Staging Luther: Four Plays: A Review

Staging Luther: Four Plays by Hans Sachs. Translated and edited by Annis. N. Shaver, Ian A. MacPahail-Fausey, Clara G. Hendrickson, Robert Kolb. Fortress Press, 2023. Paperback. 233 pp. $32.

The difficulty in reviewing polemical art well is the same as the difficulty of making it well: not to mistake agreement or disagreement for a realistic assessment of the work’s quality. In reviewing this new translation of the plays of the pro-Luther German playwright Hans Sachs (1494-1576), I have chosen not to engage much with the theological arguments of the plays. In the last five hundred years, there have doubtless been more compelling theological discussions of these plays than I could offer. What I offer here is a look at these plays as art, which leads us to the adjacent question: can literature aspire to artistic excellence when it is explicitly polemical? 

Hans Sachs was a poet and playwright in Germany during the heady early days of the Reformation. An early and staunch defender of Lutheranism, Sachs turned his craft to penning plays that are really arguments, in which a clever, humble Protestant (usually a craftsman or artisan, not a scholar) defeats a series of Catholic interlocutors using logic and the Scriptures. Sachs displays a careful knowledge of Scripture and his characters ably expose the typical Reformation-era Catholic excesses and foibles of their opponents. These plays served the Reformation cause in cultural capitals like Nuremberg, giving (often less educated) Protestants a crash-course in how to defend their new cause. 

At first glance, these plays appear to be essentially vehicles for argumentation. “A Disputation,” the first play, pits a Protestant shoemaker against a Catholic parson. Unsurprisingly, the shoemaker dismantles all the parson’s arguments with rapid-fire Scriptural quotations, and in the process exposes the parson’s own ignorance of Scripture. 

But Sachs did not write simply to win arguments; as the editorial team points out in the essay titled, “The Impact of Hans Sachs’ Reformation Writings, “Sachs’ wish for the [Reformation] movement was more on the individual than the church itself… The new freedom of the Christian was a spiritual freedom, not a political freedom.” Sachs chose to write plays, not treatises or even solely philosophical poems (the volume includes a new translation of his poem “The Wittenberg Nightingale,” whose pure polemics provide a nice contrast to the plays). So the question we must ask is this: why did Sachs write plays? Was it simply for convenience or polemics, or did he have a literary purpose for this choice? 

“The writer of philosophical dialogues (whether they are full-fledged plays or simply dialogues like Plato’s) is interested in more than logical arguments.”

For millennia, the form of the dialogue has stood right alongside the treatise as a key tool in philosophical (and theological) inquiry. Plato’s are the best-known philosophical dialogues, but there is a wider unbroken tradition of couching philosophical arguments in such a form. This is actually very odd. Why would someone who is trying to lay out an argument bog himself down in dialogue—and in dramatic dialogue at that? Why give himself all the extra work of creating characters, writing little witty asides, and giving stage directions, if his main purpose is simply to make a point? 

The answer, of course, is that making a point is not his main purpose. The writer of philosophical dialogues (whether they are full-fledged plays or simply dialogues like Plato’s) is interested in more than logical arguments (though they are generally quite interested in those). He is interested in making a moral argument. If, the writer of philosophical dialogue says, this line of thinking is true (and he will attempt to show that it is), how then should we live? 

A philosophical or theological play, by choosing to be a play instead of a treatise, must succeed not only in its theoretical ambitions but also in its moral ones: it must “make its point,” but it must also sketch out—perhaps in negative—what our conduct ought to be in response to that point. The best philosophical dramas will do both of these things at once, in perfect harmony, so that the argumentation does not dominate the drama. That is, in essence, the “art” of philosophical drama. Excellence in that art results in a watchable, engaging drama in which the logical argument advances along with the moral argument—the acted-out, embodied argument. 

So, with all that in mind, do the plays of Hans Sachs’ demonstrate excellence in the art of philosophical drama? The reality is that on the page, the argumentation dominates; there is often page after page of back-and-forth quibbling about interpretations of Scripture or about actual practices within the Catholic Church. I was not, of course, able to see the plays staged, but in reading passages aloud, I can see how a live performance would transform the material (though certain jokes shine even in print, like when a bested Catholic priest grumbles that “Neither Christ nor Paul could have gotten rid of him [a Protestant] in three days, he puts so much faith in them.” 

It is clear to see how the plays are set up to instruct common folk in how to use Scripture within arguments; the Protestant heroes all pull effortlessly from across the entire Bible (not, of course, the books of the Apocrypha), leaping effortlessly from Ezekiel to Exodus to Matthew. 

On the page, it can look like the Protestants are spilling out passages memorized rote, and the Catholic stereotype of ignorance of Scripture certainly gets full play, as in this exchange, 

Parson: Cook, bring me the big old book.

Cook: Lord, is this it? 

Parson: No, that is the decrees: don’t confuse me. 

Cook: Lord, is this it? 

Parson: Yes, brush off the dust and cobwebs.

But Sachs is not simply calling his Protestant audience to memorize Scripture. His heroes’ facility with Scripture extends beyond simply using biblical passages; Sachs’ heroes also exegete with ease, correcting the hapless Catholics’ interpretations. For example, when the Parson in “A Disputation” tries to use the Gospel of Matthew to further his own argument (“Judge not lest you be judged”), the Shoemaker swiftly responses, “Reprimanding and judging are two different things […] as God speaks to the prophet in Isaiah 58: “Cry out, don’t stop, raise your voice like a trumpet to announce to my people their misdeeds.” 

This is not merely a battle of Bible verse vs. Bible verse, but an interesting examination of the internal contradictions that seem to appear within Scripture. What exactly are we to do when confronted by the sins of others? These are not straightforward questions, and Sachs is generous in his attention to them, allowing the back-and-forth around minute interpretative differences to spin out as long as is needed (probably far beyond the attention span of many contemporary playgoers).

“The plays are set up to instruct common folk in how to use Scripture within arguments; the Protestant heroes all pull effortlessly from across the entire Bible.”

But what about the moral argument? What moral attitude is Sachs seeking to inspire in his audience? Curiously, it is an attitude of charity and respect for opponents—not, perhaps, the attitude that springs to mind when we think about discourse in the Reformation. Make no mistake; Sachs’ characters throw insults with the best of them, but his Protestant characters are marked by an earnest desire for their opponents to find peace with God. The other characters display a range of attitudes; the Catholic parson is lazy, gluttonous, and vindictive, while a Franciscan monk is shown to be genuine but deeply misguided. Throughout, however, Sachs uses the dialogue form to model how he believes Protestants should interact with those who disagree with them. 

The most interesting dialogue in the book is the second, “A Discussion on the Public Works of the Spiritual Person and Their Vows,” in which two Protestants—Hans, a shoemaker, and Peter, a baker—converse with Franciscan monks who have come to beg for candles. The monks’ sin, unlike the sin of the Parson, is that they believe that by following St. Francis and doing public works of charity, they are following Christ. By the end of the dialogue, one of the monks says that he will think more on what Peter and Hans have told him. 

This ending underscores Sachs’ two-fold purpose with the plays: first, to impress upon his audience that salvation is a matter of a changed heart and individual faith in Christ, and second, to model for them how their lives and words can become the means of encouraging others towards that faith. 

“What moral attitude is Sachs seeking to inspire in his audience? Curiously, it is an attitude of charity and respect for opponents.”

So the question stands: do the plays succeed as literature, or are they simply too polemical? I found that in more than a few sections, the dialogue functions rather obviously as a vehicle for a message (priests are wicked, monks are greedy, etc.). These plays exist to advocate for institutional change, and that is a challenging undertaking for an artist; it is all too easy to become lazy, to rely upon stereotypes and generalizations, rather than to create the kinds of imaginative, complex characters and situations we find in real life. Sachs does this task as well as we could expect him to, and delivers many a crushing argument against the corruption and hegemony of the 16th-century Catholic Church. 

The plays, however, do a difficult thing, in that they rise above their own call for institutional change.  Each play leaves the reader (or viewer, I expect) with the sense that, underneath all the arguments, debates, invectives, Scriptural quotations, disagreements on interpretation, there is a crucial thing: a transformative individual relationship with Christ. These plays are not just intellectual arguments, but moral ones, and as moral arguments, Protestant and Catholic readers alike will find them compelling. Sachs’ work reminds us that the task of convincing others relies far more on who we are—and what we love—than on the arguments we make. In a culture where debates often degenerate into shouting matches relying on completely different sets of facts, Sachs’ reminder could not be timelier. 

J. C. Scharl is a poet and essayist. Her writing has appeared in many publications throughout the English-speaking world, including the BBC, The European Conservative, The New Ohio Review, The Hudson Review, Dappled Things, Plough Quarterly, and many others. She serves as the Seminar Manager for Intercollegiate Studies Institute (ISI) and lives with her husband and two children in Detroit, Michigan


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