By Retta Blaney
Max McLean expected the Off-Off-Broadway play about Emily Dickinson to be as pleasant as dental surgery. But the producer, writer, and actor set out anyway, to support an actor friend in the cast. As it turned out, what most impressed him was the work of playwright Chris Cragin-Day.
He was so wowed, in fact, that he thought she should write the play he had envisioned, one about the life of Martin Luther, whom McLean calls “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 Martin Luther: The Reluctant Revolutionary, part of the Empires series on PBS. Looming in his mind in the ensuing years was the 500th anniversary of the Protestant Reformation that Luther helped launch. In 2012 McLean approached Cragin-Day, who said she would do 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 Martin Luther on Trial, has its world premiere May 12-22 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.
Cragin-Day and McLean spoke about their collaboration during a conference call in March.
During development Cragin-Day shifted from a naturalistic approach to the freer form of the final script, 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 attorney. Witnesses include Hitler, Freud, Rabbi Josel of Rosheim, the 16th-century advocate for German and Polish Jews living within the Holy Roman Empire, and Pope Francis. Their responses to questions prompt a scene from Luther’s life.
As the play begins the audience gains a sense 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:
That is an impressive stack of books.
Only six people in all of history have had more written about them.
Shakespeare, Jesus, Michael Jackson, Mao Tse-tung, Mohammed, and the Virgin Mary?
Shakespeare, Dante, Goethe, Cervantes, Lincoln, and Dickens. Jesus is fifty-first.
Cragin-Day leavened the serious subject matter with humor. Knowing she was taking a risk in speaking for Pope Francis, the only living character in the play, she 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:
Papal power, where there was no separation of church and state, was not what Christ wanted.
So then, if you had been Pope in 1517, and read Martin Luther’s 95 Theses, how would you have responded?
The Medieval Church would have never made me Pope.
But if it had. The you that you are now, not some Medieval version of you. … [I]f you were the Medieval pope, and read Martin Luther’s theses. …
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.
Well, if nothing else, modern Popes have certainly learned to be more diplomatic.
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.
Then you do think that God was in it.
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.
Then, you think Luther was right.
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 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.
Neither Cragin-Day nor McLean is Lutheran. Cragin-Day grew up Baptist and McLean Roman Catholic. Both now worship at Redeemer Presbyterian in Manhattan.
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 depression, needed exploration. 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.”
In his emphasis on sola Scriptura, he also is a significant influence on Protestant evangelical thinking, she said.
Cragin-Day had not known until the telephone interview that Pope Francis would participate in a service in October in Sweden that launches a series of events commemorating the 500th anniversary of the Reformation. She 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 theatre artist. The Catholic Church was not on my radar growing up.”
Her family was not anti-Catholic as many Protestants are, she says. She was taught that “Catholics are our Christian brothers and sisters.”
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.”
Probably even Luther.
“I think Luther would love Pope Francis,” she said enthusiastically. “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.