1960s Alan Cooke BBC Billy Smart Cedric Messina John Osborne Luther Play of the Month Writers

John Osborne: Play of the Month: Luther (BBC1, 19 October 1965)


Luther was the first programme to be shown in the BBC’s Play of the Month series, and was both a highly prestigious and atypical production for its time.

In the mid-sixties BBC1 rarely showed adaptations of stage plays, which tended to only be screened on BBC2 as part of the series Thursday Theatre (1964-5) and Theatre 625 (1964-8). Play of the Month was originally intended as a showcase for single plays too long or insufficiently contemporary in setting for The Wednesday Play (BBC1, 1964-70), the Radio Times publicizing the new series as a monthly showcase for plays “as an event, as a special occasion… as a major statement on a big theme” (Elwyn Jones, 16 October 1965).


Obtaining the rights to adapt Luther was a considerable coup for BBC Television, as Osborne’s play was very recent (1961), and had won all of the major theatre awards on both the West End and Broadway. It was also a particularly problematic play to adapt successfully, running for three hours in its stage version, and structured in three very different acts that attempted bold variation of register and settings. Perhaps the greatest difficulty that the production faced would be making Osborne’s very distinctive dialogue work for television. Luther is a play that pivots around a series of lengthy soliloquies and monologues, using language that is often highly rhetorical and liturgical.

The first act of Luther can be a lengthy and slow experience for theatrical audiences, building up a sense of the monastery world that Martin Luther has joined through repeated scenes of monastic rituals. The quietness of these scenes establishes a mood of piety and emphasizes Luther’s preoccupation with guilt and confession. In Alan Cooke’s television adaptation these scenes are heavily edited, and are realized at a hectic pace that initially disorientates the viewer, with dialogue being spoken unnaturally fast. One striking technique used is the rhythm of panning shots to initially show the reactions of peripheral figures in a scene, before settling on the face of Luther. The effect of these directorial decisions makes viewing the play a more subjective experience for the television viewer (who can switch the play off) than for the captive theatrical spectator (who cannot): the pace and confusion of the adaptation forcing the viewer to empathize with Luther, thrown into an unfamiliar and alarming world.

Luther’s monologues of internal guilt and shame in Act One are realised through the use of voice-overs, which contrast what is occurring in the monastic ceremonies with what Luther is thinking. This sense of the viewer being made to understand scenes subjectively through Luther’s private thoughts is emphasized by the brief use of montage during Luther’s Act One fit, where a shot of a (possibly dead) child in his arms is cut into the scene.

Act Two of Luther pivots around two lengthy speeches; John Tetzel’s selling of indulgences (certificates of forgiveness for sins, approved by the Church) and Luther’s renunciation of the corruption of the Church that permits the practice. In the theatre, performers deliver both speeches straight to the audience, placing the viewer in the same position as sixteenth century peasant, judging the effectiveness and persuasiveness of Tetzel and Luther’s rhetoric and arguments. Cooke’s adaptation does not attempt to replicate this direct address for the television viewer, but places both speakers in front of a crowd, showing the reactions of this audience to what they are hearing. This realization presents the viewer with a spectacular and crowded screen in both of the speeches, populated by many extras (including children and dogs) holding banners, juggling, singing minstrel songs and beating drums. The directorial rhythm of these two speeches makes the two scenes reflect each other; when Tetzel enters the marketplace the peasants cross themselves, while, in contrast, they flinch from Luther, a panning shot follows the attentive faces of the crowd as the indulgences (nailed to a cross) are suspended above them, whilst a similar shot focuses upon disappointed faces during Luther’s renunciation. The element of performance required by Tetzel’s spiel is shown to the television audience by the camera continuing to follow him after the speech has finished and he has walked offstage, praying to himself, highlighting the artifice of the speech when contrasted with the inner life of Tetzel. The inclusion of the crowd and its responses to these scenes alters the reaction of the television audience from that of the theatrical audience. While the theatrical audience is implicated in the speeches through responding to them themselves, the television viewer is observing the effects of these speeches upon listeners within the scene.

Osborne’s third act attempts to covey the effects of the reformation in less than an hour, and is hence a more wide-ranging act, in being set across dispersed locations and a long timescale, than the more self contained Acts One and Two. Again, two long speeches are significant in this act, both given in a deserted chapel; a Knight, weary from battle, describes the brutal effects of the war and speculates about the guilt that Martin Luther should feel about the events that his actions have set in train, before Luther enters, the two discuss the value of the Reformation, the Knight then leaves Luther alone at the chapel’s pulpit, where he talks to God privately, in the manner of a sermon. On both stage and screen, this scene is problematic. In theatrical production, the long speech of the Knight has to carry a lot of narrative weight in attempting to convey the effects of four years of war, and the effect upon an audience of an entirely new character arriving and talking alone about history and violence can be a disconcerting and distracting one, having little dramatic impetus as a self-contained scene. Cooke’s production attempts to circumnavigate this problem by heavily cutting the Knight’s speech to the bare minimum: a decision which, while making the speech easier to watch, makes the overall historical narrative of the play harder to follow than in the theatrical version.

Luther’s speech itself is approached in a different manner to those of Acts One and Two. The speech is a soliloquy, but its sermon-like qualities are emphasized through its being spoken at the pulpit of a deserted chapel. The convention works well in the theatre, where, although the chapel is empty, Luther’s thoughts are being heard and responded to by the audience in the auditorium. In a television adaptation that has already established the convention of inner thoughts being expressed through the use of voice-over, to have a new convention of characters being shown talking to themselves introduced late in the play is disconcerting.

Cooke’s production illustrates the difficulties of adapting stage conventions into television ones. Although the three different forms of register used within the Play of the Month version of Luther (voice-over, speeches given to audiences shown onscreen and monologues given by characters alone) all served to realise the dramatic purposes of their individual scenes the cumulative effect of this variation of register could also be disorientating and confusing for audiences to watch.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s