High drama about the price of commitment

Bonhoeffer’s Cost’ by Beacon Theatre

5 minute read
Dietrich Bonhoeffer with confirmands in 1932.
Dietrich Bonhoeffer with confirmands in 1932.

Theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer (1906-1945) coined the phrase “cheap grace” to refer to the smug hypocrisy of believers who profess religion but risk nothing to help others, especially those who are downtrodden or persecuted.

When he learned of the Nazi persecution of the Jews, the forbears of his own religion, his God being their son, he acknowledged the injustice long before most and took a stand against it. His own grace did not come cheaply — he relinquished the security he could have obtained from living an “ordinary” life (as if that were possible in Nazi Germany, though he had an opportunity to live in America and chose instead to serve the church in his homeland) and ultimately gave his life to live up to his teachings and convictions. He developed a theology of action on behalf of humankind, not unlike Mohandas Gandhi, Martin Luther King Jr., and, in some ways, Pope Francis.

Despite Bonhoeffer’s belief in nonviolence, he participated in the German resistance and ultimately in the abortive attempt to assassinate Hitler. The 2008 film about the latter, Valkyrie, does not include him because he was not actively involved in the final implementation of the plan. However, several other films (Hanged on a Twisted Cross [1996], Bonhoeffer: Agent of Grace [2000], and Bonhoeffer [2003]) brought his life into focus in ways that are relevant to our times. Now, in a very humble setting of a church basement in the Fairmount section of Philadelphia, the Beacon Theatre’s production of playwright Mary Ruth Clarke’s Bonhoeffer’s Cost brings some of the most important aspects of Bonhoeffer’s story to the living theater.

High drama in a small space

Nearly all of the action takes place in Bonhoeffer’s cell at Tegel Prison, Berlin, where he was incarcerated from 1943 to 1945 on suspicion of espionage. Several scenes are set in an interrogation room, and the final scene takes place at Flossenbürg Concentration Camp, where he was hanged for treason. We learn about Bonhoeffer from his recollections and introspections as well as visits from his fiancée, Maria von Wedemeyer, his coconspirator Hans von Dohnányi, and his brother Klaus.

But the real action takes place between Bonhoeffer and his Nazi interrogator, Judge Advocate Rott, and with his prison guard, Corporal Klopstock, both fictionalized characters. Rott is the quintessential ruthless interrogator, while Klopstock is the most complex of the characters, representing Everyman, trying to reconcile his evolving friendship with Bonhoeffer with his own need to do his job and survive. Bonhoeffer’s dilemmas are, in a strange way, less torturous than Klopstock’s. A combination of a Shakespearean fool and a self-centered modern neurotic, Klopstock has to figure out who he really is, while Bonhoeffer is very clear what he is about and has a strong inkling of the fate that might await him. So the deep, introspective Bonhoeffer interacts with the Iago-like Rott and with the humanly vulnerable and mixed-up, sometimes comedic Klopstock. This combination of characters all locked (literally) in a small space makes for brilliant theater.

The actors in this production, well-directed by Georgina Bard, are fully up to the task of realizing these characters and their interactions. Chase Byrd’s Bonhoeffer provides the right combination of intelligence, self-doubt, modesty, and innocence (Bonhoeffer was a virgin) of the real persona. Steve Underwood is the epitome of evil authority with just the slightest veneer of civility as Rott. Adam Hammet portrays Klopstock as a prison guard whose role gradually unravels under the compassionate guardianship of Bonhoeffer. (Who then is guarding whom?) And Anna Lou Hearn is the fiancée, Maria, an insouciant future hausfrau who makes you wonder why the brilliant and conspiratorial Bonhoeffer fell madly in love with her. The actors’ interaction is a fine example of what theater is all about: controlled acting technique, yet with a feeling of naturalness, spontaneity, and immersion in the roles. And their feigning of a slight German accent is suave and seamless, creating a real feeling of being there in that particular time and place.

Universal questions that take courage to answer

Above and beyond its dramatic appeal, Bonhoeffer’s Cost is an instance of what might be called Theater of the Intellect, a play that is designed to get the audience thinking about knotty dilemmas underlying the human condition. Bonhoeffer asks himself how to maintain his dignity and values in the face of cruelty and manipulation. He also struggles with his conscience as a conspirator who at the same time believes in truth and universal love. He is faced with the further quandary that his actions for a good cause may nevertheless lead to injury to his family, fiancée, and close friends. And despite his courage, he can’t fully justify his existential choice to violate the commandment “Thou shalt not kill,” even when the victim is a ruthless dictator like Hitler whose death might save countless lives. Ultimately, Bonhoeffer concludes that it is an act of pure faith and that he must ask for the mercy and forgiveness of his God, whom he believes suffered like himself, and who is a great mystery not accessible to reason as such.

Then there is Klopstock, who struggles with conflicting allegiances, who really doesn’t know what is his place in the world, who has to make decisions amidst the randomness of the events around him. By implication, Klopstock seems to ask, “What should be the basis of my choices in life: sheer survival, principles, a crapshoot, or trust in a kindly gentleman who is my captive?” In the end, as Allied bombs fall over Berlin, he still can’t make up his mind.

There are no easy answers to these questions for any of us, but the lesson of Nazi Germany is that the only alternatives to thinking seriously about them are to become mindless brutes like Rott or conforming bureaucrats like Klopstock before his encounter with Bonhoeffer. While Bonhoeffer’s theology is important, we remember him today for his courage in seeing through the Nazis' lies and his willingness to die so that others might live. While it asks penetrating questions, this play is ultimately about Bonhoeffer the man.

What, When, Where

Bonhoeffer’s Cost by Mary Ruth Clarke with Tim Gregory. Georgina Bard directed. April 10-25, 2015. Beacon Theatre production at Olivet Covenant Presbyterian Church Theatre, 608 N. 22nd Street, Philadelphia.

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