Playwright David Davalos had a whimsical idea for a play: What if Hamlet, Faustus and Martin Luther all collided in college like celestial objects? And what if we inserted a free radical—the Eternal Feminine—to keep them all in continuous, orbital motion for the duration of their tenure? The result is the uniquely humorous (and to me, sometimes frightening) new play Wittenberg.
The action takes place at the University of Wittenberg in 1517, fall semester. It is just moments before events that will alter the destinies of Hamlet, Faustus, Luther and the world, forever. In 1517, we are at the end of the middle ages, emerging back into the light of reason. Established “facts” are being challenged and radical new ideas are being discussed on campus. One student in particular, the young prince of Denmark, is reeling with uncertainty about “truth.”
All that (and more) makes it an especially rich play for the Colorado Shakespeare Festival. We are, after all, a professional theatre company in partnership with the University of Colorado Boulder. Listen closely and you’ll hear a love letter to higher education.
Hopefully, we have all had at least one special teacher who made us think and expanded our world. Someone
who opened our minds to spirituality or larger questions of existence, art, science, philosophy—they invested in us a curiosity about the world. While Wittenberg examines themes related to each character’s story, it also celebrates an intellectual crossroads where ideas and the pursuit of truth can change the world: the liberal-arts college.
Here, both Faustus and Luther are seeking truth, thinking, discussing, researching and sharing their prodigious minds with their students. They are engaged in a heated debate with one another, but by merely speaking their ideas aloud they are changing the world. They’re erasing and rewriting the chalkboard of human thought—and it’s thrilling.
David Davalos’ play is wittily, uproariously funny. yet at a time when society increasingly views higher education merely as a passport to a higher paycheck—a cyclical phenomenon in american history—Wittenberg also serves as a welcome and insightful reminder of the importance of ideas, the pure pursuit of knowledge and the value of being a well-educated, well-rounded human being.
—Timothy Orr, director
In 1517, the impressionable and indecisive young Hamlet is a student at Wittenberg University, where he is mentored by two decidedly different professors: the irreverent, free-thinking Dr. John Faustus and the devoted, pious Martin Luther.
Faustus plans to propose to a woman named Helen, the love of his life. Forever frustrated with his colleague’s sexual antics, Luther implores Faustus to confess his sins. Faustus, as always, refuses, and their debate rages on about the merits of self-knowledge and religious devotion.
Faustus proposes to Helen while watching a heated tennis match between Hamlet and a startlingly combustible Laertes, brother to Hamlet’s beloved Ophelia. When Helen refuses, Faustus pays her to sleep with him. Meanwhile, Luther implores Hamlet to seek direction in life from God, and asks the Danish prince to provide feedback on the 95 theses he has written about the church. Hamlet agrees and as he leaves Luther’s office he sees a vision of the Virgin Mary and pictures himself teetering on the edge of an unending abyss. Confused and frightened, he visits the chamber of a dejected and romantically frustrated Faustus. Both Faustus and Luther interpret his vision, but through diametrically opposed ideological lenses. Always the vacillator, Hamlet does not know whose interpretation he believes.
Faustus obtains a copy of Luther’s critique of Catholicism, which he promptly nails to the door of Wittenberg Castle church. Luther, infuriated with Faustus, fears severe retribution, yet defends all that he has written. Hamlet hastily decides to join a monastery, only to be interrupted by news of his father’s death. Hamlet heads back to Denmark, Luther defends his 95 theses, and Faustus informs a crowd at the local pub that he will be away conducting “research” for quite some time.
—Wesley longacre, dramaturg
“To be or not to be, that is the question.” Whether you are a Shakespearean scholar or novice, you have undoubtedly heard that line from Hamlet; it’s embedded in our contemporary cultural vocabulary. But what does it mean? Why does Hamlet equivocate?
Hamlet has always been a fascinating psychological study, but what are the intellectual and spiritual forces at play in the eponymous Danish prince’s life? David Davolos’ Wittenberg considers those very questions and portrays the cataclysm of ideas that occurred in the 16th century. The play fictionalizes Hamlet’s education at Wittenberg University and his relationship with two of the towering figures of the time, Martin Luther and Dr. Faustus.
Luther famously helped instigate the Protestant reformation. His 95 Theses critiqued the Catholic Church and revolutionized the way that organized religion thought about matters of spirituality. He eventually espoused the belief that it was faith in God, not church regulations or purchasing forgiveness through indulgences, that led to eternal salvation. Formerly an Augustinian monk in the Catholic Church, Luther became a revolutionary of Christian religious thought.
Faustus became a fictional literary icon during the 16th century with Christopher Marlowe's Dr. Faustus (c. 1588) and Goethe’s Faust (c. 1808). The various accounts of the tale center around Faustus, who makes a compact with the devil in order to obtain knowledge previously unknown to mankind. The devil’s representative, Mephistopheles, agrees to serve Faust during his years on earth and provide him otherworldly knowledge in exchange for his eternal soul. This literary legend was based on Johann Georg Faust, a 16th century German scientist, magician and alchemist who met an untimely end at the hands of a botched scientific experiment.
Wittenberg is situated at the eye of an ideological hurricane. Luther’s religious devotion and theological pursuits clash head on with the philosophical reasoning and self-knowledge championed by Faustus. The play positions us in a time in which everything one thinks about religion, salvation, philosophy and knowledge is called into question. in placing Hamlet between these extraordinary minds, Davalos offers an opportunity to examine the intellectual and spiritual forces at play in Hamlet’s life. And as we stage this play in our own university environment, it invites the question, who and what are the intellectual and spiritual forces affecting our worldviews today?
—Wesley longacre, dramaturg
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