Panelists discuss themes of ‘Martyr’
Marius von Mayenburg’s play “Martyr” unearths troubling ideas regarding religious extremism and its roots through the story of one young German teen’s enchantment with religious fundamentalism in relation to the mundane teenage experience. Mayenburg, one of Germany’s forefront playwrights, uses his character, Benjamin, to discuss religious extremism and its roots, a study of religion extremely relevant in contemporary society. This past Thursday, Brandeis University’s Center for German and European Studies brought together several scholars to discuss the play’s sensitive themes in relation to the current world, priming the Brandeis community for the show’s production next weekend.
Rather than evaluating “Martyr” itself, the panel focused on the political aspects of today’s society that frame the play. Much of the talk focused on current religious extremism in the Middle East and how the American media distorts and frames religion. While this did not serve to analyze the play directly, it helped draw out the real focus of “Martyr.” This focus is political in nature.
The essence of the panel highlighted the fact that there is no specific “type” of person who becomes a religious extremist. The panel brought out the fact that — as much as we wish this were not the case — religious extremism can take root in any person in any number of situations. Mayenburg highlights this truth in his character; Benjamin. Benjamin seems like a normal teenage boy; however, even he becomes enthralled in the world of religious fundamentalism, much to his own mother’s confusion. Mayenburg highlights the validity of religious fervor and the ability of a young person to splinter from his parents’ ideas. Mayenburg’s character Benjamin, although brought up in a secular democratic world, becomes enamored with fundamentalism and allows Christian text to completely dictate his life.
The panel talked about this message — our susceptibility to religion even when brought up in a secular world — in the broader sense of the modern world using “Martyr” as a means to critique wider society. The panelists commented on ISIS, how it is presented in the American media and the luring effects of religion. This same method of critique will be demonstrated in the production of “Martyr,” as Benjamin and his life are merely means for Mayenburg to critique the susceptibility of the human psyche to religious fundamentalism in a completely debilitating way.
Although the panel was advertised as a discussion of the play, the play as art was not discussed in depth. While this may have upset those in attendance who came to learn more about the work as art, the discussion itself — which almost exclusively discussed modern politics and not the play — brought to light questions about art and the validity of art as a means to further Mayenburg’s agenda, specifically to give validity to religious extremism and its seriousness.
The discussion touched on whether art is a viable method of tackling questions regarding religious and political matters. While, in some ways, it seems art is too personal a medium to present questions on issues that affect such a vast portion of society, the panel’s discussion made it clear that art is a viable method to bring about political discussion and induce debates, as the panel’s discussion itself was largely political in nature.
The panel included scholars with varying backgrounds. From the University’s faculty was Clémentine Fauré-Bellaïche, an assistant professor of French and Francophone studies; Cynthia Cohen, who is currently Director of the program Peacebuilding and the Arts and Acting Director of the Ethics Center; and David Siddhartha Patel, Senior Research Fellow at the Crown Center for Middle East Studies. Outside of Brandeis’ faculty, the final panelist was Alexander Görlach, known for founding the debate magazine “The European.” Despite Cohen and Fauré-Bellaïche’s artistic backgrounds, the discussion leaned much more toward Islam and religion’s place in the communities of the Middle East.
Overall, the panel was much more a discussion evaluating the media and religious extremism in today’s society, rather than in relation the Mayenburg’s play. This is not to say, though, that the point of this play was not evaluated in great depth. This is a play with a political agenda meant to spur political conversation, something it did almost too well, moving the majority of the panelists’ discussion away from “Martyr” itself and onto the show’s message in a modern society.