Staupitz in the monastery garden under the pear tree. He sings sarcastically of "Holy Rome" and the surprises it afforded him on his visit. He laments that there is no doubt in his mind that hell exists and that Rome is in the midst! Once again, Staupitz exhorts Luther to throw himself into the arms of God and love him. In his utter disillusionment, Luther admits that it is impossible for him because he actually HATES God! Staupitz insists that it is not God but His church that he hates and that God needs men like Luther to stem the tide of the corruption that is threatening to disparage the Christian faith. The vicar wants Luther to secede his post as professor of biblical theology at Wittenberg and tells him he must set himself to the task of becoming a doctorate of the Scriptures. At first full of objections, Luther catches the vision of the older man and vows to put himself into the fray.
After receiving his doctorate, Luther soon becomes the most popular professor on campus. His love of debating causes him to delve deeper and deeper into the Scriptures until one evening, high in the tower room office at the monastery, he finds his own Damascus Road while preparing a lecture on Romans. As he ponders the implication of the words before him, the realization that Jesus is our righteousness liberates his soul. He is "reborn into paradise!" God is no longer the cruel judge he thought him to be all these years!
In the outskirts of Wittenberg, a pompous processional led by the infamous indulgent merchant John Tetzel draws a crowd of the local peasants. Setting up their stands and opening their chests, they anticipate the money that will soon ring in the coffers. With much ceremony, Tetzel climbs onto his "pulpit" and begins his pitch: "When the money in the coffer rings, the soul from purgatory springs." Obediently, the people respond and it is not long before they are back in the church courtyard waving their indulgences at Father Luther who is hearing confessions. When the priest informs them that he will not honor the indulgences unless the people are willing to repent and abandon their ways, there is a flurry of discord. Joined by Staupitz and Spalatin, who are in agreement with him, Luther sings of his transformation when he came to God in repentance and found his salvation. Many of the people are moved and join their hearts to the Savior. Several of the peasants, however, steal away to inform Tetzel of the priest's refusal to honor the indulgences from him. Fiercely angered, Tetzel vows to have the heretic burned at the stake! Hearing that the merchant is hoping to preach soon in Wittenberg, Luther promises to "knock a hole in his drum!"
On the day before All Saints' Day when all the town would be gathered to view the relics that would be brought out for display by the priests, Luther goes to the door of the Castle Church and hammers his Ninety-Five Theses to it. Soon people begin to crowd around to read them and talk among themselves. Among the many statements are the propositions that the pope has no power over purgatory and that papal indulgences do not remove guilt. It is not long before Rome begins to thunder!
When Luther refuses to recant to the pope's legate Cardinal Cajetan, the dissension against the priest begins to mount. Luther calls his friends together for a meal at the refectory. He tells them that the duke has asked him to leave Wittenberg so as to not be a further embarrassment to his excellency. In the midst of saying his farewells, a messenger appears asking him to remain for the present time since the pope's new envoy hopes that all may be arranged by a conference.
By now Luther's theology has become more controversial. Where at first it had begun with attacks on practice, it is now attacking dogma as well.
When the papal bull arrives summoning Luther to come before an audience, Philip assembles the students and faculty in front of the lecture hall where a bonfire has been built to burn the bull. Philip, with great passion, declares that wrong has been done and vows his allegiance to Luther and to God, his life and blood.
To secure Luther's final downfall, the pope has written to the newly crowned emperor Charles to declare Martin Luther an outlaw. Though only 21, Charles calls a diet in Worms before agreeing to the pope's decision. Martin Luther is requested to be there.
Crowded into every available space are the people of the town. They begin to silence as Luther is brought before Charles and his glittering array of officials. When the Chancellor of Trent points to the many books and pamphlets on the table penned by Luther and asks him to recant, the priest very respectfully asks that he be allowed to sleep on that decision one night. The officials agree. Back in his hotel room, Luther pours out his heart to God and tells Him he never wanted to cause dissension and does not want to confront. He still has faith in the pope, yet he knows that the cause is God's. It is in His hands and in His wisdom that he must trust.
The next day, he declares before all the world that his conscience is captive to the Word of God. He "cannot and will not recant. Here I stand. I can do no other. God help me. Amen!" Raising his hand like a victorious knight amidst the menaces and shouts of joy, Luther begins to sing "A Mighty Fortress is Our God." The townspeople join in, leaving the emperor to declare Martin Luther a devil in the habit of a monk, now to be regarded a heretic!
On his way home from Worms, secure in the safe conduct provided by Duke Frederick, Luther and the three friends sent to accompany him are suddenly accosted by five masked and armed horsemen. In the ensuing scuffle, suddenly Luther is gone. Only his hat remains on the ground. The others are left behind. Feeling it is all part of a popish plot, they run to tell the closest town that Luther is as good as dead!
Soon, however, we see Martin Luther being led blindfolded into a tower room which turns out to be in the old Wartburg Castle. The room, not unlike his cell at the monastery, becomes his home. Disguised as a knight, he is forced into imprisonment for almost a year. It is the duke's means of protecting him. His long captivity soon brings on severe depression and Luther is once again haunted by the Devil and his demons. Lying in the darkness, he begins to question if he is in error and is taking the entire world to damnation. Flashing visions from his religious past begin to converge upon him with rising intensity until he suddenly sits upright in his bed. Leaping to his feet, he grabs the inkwell from his desk, flinging it against the wall screaming, "Begone Prince of Darkness! Are you not tired of your insidious pranks!?" He tries to pray, but weeps instead. It is then the faint sound of angels is heard. They begin to minister to him and bring confirmation that God has not forgotten him.
After making contact with Philip by letter and then by a visit incognito, Luther vows to return. He has become increasingly alarmed at the uproar that has been occurring. Churches are being desecrated and priests driven out of their parishes by the local peasants.
Luther, back by invitation of the town council, hopes to establish some order in the troubled town. Standing before the people of the town in front of the Castle Church, the reformer warns them that no one can be intimidated into belief. He speaks out against the carnival atmosphere that some are creating and begs for restraint. Led by Luther, they all file into the church singing, "Did we in our own strength confide, our striving would be losing."
One afternoon, Luther, Philip, and Spalatin are on their way home from classes at the university. As they approach the monastery where Philip will take his leave of the two priests, they are surprised to see nine large fish barrels outside the monastery gates. As it turns out, the barrels contain live fish...er...rather, nine nuns! Unbeknownst to Philip and Spalatin, Luther has agreed to the parents' requests of finding these runaway nuns employment or husbands--whichever comes first. Old man Koppel, the fish supplier for the town, had been coerced to help these ladies flee from the monastery in Grimma. Luther promises to aid the "vestal virgins" even though he is not sure where or how to begin.
Having begun to throw off the papal yokes, the peasants are now becoming increasingly impatient under the strains of civil authority. Luther is seated one day in the monastery garden while Philip paces nervously as they discuss the bloody uprisings led by Thomas Müntzer and his outspoken criticism of Luther's failure to endorse the peasants' revolt. Luther is firm in his conviction that he will always be on the side of those against whom the insurrection is directed, no matter how unjust the cause. As Spalatin rushes into the garden with the news that Muntzer and 5000 peasants have been butchered, Luther becries the fact that "all the devils, instead of leaving the peasants and returning to hell, have now entered the victors to simply vent their vengeance" and that he is now more afraid of chaos than God, Satan, or himself!
Two years later, one Catherine von Bora, renegade nun, has completed her domestic service to a household but as yet has not found a husband. She decides to pay a visit to her benefactor in person and have the situation rectified. After all, she is a sensitive, intelligent maid of noble birth. One by one, she refutes Luther's suggestions of proper suitors. Finally she condescends to say that she would even consider him! He agrees to take the matter under consideration.
Meanwhile, an old weaver is seen in the nearby square of Magdeburg singing and strumming the hymns of Martin Luther to a group of bystanders, only to be arrested and taken away to custody by the town burgomaster on his way from mass accompanied by one of his servants. The crowd begins to boldly protest this injustice. Soon the cries of the angry crowd are heard everywhere, Word of this is brought to Luther by Philip while in his office at the university conversing with Spalatin. "The hymns of Luther kill more souls than his sermons!" quips the court chaplain.
Luther then startles his friends by revealing he has decided to marry Catherine von Bora. Despite their caution that the Reformation will be harmed, Luther insists that he will "play the Devil and the world a trick and at the same time content his aged father." "Marry, yes. But for heaven's sake, must it be that one--she is far to bossy and proud!" objects Philip. While admitting it is no love match, Luther remains firm in his resolve. Seeing he cannot sway his strong-willed friend, Philip leaves in anger, asking not be included in the nuptials. Spalatin, however, remains behind and sheepishly admits that he, too, has thoughts of marriage in the future. Spalatin is advised by his colleague not to put it off too long!
The entire town joins the wedding processional to the sound of pipes and church bells. It is the social event of the year.
Time passes and we find Luther and Philip pouring over a manuscript at the kitchen table of the Luthers--the table that used to serve in the refectory before the monks vacated the monastery. It has now become the home of Luther, Catherine, and their infant son. The two men are working on a German translation of the Old Testament to add to the New Testament that had been started while Luther was captive at the Wartburg. As Catherine enters carrying little Hans, Luther reaches out to hold the child. He declares, "The pope tried to tie me down in diapers too, but I got loose!"
Luther takes a sudden turn in health brought on by an intense feeling of once again being trapped between Satan and God. It appears he may not survive the night. The obviously pregnant Catherine tends to him in his upstairs bedroom while anxiously awaiting the arrival of Dr. Schurff, the family physician. Friends and colleagues gather downstairs in his monastery home to pray for God's intercession. God is merciful and Luther is restored once again.
As the years have begun to pass, the Luther family now includes five children. Luther is sitting at the kitchen table conversing with gusto with some of the school boarders the Luthers have taken in. Catherine is trying to clear the table from the evening meal. In exasperation, Catherine points out that everyone but Luther has finished long ago. When the scholars leave, the children beg their father to sing the song he wrote for the Christmas pageant. As the children, joined by Catherine, gather around, we see that this fiery orator has a more gentle side. After the youngsters have gone to bed, Catherine goes to her sewing which is sitting beside her chair. Taking it out, she begins to work on the tapestry as Luther settles himself into his chair to read a book. Suddenly she pricks her finger and exclaims that the light is getting too dim and that she is much too tired to work any more. Luther teases her that it will take more than fine stitches to transform his peasant's face into the portrait of a fine gentleman that she is attempting to create. He suggests that she has had another full day and should just go to bed. To that,Catherine reponds that he is right and she should call it a night. Luther playfully responds that his ears must have deceived him as his she has said he was right! As Catherine places a few more sticks on the fire before retiring, Luther admits to his wife that the devotion he seems to be feeling towards her is beginning to worry him a little and he thinks he is beginning to love her. He lovingly refers to her as his "Lord Katie," as she "always sets him straight when he's insubordinate!" In a tender moment, they both realize that they do indeed love one another. Catherine tells him that there is going to be another child--Genesis 1:21 once again!"
Time has slipped away and we find Luther now well along in years. Standing in the monastery graveyard where his beloved Magdalencen is buried, he sings to the child we now learn has passed away some years before. He admits that he has still not found it in his heart to give thanks to God and say "as my Father wills..." in regards to her unexpected demise at age 14. Catherine comes upon him and, seeing his sadness, reaches out to comfort him while admitting her own pain as well. They both agree together that it is not for them to understand His way, and that when the shadows hide our view of what we think life is all about, it is then we must hold Him to His promises.
The Luthers express to each other their gladness in having had this time together before Luther must depart in the morning. Philip rushes in, interrupting their conversation. In his hands are legal briefs he is bringing to the reformer before he departs to settle a dispute for the Counts of Mansfield. When Catherine expresses concern for his going, he assures her he has someone stronger than she and all the angels together to care for him. He confides to the two of them that in his life-long thirst for Almighty God, he has once and for all found Him true to His character and is finally at peace. Luther begins to sing the testimony on his lips, joined by the others. Philip reminds his friend that the world still needs him. In response, Luther emphasizes that he by his ministry can never decide the fate of Europe. There have been and will be many others whom God will choose as instruments for the cause of Christ. He echoes the refrain sung to him by Spalatin years ago, reminding them that God still has much to do in His church but that we are no longer trapped on the battlefield in a war between light and darkness.
Word of Luther's death in Mansfield comes to Philip while teaching his class at the university. A look of anguish comes upon him. He leans over his lectern for support while exclaiming, "O God, the Charioteer of Israel has fallen!" One student rises in an attitude of respect. As he begins to sing, the others follow while singing: "Let goods and kindred go; this mortal life also. The body they may kill; God's truth abideth still: His kingdom is forever."
As Philip and Catherine bring their reminiscing to a close, Philip departs with the promise to check on her again tomorrow. Sitting for a few moments longer, the widow rises, placing the tapestry she has been working on over the back of the chair. The tapestry, now visible to all, reveals the portrait of Luther. She starts toward the stairs and then returns to stroke the tapestry one last time before making her way up the stairs singing: "And so it is done: a tribute, yet destined to fade. Your tapestry, from now on heaven made." Cast and characters are brought back on stage one last time reprising "A Mighty Fortress."