A Theologian and the Nazis: Interview with Mary Ruth Clarke, playwright of BONHOEFFER’S COST (Beacon Theatre Productions)

Dietrich Bonhoeffer (1906-1945), one of Germany’s most important theologians and prominent opponent of Hitler’s vicious rule, wrote many books and articles, including a controversial essay, “The Church and the Jewish Question” (April 1933)—the first to address the new problems the church faced under the Nazi dictatorship. “Only those who cry out for the Jew have the right to sing Gregorian chants! Christ himself was a Jew, and in the eyes of the Lord we are all one.”

According to Craig von Buseck, “Bonhoeffer became a part of a secret group that worked to overthrow Hitler, and also smuggled Jews out of the country. Because of his contacts with other theologians outside of Germany, Bonhoeffer was used as a courier to carry messages to the allies about the anti-Hitler movement”. He was executed in the closing days of the Third Reich, but his works are read and studied widely to this day.

Chicago-based playwright Mary Ruth Clarke, known for her entertaining scripts and shows like Meet the Parents and Zap: The Unauthorized History of the Microwave Oven, wrote BONHOEFFER’S COST, a serious drama about the last year and a half of his young life. We spoke to Clarke about Bonhoeffer’s story and her thought-provoking play.

Bonhoeffer (Chase Byrd) amused by the vicio. us Rott (Steve Underwood) getting drunk. Photo by  by © James Jackson.
Bonhoeffer (Chase Byrd) amused by the vicious Rott (Steve Underwood) getting drunk. Photo © James Jackson – raveneyes.com.

Henrik Eger: How did you discover the prolific Dietrich Bonhoeffer, both his work and his extraordinary life storyfrom Germany to New York’s Harlem and to a prison cell in Berlin?

Mary Ruth Clarke: To be honest, he found me. Or more precisely, I was approached by an actor [and founding artistic director of Provision Theater, Chicago], Tim Gregory, who was attempting to write a one-person show about Bonhoeffer. I agreed to co-write it, but the play wasn’t working and the deeper I delved into Bonhoeffer’s life and work, I came to realize that Bonhoeffer as a one-person story doesn’t work because Bonhoeffer’s philosophy and practice was about living in the real world, living for other people. At that point I crafted the multi-person play.

Mary Ruth Clarke
Mary Ruth Clarke

Eger: Aware of the grave danger facing Christians, Bonhoeffer had written a book, The Cost of Discipleshipan exposition of the Sermon on the Mount. Tell us more about this pivotal work and how it led to the title of your play: BONHOEFFER’S COST.

Clarke: As a writer, I’ve been fortunate when the perfect title presented itself. Cost of Discipleship is Bonhoeffer’s most widely read book. In it, he offers a dichotomy between “cheap grace” and “costly grace.” Bonhoeffer explained, “Cheap grace is the grace we bestow on ourselves . . . grace without discipleship . . . Costly grace is the gospel which must be sought again and again . . . It is costly because it costs a man his life, and it is grace because it gives a man the only true life.”

In other words, cheap grace is easy–go to church and say your prayers in the comfort of your home with the shades drawn so as not to see or get involved in the suffering outside your door. Costly grace is the challenge of Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount, the clarion call to open that door and start living as a disciple of Christ, start, and continue to live your life for the benefit of the suffering, the poor, the disenfranchised.  If it costs you your life on earth, so be it. And that certainly was the cost Bonhoeffer ultimately paid.

Eger: Many theologians and historians consider the loss of the young Bonhoeffer, one of the world’s greatest theologians, a modern tragedy.

Clarke:  Yes, it’s haunting because we not only lost this clear thinking visionary and interpreter of what Jesus was truly asking of us, but also because all we are left with is speculation. What might be different had he survived? What role would he have played in post-war Germany—in the world at large? Where would his evolving sense of the role of the church have led?  Would his continuing work have been instrumental at affecting a paradigm shift in how Christians live? We’ll never know.

Nonetheless, his substantial body of work continues to inform and engage. We have his best friend and biographer, Eberhard Bethge, to thank for that. He survived the war and dedicated the rest of his life to promoting Dietrich’s writings and teachings.

The innocent Bonhoeffer (Chase Byrd) holding hands with his naïve fiancée (Anna Lou Hearn) with Klopstock (Adam Hammet) on duty, but not interfering. Photo by  © James Jackson.
The innocent Bonhoeffer (Chase Byrd) holding hands with his naïve fiancée (Anna Lou Hearn) with Klopstock (Adam Hammet) on duty, but not interfering. Photo © James Jackson – raveneyes.com.

Eger: What were your greatest challenges in writing this play?

Clarke: Although I had written plays and screenplays, which required extensive research, I had never written a biographical piece before. I actually went into it thinking, “Hey, this’ll be easy since I know how it ends!” I was ever so naïve.

The most challenging part of writing about someone who actually walked the earth is that life is messy and complicated, and our lives have many, many chapters that overlap and don’t really unfold nicely into a two-hour drama. So narrowing the parameters through trial and error–finding the bit of the life story that feels dramatic and urgent and revealing about the person, and relentlessly cutting the rest–is enormously difficult. My initial impulse was to [write] about how Dietrich grew up in a fairly non-religious home, his studies in England, his studies in America, his founding of the Confessing Church [Bekennende Kirche], how he started a stealth illegal seminary, and on and on. It was much too sweeping and did justice to none of these things.

One of the hardest cuts I had to make was eliminating the character of Eberhard Bethge. He played a significant role in Dietrich’s life and beyond, and was instrumental in publishing Letters and Papers from Prison. That book was one of my most significant source materials, and many of the letters in it were indeed between Dietrich and Eberhard. Bethge also wrote the extensive biography, Bonhoeffer, which I also heavily relied upon.

But I could not justify his character dramatically. Drama is, in essence, people trying to get stuff from each other. And so, [reluctantly], he had to go.

Eger: BONHOEFFER’S COST was first performed at Provision Theater, Chicago. Where else did it get produced and what press responses did it receive?  

Clarke: Beacon Theatre Productions is the second time BONHOEFFER’S COST is being produced. I am ever so pleased and grateful. There is a [phenomenon] we playwrights call “the curse of the second production”—meaning a play can have a wonderful premiere and then . . . nada.  Sadly, it happens much too often because not-for-profit theaters tend to procure grants for new work and they get to produce a world premiere. But there’s so much great work out there that languishes after that initial production.

I’m also happy to say BONHOEFFER’S COST will be performed in Austin, Texas by the Agape Actor’s Co-op in [the] Fall of 2015. They produced my farce, Suffer the Long Night, written with Greg Glienna this past Christmas—and broke the curse of the second production for that play.

Eger: Few Americans know that Bonhoeffer not only worked against Hitler and his regime, but he also violated the Nazi code of not mingling with people of color when he spent time in New York, where he loved the culture and people of Harlem. Tell us more about that joyful period in his life, which led to spirituals being played when people walked into the Olivet Covenant Presbyterian Church Theatre in Philadelphia for its production of your and Tim Gregory’s Bonhoeffer play.

Clarke: I didn’t know that was the pre-show music. How wonderful and joyous. That certainly adds a little levity.

A 24-year-old Bonhoeffer came to New York to study at the Union Theological Seminary and studied under Reinhold Niebuhr. This was in 1930. He met a fellow seminarian, Frank Fisher, who was black. Frank brought this young, naïve, upper class Berliner up to [the] Abyssinian Baptist Church in Harlem, introducing Dietrich to a world that must have felt like another planet. He developed a lifelong love for African-American spirituals that is touched on in Bonhoeffer’s Cost when his family sends him some of his favorite records while he’s in prison.

But Harlem was also integral in Bonhoeffer beginning to see things from the perspective of those who suffer oppression. He was intrigued by how the “Black Christ” was preached with rapturous passion and vision.

Eger: You told me, “I’m not done with Bonhoeffer. I would like to write about his time in New York, especially Harlem.” Tell us more about your new drama.

Clarke: His time in Harlem feels like such rich, dramatic—and still prescient—territory. I’ve written farces, traumadies, and dramas. This particular story [. . .] feels like a musical. It will be fun to explore that. And, since I am a screenwriter as well as a playwright, I am also contemplating the possibility of adapting Bonhoeffer’s Cost into a story for the screen. It would be a different beast, to be sure—I’d have to open it way up—and it would be expensive to produce. We’ll see.

Eger: Bonhoeffer as a musical? Germans might struggle with that perspective. On the other hand, great tragedies like Romeo and Juliet have made it into popular musicals and films, like West Side Story. What advice do you have for young playwrights to write powerful plays and get them produced?

Clarke: Read plays, see productions, write pages. Pull great plays apart and see how they work. Train your mind to think dramatically. Be engaged in what’s going on around you and what’s happening in the world. Take writing classes, but also take acting classes so you can experience how actors approach a character. Strive to be fearless. Expect to work hard.

As far as getting produced—write good plays and send them out [to] the world, and they’ll find a home. If not, find a way to produce them yourself. I tell this to my screenwriting students—make your own reality!

Eger: Thank you and let me know once your Bonhoeffer Harlem play, musical, or film will open.

Beacon Theatre Productions’ staging of BONHOEFFER’S COST runs April 10-25, 2015, at Olivet Covenant Presbyterian Church Theatre [608 N 22nd Street]. Tickets.


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