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Passion play

A Passion play is a dramatic presentation depicting the Passion of Christ: the trial, suffering and death of Jesus Christ. It is a traditional part of Lent in several Christian denominations, particularly in Catholic tradition.

Origin and history of the Passion play

The Easter play

The evolution of the Passion Play was about the same as that of the Easter Play. It originated in the ritual of the Church, which prescribes, among other things, that the Gospel on Good Friday should be sung in parts divided among various persons. Later on, Passion Plays, properly so called, made their appearance, first in Latin, then in vernacular languages; contents and forms were adapted more and more audience expectations, until, in the fifteenth century, the popular religious plays had developed. Thus, the Benedictbeurn Passion Play (thirteenth century) is still largely composed of Latin ritual sentences in prose and of church hymns, and, being designed to be sung, resembles an oratorio.

The addition of more music and more characters

Yet even this oldest of the Passion Plays already shows, by the interpolation of free translations of church hymns and of German verses not pertaining to such hymns, as well as by the appearance of Mary (the Virgin Mary, mother of Jesus) and Mary Magdalene in the action, a tendency to break away from the ritual and to adopt a more dramatic form began to appear. From these humble beginnings the Passion Play developed very rapidly, since in the fourteenth century it was at a stage of development which could not have been reached except by repeated practice. From this second period we have the Vienna Passion, the St. Gall Passion, the oldest Frankfort Passion, and the Maestricht Passion. All four Plays, as they are commonly called, are written in rhyme, principally in German.

The Passion Play continues to expand

The Vienna Passion embraces the entire history of the Redemption, and begins with the revolt and fall of Lucifer; the play, as transmitted to us, ends with Jesus and his Twelve Apostles sitting at the Last Supper.

The oldest Frankfort Passion play, that of Canon Baldemar von Peterwell (1350-1380), the production of which required two days, was more profusely elaborated than the other Passion Plays of this period. Of this play only the Ordo sive Registrum has come down to us, a long roll of parchment for the use of the director, containing stage directions and the first words of the dialogues. The plays based on this list of directions lead us to the period in which the Passion Play reached its highest development (1400-1515). During this period the later Frankfort Passion Play (1467), the Alsfelder, and the Friedberger (1514) originated. Connected with this group are the Eger, the Donaueschingen, Augsburg, Freising and Lucerne Passion Plays, in which the whole world drama, beginning with the creation of man and brought down to the coming of the Holy Ghost, is exhibited, and which was produced with great splendour as late as 1583.

The Tyrolese Passion Play

Expansion and consolidation of previous plays

Nearly all these Passion Plays have some relation to those coming from the Tyrol, some contributing to, others taking from, that source. These, again, are founded upon the Tyrolese Passion Play which originated during the transition period of the fourteenth to the fifteenth century. Wackernell, with the aid of the plays that have reached us, has reconstructed this period. In the Tyrol the Passion Plays received elaborate cultivation; at Bozen they were presented with great splendour and lasted seven days. Here, too, the innovation of placing the female roles in the hands of women was introduced, which innovation did not become general until during the seventeenth century.

Elaborate, public productions

The magnificent productions of the Passion Plays during the fifteenth century are closely connected with the growth and increasing self-confidence of the cities, which found its expression in noble buildings, ecclesiastical and municipal, and in gorgeous public festivals. The artistic sense and the love of art of the citizens had, in co-operation with the clergy, called these plays into being, and the wealth of the citizens provided for magnificent productions of them on the public squares, whither they migrated after expulsion from the churches. The citizens and civil authorities considered it a point of honour to render the production as rich and diversified as possible. Ordinarily the preparations for the play were in the hands of a spiritual brotherhood, the play itself being considered a form of worship. People of the most varied classes took part in the production, and frequently the number of actors was as high as two hundred and even greater. If was undoubtedly no small task to drill the performers, particularly since the stage arrangements were still very primitive.

Staging and set design

The stage was a wooden structure, almost as broad as it was long, elevated but slightly above the ground and open on all sides. A house formed the background; a balcony attached to the house represented Heaven. Under the balcony three crosses were erected. Sometimes the stage was divided into three sections by doors. Along the sides of the stage, taken lengthwise, stood the houses required for the production; they were indicated by fenced-in spaces, or by four posts upon which a roof rested. The entrance into Hell was pictured by the mouth of a monster, through which the Devil and the souls captured or released during the plays passed back and forth. The actors entered in solemn procession, led by musicians or by a præcursor (herald), and took their stand at the places appointed them. They remained on the stage all through the performance; they sat on the barriers of their respective divisions, and were permitted to leave their places only to recite their lines. As each actor finished speaking, he returned to his place. The audience stood around the stage or looked on from the windows of neighbouring houses. Occasionally platforms, called "bridges", were erected around the stage in the form of an amphitheatre.

Simplicity of scenery, dialog, action, and costumes

The scenery was as simple as the stage. There were no side scenes, and consequently no stage perspective. Since an illusion of reality could not be had, indications were made to suffice. Thus a cask standing on end represents the mountain on which Christ is tempted by the Devil; thunder is imitated by the report of a gun; in order to signify that the Devil had entered into him, Judas holds a bird of black plumage before his mouth and makes it flutter. The suicide of Judas is an execution, in which Beelzebub performs the hangman's duty. He precedes the culprit up the ladder and draws Judas after him by a rope. Judas has a black bird and the intestines of an animal concealed in the front of his clothing, and when Satan tears open the garment the bird flies away, and the intestines fall out, whereupon Judas and his executioner slide down into Hell on a rope. A painted picture representing the soul, is hung from the mouth of each of the two thieves on the cross; an angel takes the soul of the penitent, the devil that of the impenitent thief. Everything is presented in the concrete, just as the imagination of the audience pictures it, and the scenic conditions, resembling those of the antique theatre demand. All costume, however, is contemporary, historical accuracy being ignored.

Secularization of the Passion Play

The Passion Plays of the 15th century, with their peculiar blending of religious, artistic, and increasingly secular elements, gave a true picture of German city life of those times. Serious thought and lively humour were highly developed in these plays. When, however, the patricians, in the sixteenth century, withdrew more and more from the plays, the plays, left to the lower classes, began to lose their serious and (in spite of the comic traits) dignified character. The influence of the Carnival plays (Fastnachtspiele) was felt more and more. Master Grobianus with his coarse and obscene jests was even introduced into some of the Passion Plays. In time the ecclesiastical authorities forbade the production of these "secularized" plays. Thus, the Bishop of Havelberg commanded his clergy, in 1471, to suppress the Passion Plays and legend plays in their parish districts because of the disgraceful and irrelevant farces interspersed through the productions.

Secularized Passion Plays banned

With the advent of the 16th century European religious conflict the uneasiness with liturgical drama in general increased. The Synod of Strasburg of 1549 opposed the religious plays, and the year previous, in 1548, the Parliament of Paris forbade the production of The Mysteries of the Passion of our Redeemer and other Spiritual Mysteries. One consequence was that the secularized plays were separated from the religious, and, as Carnival plays, held the public favour. The Passion Plays came to be presented more rarely, particularly as the Reformation was inimical to them.

Rediscovery of the Passion Play

The Passion Play almost disappears

School dramas now came into vogue in Catholic and Protestant schools, and frequently enough became the battle-ground of religious controversies. When, in the seventeenth century, the splendidly equipped Jesuit drama arose, the Passion Plays (still largely secularized) were relegated to out-of-the-way villages and to the monasteries, particularly in Bavaria and Austria. Towards the end of the eighteenth century, during the Age of Enlightenment, efforts were made in Catholic Germany, particularly in Bavaria and the Tyrol, to destroy even the remnants of the tradition of medieval plays.

A resurgence of public interest

Public interest in the Passion Play developed in the last decades of the nineteenth century, and the statistician Karl Pearson wrote a book about them.

Since then, Brixlegg and Vorderthiersee in the Tyrol and Horice na Sumave, near Cesky Krumlov in the Czech Republic, and above all, the Oberammergau in Upper Bavaria attract thousands to their plays.

The text of the play of Vorderthiersee (Gespiel in der Vorderen Thiersee) dates from the second half of the seventeenth century, is entirely in verse, and comprises in five acts the events recorded in the Gospel, from the Last Supper to the Entombment. A prelude (Vorgespiel), on the Good Shepherd, precedes the play. After being repeatedly remodelled, the text received its present classical form from the Austrian Benedictine, P. Weissenhofer. Productions of the play, which came from Bavaria to the Tyrol in the second half of the eighteenth century, were arranged at irregular intervals during the first half of the nineteenth century; since 1855 they have taken place at regular intervals, at Brixlegg every ten years. The Höritz Passion Play, the present text of which is from the pen of Provost Landsteiner, has been produced every five years, since 1893.

Modern performances of the Passion Play

The Oberammergau Passion Play

The chief survivor, however, of former times is the Oberammergau Passion Play, first performed in the Bavarian village of Oberammergau, which continues to perform it every decade despite concerns from Jewish groups that feel the performances promote anti-Semitism.

Australia

In Australia, there are several major productions of The Passion staged annually in the lead up to Easter.

" The Iona Passion Play" was founded in 1958 in Queensland and tours cities and towns around Australia. In each location the touring cast invites community members to join the production.

" Passion Play" A New group of enthusiastic people staged a version of the 'Passion Play' with music and script written by Roy Pires in a completely original score. It was staged for the first time this year (2007) at Riverstage in the City botanical gardens in Brisbane, Queensland and was very successful, touching the lives of many people."

New South Wales: In suburban Sydney, at Turramurra, The Turramurra Passion is a contemporary, character-driven interpretation, using multimedia elements and an original score

Queensland: "The Moogerah Passion Play" is produced in Queensland, and is staged "realistically" on a large outdoor stage beside a lake.

Canada

The Canadian Badlands Passion Play is performed annually in Drumheller, Alberta. It is staged outdoors in a naturally occurring amphitheatre in the hills of the Drumheller valley. The cast are volunteers from across Alberta.

In Queensway Cathedral (Toronto, Ontario) a Passion play takes place during the Easter Season. The story begins with a grandmother, granddaughter and the granddaughter's friend. The three sit around a fire as the story of Jesus unfolds with many encounters with characters from the story. The cast is wholly comprised of volunteers. There is also a well-known passion play in Vaughan, Ontario organized by St.Peters Parish and performed at Holy Cross Catholic Academy.

In Manitoba, located in the La Riviere Valley at Oak Valley's Outdoor theatre, located on the edge of the valley among the natural beauty of the Pembina Valley. The cast and crew are all volunteers from all over southern Manitoba. Rehearsals usually start in April or early May and are ready for mid-July performances.

Brazil

The Passion of the Christ is performed every year during Easter in a purpose-built 100 000 m² theatre-city in the arid backlands of Pernambuco, in northeastern Brazil. It is considered to be the largest open-air theatre in the world. Thousands of visitors arrive every year to watch the performance; over 500 actors appear on the 9 separate stages within the stone walls of the city.

The Netherlands

De Passiespelen is a re-enactment of the Passion of the Christ taking place every year that is divisible by 5, e.g. 2005 and 2010. It is performed in the open air in Openluchttheater De Doolhof in Tegelen. Originating in 1931 it has become an internationally acclaimed event drawing visitors from all over the world.

Philippines

The Philippines, being one of two predominantly Christian nations in Southeast Asia (East Timor being the other), has Passion plays called "Senakulo", named after the Upper room, or Cenacle. Companies perform the Senakulo during Holy Week. Also, there are actual crucifixions done by people outside of Passion plays to fulfill a panata (for a request or prayer granted), in Barangay San Pedro Cutud, City of San Fernando, Pampanga being a popular place to see this.

Poland

Tradition of passion plays in Poland has become popular again in the early 20th century. Today the best known plays take place in Kałków, Kalwaria Pacławska, the Pallotines' Seminary in Ołtarzew, and the most prominent in Sanctuary of Kalwaria Zebrzydowska. This passion play is one of the oldest and biggest in Europe, gathering around 100 thousand pilgrims each year on Good Friday.

Spain

In Catalonia, it is common for villages to present different passion plays every Easter, like the ones in Esparreguera, Olesa de Montserrat or Cervera, first documented in 1538. Olesa's 1996 production surpassed the world record for the most people acting onstage at the same time, with 726 persons. Balmaseda, in Euskadi, also has a passion play.

Thailand

The Church of Immaculate Conception in Bangkok holds an annual Passion Play on Good Friday.

United Kingdom

  • The town of Leominster in Herefordshire holds a Passion Play on Good Friday every four years, performed by volunteers from churches of all denominations in the town. The play is performed outdoors, with each scene located in a different position in the streets and squares of the town centre. The 2008 performance included original music written by local composer Liam Dunachie.
  • BBC Three broadcast a modern musical version called Manchester Passion in 2006.
  • In 1998, the American playwright Terrence McNally wrote an important passion play, Corpus Christi, which depicted Jesus and the Apostles as gay men living in modern day Texas. Its production in London in 2000 is listed by Richard Eyre as one of the most notable theatrical events of the 20th century.

United States

  • Florida's passion play is held annually in Wauchula at the Cattlemans Arena, beginning Good Friday and for the next several following weekends.It has a cast of over 200 people and 150 animals. For more information see: www.storyofjesus.com
  • One of the most widely viewed Passion Plays in the United States is "The Promise", performed near Glen Rose, Texas. Between Glen Rose, and its sister production in Branson, Missouri, over 1 million people have seen The Promise.
  • In Eureka Springs, Arkansas, "The Great Passion Play" is regularly performed. Since its first performance in 1968, The Great Passion Play in Eureka Springs has been seen by over 7.5 million people making it the largest attended outdoor drama in America. Also on the grounds of The Great Passion Play is the Christ of the Ozarks statue (the largest Christ statue in the North America), the New Holy Land Tour, a full-scale re-creation of the Tabernacle in the Wilderness, a section of the Berlin Wall, a Museum of Earth History, and Bible Museum. From time to time popular artists visit The Great Passion Play to perform in the 4,100-seat amphitheater where the play is performed. The Great Passion Play of Eureka Springs can be seen from the last weekend of April to the last weekend of October with performances four and five nights a week. For more information about this Passion Play, visit

The Play has also been performed in Hughes Springs, Texas as "The Passion Play".

  • The longest running passion play in the U.S. has been performed in Union City, New Jersey since 1915, and at the Park Theater since 1931. In 1997, there was a minor controversy when an African-American actor was cast as Jesus.
  • In Zion, Illinois, the Zion Passion Play has been performed at Christ Community Church since 1935.
  • The NORTH HEIGHTS PASSION PLAY was a popular indoor musical stage production sponsored by North Heights Lutheran Church of Arden Hills, Minnesota, a suburb of the Twin Cities. The Minneapolis Star-Tribune says, "With 700 participants, dozens of live animals, flames, rain and 'lightning', North Heights Lutheran Church's annual Passion Play is spectacular." More than 400,000 attended the performances over 19 years before the production was discontinued. Over 20,000 attended the final season, including more than 150 tour buses and groups. Performances began April 1989 and ended April 22, 2007. View Photos
  • The Black Hills Passion Play is performed every summer in Spearfish, South Dakota. The Last Performence of the Black Hills Passion Play was August 31, 2008. During the winter months from 1953 through 1998, the same cast also performed the play in Lake Wales, Florida.
  • In Downingtown, Pennsylvania, the Hopewell United Methodist Church has performed a version of the play in a 1,000 seat outdoor amphitheater each year since 1963. The original version of "The Passion Play," initiated in 1963, is based in the King James Version of the Bible, but a newer version, entitled "The Power and The Glory" was launched in 2005, based in several modern-language translations of the Bible. The church offers both versions on successive weekends in June each year as a free offering to their audience. For more information visit HisPlay.org
  • The play is performed in Gatlinburg, Tennessee as "The Great Smoky Mountains Passion Play".
  • Atlanta's "Passion Play" has been produced by the First Baptist Church of Atlanta since 1977.
  • In Duncan Falls, Ohio, Cornerstone Full Gospel Church has put on "It Took A Lamb" since 1986.
  • The Living Word Outdoor Drama in Cambridge, Ohio has been offered every summer since 1975.
  • The Glory Of Easter at the Crystal Cathedral in Garden Grove, California is an extremely popular passion play and family tradition to Southern Californians. It boasts a cast of hundreds, live animals, and flying angels, among other unique aspects.
  • In 1998, the playwright Terrence McNally wrote an important passion play, Corpus Christi, which depicted Jesus and the Apostles as gay men living in modern day Texas. Its production in London in 2000 is listed by Richard Eyre as one of the most notable theatrical events of the 20th century.

The Passion Play in motion pictures

See also

References

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