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Some People Call It a Character Arc

August 19, 2011

God knows drama. Think of Martin Luther’s personal discovery of God’s grace and mercy and his subsequent rebellion against the Roman Catholic church. I mean, there he is, pounding his 95 grievances onto the massive door of Castle Church in Wittenburg on All Hallow’s Eve, unaware that he’s bringing the full political power of the Church down upon himself. Whatever complaints you may have about the story God is telling, honesty forbids you to say He’s a penny-pincher when it comes to the drama. He even strews his scripts with great lines like, “Here I stand; I can do no other!” It’s positively wasteful.

Then playwrights like John Osborne come along with plays like Luther and manage to send us away from the theatre in a state of complete indifference. This is because Osborne misses God’s twofold intention in telling this and all stories: His own glory and the good of his people. Not “good” as in “pleasurable,” but Aristotle’s eudaimonia and the “blessedness” of the Beatitudes. Blessedness is character development.

Contrary to God’s Luther, Osborne’s Luther does not develop. He moves not from the oppression of the Pharisees to freedom in the Christ of the Gospels, but from one church that caused bowel issues to another church that also causes bowel issues, only this time he at least has a wife to comfort him. Osborne moves the character of Luther from a man so principled that he willingly suffers the wrath of God to a man so principled that he willingly suffers the wrath of man. When the rightness or wrongness of his principles doesn’t actually matter, the only real development can be in the genitive, instead of the nominative where it rightfully belongs.

To move from Aristotle’s Ethics to his Poetics: Osborne correctly relates the action of history, event upon event, but he falls woefully short when it comes to matters of theme and character. The result is a coherent story that remains unable to rouse the empathy of its audience.

NB: For any Luther fanatics, Osborne’s text was the basis for the 1974 film Luther and not the 2003 film of the same name.

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