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He Defied the Nazis, But Not on Everything

By: Regina Robbins
Date: Apr 17, 2019

Tony winner John Glover on playing a real-life bishop who defended people with disabilities during WWII


Although John Glover is known for playing devilish villains onscreen (Lionel Luthor on Smallville, a devious millionaire in Gremlins 2: The New Batch, an abusive father in Shazam!), he gets to be a flawed hero in Stephen Unwin's All Our Children, currently running at the Sheen Center. The play is based on the true story of Clemens August Graf von Galen, the Roman Catholic Bishop of Münster, Germany who vocally opposed the Third Reich's systematic extermination of more than 200,000 people with disabilities during World War II.

As von Galen, Glover stays steady and (mostly) calm as he calls for decency and morality in a society where murder is being normalized, but he also has a flair for the dramatic. That served the real-life bishop well when the Nazis knocked on his door. "Twice they came to take him away," says Glover, recounting a story told to him by von Galen's great grandniece. On their first attempt, "he dressed up in all his regalia and came out, and they were too afraid to take him away. The second time they got him out the door, but they were so intimidated that they let him go back inside." Ultimately, von Galen was placed under house arrest in 1941 until Germany's defeat in 1945. The next year he was called to Rome and made a Cardinal, just a month before his death from an infection at age 68.

Glover hadn't heard of von Galen until he read Unwin's script, which, though fictional, references historical events. He was immediately moved. "I kept thinking about it," Glover says. Once he signed on to play the role, he read a couple of books as research but, in the end, the play gave him what he needed. "So much is in the text," he says.

The bishop became known as The Lion of Münster because of his sermons condemning the Nazi regime. A staunch anti-communist, von Galen had initially hoped that Hitler and the National Socialist German Workers' Party would bring order and prosperity to Germany, but he soon found himself horrified by their violent ideology. In August 1941, he denounced the Third Reich's policy of executing people with developmental disabilities, of which the public was largely unaware. "The judgment is that they can no longer produce any goods: they are like an old piece of machinery which no longer works," von Galen told his parishioners. "But we are not here concerned with pieces of machinery... We are concerned with men and women, our fellow creatures, our brothers and sisters!" Chillingly, many of the victims of this heinous program were kids whose parents had no idea what was in store for their daughters and sons.


All Our Children imagines a meeting between von Galen and a fictional doctor (played by Karl Kenzler) charged with overseeing a hospital for children with disabilities and deciding which patients should be transported to death facilities. At the outset, the bishop "doesn't know what he's going to find," says Glover, noting the challenge of playing a character who's discovering the horrors of Nazi Germany in real time. "It was a long, slow process over several years before people realized that they were behaving in ways that they would never have imagined." The play acknowledges that von Galen himself had problematic beliefs: He defended the lives of people with disabilities, but didn't stand up for Jews, who were also being murdered en masse.

Those familiar with Glover's stage career know of his talent for imbuing showy roles like von Galen with nuanced complexity. In 1995, he won a Tony Award for Best Featured Actor in a Play for his performance as identical but very different twins in Terrence McNally's Love! Valour! Compassion! More than two decades later, he's still in demand in theatres large and small: last year he appeared in Manhattan Theatre Club's mounting of Shaw's Saint Joan on Broadway, and reunited with McNally for the world premiere of Fire and Air at Classic Stage Company. And when he takes off von Galen's vestments next month, he's got more theatre work ahead. "I've got two choices and I'm trying to do them both," says Glover, who is an impressively spry 74. "It's so thrilling to me that, at the age that I am, when everybody I went to high school with has stopped working, I've got this choice to make."

There's a moment in All Our Children when von Galen, too, references his age. "I'm 64 years old," he says, going on to explain that whatever time he has left will be devoted to resisting the depravity of the Nazis. As a performer, Glover feels his priorities have changed with age as well. "I just wanted to act," he says of his early career. "If I got a job, I went and did it. But now, the reason to do this job -- besides the fact that it's a good part and a very interesting play -- is maybe I can help people think about some things that they hadn't wanted to."


TDF MEMBERS: At press time, discount tickets were available for All Our Children. Go here to browse our current offers.

Regina Robbins is a writer, director, native New Yorker and Jeopardy! champion. She has worked with several NYC-based theatre companies and is currently a Core Company Member with Everyday Inferno Theatre.

Top image: John Glover in All Our Children. Photos by Maria Baranova.

Regina Robbins is a writer, director, native New Yorker and Jeopardy! champion. She has worked with several NYC-based theatre companies and is currently a Core Company Member with Everyday Inferno Theatre.