A Playwright's Pilgrimage to Lutherland

(This blog was originally published by The Public Theater.)

I spent the past year making daily trips of the imagination to the world of Medieval Germany, the setting of the play I’m writing about Martin Luther. But as I started to make sense of the history and politics of Luther’s universe, my imaginary voyages felt increasingly insufficient. I decided I had to go there with my body. So I bought a plane ticket and I set out to see what traces of Medieval Germany I could still find.

My best friend and I arrived in Berlin with plans to spend the day visiting the city sites before beginning our Martin Luther pilgrimage the next morning. Rather than take a cab from the airport to our hipster hotel in East Berlin, we decided to bus it to a central location and walk the rest of the way. The streets of Germany taunt unsuspecting visitors with dizzying twists and turns and shapeshifting names that change almost every block. We arrived at our hotel so exhausted and confused that it took us at least thirty minutes to figure out that we had to insert our key card into an electricity box to turn on the lights in our room. Thirty minutes later it took us another ten minutes to figure out that we had to do it every thirty minutes to keep them on. Our hotel was the only thing we found in Berlin.

The next day we woke up early and set out with our German rail pass to find Wittenberg. Note, there is no “e” on the end of that word. The Wittenberge we went to, however, did have an “e” on the end of it. Wittenberge with an “e” is almost all the way to Poland. We returned to Berlin and boarded a train to the right Wittenberg.

Wittenberg is the Luther Mecca. This is where he wrote the 95 Thesis against the corruption in the Holy Roman Church. This is where he preached, lectured, lived with his wife Katie and their children, and hosted star-studded “table talks” about the formation of the new church. Outside Luther and Katie’s home there stands a statue of Katie that so perfectly captures the beauty, strength, and quiet stubbornness I’d imagined had defined her. I felt that at any moment that statue might come to life and busy itself with the gardening and the beer brewing. She might welcome me in, offer me a seat at the Lutherhaus table. I might stay for days, or weeks, as their visiting scholars often did. I would ask Katie why she did it, why she singled out such a problematic man to marry. And she would laugh as if the answer were obvious and offer me a beer and then go about her business of muscling forward a thought revolution.

The next day we missed our train to Erfurt. Actually, we were on the right platform looking down it and discussing whether the train at the other end was ours or not. It was. It left without us. We caught the next train.

Erfurt is the Germany of fairy tales, with cobblestone streets so narrow that we could barely walk down them side by side. A tiny puppet theater charms passersby. I imagined that the magic elves of Luther’s Prussian childhood stories must machine it. Luther spent his college years in Erfurt studying law until he was caught in a life-threatening thunderstorm immediately after which he knocked on the doors of the Black Monastery and told the stranger who answered that he wanted to became a monk. We stayed in a bed and breakfast situated right next door to the Black Monastery. I wondered if the fragile creek that ran by it was there for Luther to enjoy as a young friar.

The next stop on our pilgrimage was Eisenach where we found Luther’s boyhood home. Low ceilings, dwarfed doors. People were shorter back then, right? Around the corner from Luther’s home rests the house of Bach. There I discovered that Luther was Bach’s hero; Bach had adapted many of Luther’s hymns into symphony form. I also discovered that the instruments Bach composed with looked nothing like the instruments we have today. So the Bach I listen to on my ipad actually doesn’t sound the way it sounded when Bach played it? I thought of Luther’s writings. Luther wasn’t using the same writing instruments that we use today either. His words, also, must have sounded different when he spoke them than when I hear them now.

From Eisenach we hiked up to Wartburg Castle. The fortress stood atop a magnificent hill, with smaller ones rippling out from it in every direction. After Luther delivered his famous “Here I Stand” speech in which he refused to recant his 95 Thesis, Luther was kidnapped and whisked away to this impenetrable structure. Everyone thought he was dead. Instead, he was working on what would become his greatest achievement: his translation of the New Testament into the German of the common people. I wandered through the time-warp of a museum until I found his study. Before me sat his desk, his window. I imagined him hunched over, working furiously in ergonomically pathetic posture. It was here that Luther first met the devil in person, he tells us. The demons he met in this room followed him for the rest of his life.

Strangely, my tour book said nothing about the town of Worms where Luther was tried before the Emperor. I was nervous about going so far out of our way in search of Luther’s trial location if it wasn’t worth seeing, but I decided to risk it. When we arrived at Worms there wasn’t much in the way of tourist information. My traveling companion pointed to the only large structure on our map. “That’s gotta be it,” she assured me. The massive Medieval palace was now an intimidating Catholic church filled with thousand-year-old stone caskets and ghostly sculptures. There was no trace of Luther anywhere. Then it occurred to me–this church is Catholic; they probably hate him. There was one unimpressive gift shop outside the Cathedral. I timidly asked the attendant if this was the place of Luther’s famous trial. She smiled and nodded. I shivered. The thought of standing trial in that Harry Potter-esque structure terrified me.

I’m back at my desk in 21st Century America, now, writing in the same ergonomically preposterous positions Luther must have written in. The masochistic body posture is trivial, I suppose, but it’s something tangible we have in common, and since my trip to Germany these tangible connections have become increasingly important. Other tangible commonalities now include: Luther and I both enjoy German beer; when I sing “A Mighty Fortress is our God” I now think of Wartburg Castle as he must have when he wrote it. Even with these helpful links, Medieval Germany still feels distant, (and I am thankful for that on many levels). But it felt good to get my imagination and my body together in the same place. I’ve been in Luther and Katie’s home; they welcomed me. And now, in some strange way I feel like I have Luther and Katie’s permission to tell their story.