‘Bonhoeffer in Prison’ Reveals Imprisonment’s Effect on Mental Illness

Theater Review


"Bonhoeffer in Prison"

“Bonhoeffer in Prison,” performed last Friday at Centre Theater in Norristown, examines how imprisonment and isolation lead to a variety of mental illness symptoms.

Duyen To, Associate Editor

All over the world, there are millions of prisoners suffering mental illness from isolation. “Bonhoeffer in Prison,” a one man show presents the hazards of isolation; the mental stress and loss of hope through Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s situation during the time of his imprisonment.

Dietrich Bonhoeffer was a German pastor, theologian, anti-Nazi dissident (someone who disagrees with the government and politics, especially those who enforce rules at the expense of others freedom), and key founding member of the Confessing Church, a movement that protested against the Nazis during the war. Born on February 4th, 1906: Bonhoeffer was imprisoned by the Gestapo during World War II for two years, sadly dying on April 9th, 1945 by execution before the war ended.

This was the subject of the show “Bonhoeffer in Prison,” which played at the Centre Theater in Norristown last Friday. The one-man show, directed by Samantha Roberts and starring actor Benjamin Roberts, displaying Bonhoeffer’s traumatic thoughts and experiences during his imprisonment.

Roberts acted emotionally, pulling me deeper and deeper into the play. Throughout the play, there was a reoccurring skit that made me laugh numerous times in which Bonhoeffer places a small box onto the ground and steps onto it, preaching out to a “crowd.” Although Roberts’ setting is within a cell, he brings life into the scene as he shouts out into the audience, preaching with full emotion. At times, the skit would make me laugh, but during emotional scenes, Roberts would stand on the box, crying in fear, asking his God why he hasn’t been saved yet.

During a particular scene, Roberts channels Bonhoeffer’s anger at society as he cries out, “Germany is lost.” Bonhoeffer speaks of nonviolence and peace and how everything has become corrupt in Germany. As Bonhoeffer quiets down, he states with a lonely expression, “I am awake,” awake to the situation he has been put in, awake to the crisis in which he is living. Being awake makes a person realize the truth behind all the fog, but what Bonhoeffer feels: the fear, pain, loneliness, many people today have to awaken themselves, whether it’s towards  society or other people.

As time goes on, Bonhoeffer loses hope, as well as his mental strength. Roberts’ acting shines through these moments in which Bonhoeffer emotionally breaks down. Bonhoeffer talks about how isolated he feels from everyone but finds his loneliness enjoyable. As he talked on about how he feels about his imprisonment, I started to feel the loneliness and hurt Bonhoeffer felt, thinking how, people now, in the present world are facing these symptoms of mental illness: depression, isolation and worthlessness. Now, there are still many innocent people that are in jail, mostly minorities. According to The Innocence Project, about 120,000 people in the US, currently in prison are innocent. The thought of mentally destroying innocent people is disgusting, and in “Bonhoeffer in Prison,” it shows how the isolation and separation from family and friends ruins a person.

The sadness that underlies “Bonhoeffer In Prison” reminds me that this historic event was real. Imprisonment for innocent people has been going on for centuries, and takes a toll on those who are kept in isolation, keeping them from experiencing normal human interactions. Along with many dramatic and emotional scenes in the play, some parts dragged on, leaving me a bit uninterested. Although there were parts that did not shine as well as others, “Bonhoeffer in Prison” kept me interested with its amazing writing.

“We are all devoured,” Bonhoeffer states, but devoured by what? The impact of war? The imprisonment? The loneliness? Bonhoeffer talks about his past, the struggles and joy he has been through, as though I was there with him. The script for Bonhoeffer was magnificent, taking a historical event and turning it into something that can be grasped artfully is mind-blowing.

Although there is a huge war outside of where Bonhoeffer is, there is a war that lie within his mind. “Great battles are easier to fight,” Bonhoeffer said, implying that, the war outside is easier as multiple people are fighting for it, but the messy battle within Bonhoeffer’s mind will never be over as it is himself he is fighting. The mental illness that manifested into Bonhoeffer takes over him within the last few scenes of the play.

“I can hear death.. Any moment it can turn and look in and see me… My God.. Why are you so far from helping me..?” I can hear the sadness, anger, and fear in the Roberts’ voice throughout those statements. The realization of no escaping his cell makes him doubt the hope that he has worked for most of his life.

“Bonhoeffer in Prison,” was a performance I know I will never get to experience again. The one-man-show was unexpectedly entertaining, although there were boring moments, there were sparks of humor placed into the play, making it more lively and a little more easy to follow. I was captivated by the amazing performance, but I was also able to learn many things from the show, which awakened me to the problems of isolation and mental health.