An early version of Passion Play in was produced in 2002 in workshop at the Tristan Bates Theatre in London, directed by Mark Wing-Davey. It received its world premiere in 2005 at Arena Stage in Washington, D.C., on September 2, 2005, directed by Molly Smith.
I started writing this play twelve years ago after re-reading a childhood book which includes an account of Oberammergau in the early 1900s. In this old fashioned narrative, the man who played Christ was actually so holy as to have become His living embodiment. The woman who played Mary was, in real life, just as pure as the Virgin. I started thinking, how would it shape or misshape a life to play a biblical role year after year? How are we scripted? Where is the line between authentic identity and performance? And is there, in fact, such a line?
The first act is set in 1575 in England, when Queen Elizabeth was about to shut down the Passion Plays in order to control religious representation. Not many towns still performed the Passion in 1575; the village of Act I is, then, itself something of an anachronism, oddly suspended between the middle ages and the Renaissance. In 1575, Queen Elizabeth banned religious plays altogether; up until then, over one hundred towns in the British Isles performed the Passion. Meanwhile Elizabeth, excommunicated by the Pope in 1571, increased measures in the 1570s to cleanse England of Papal trappings, including Jesuits. Ordinary Catholics often housed priests in what they called “priest-holes” in order to maintain Catholic rites.
The second act moves to Oberammergau, Germany--a town where the Passion Play, begun in the middle ages, even now continues to be played every ten years. Many narratives describe Oberammergau as a living picture of the New Testament, ignoring the fact that, in 1934, the director of the Passion was already a member of the Nazi party. The actor who played Christ and the actress who played the Virgin Mary were also early party members. By 1947, every actor in the play had at one time been a Nazi, with the exception of the men who played, ironically, Judas and Pontius Pilate. (The play takes liberties with these historical facts.) As late as 1946, the village of Oberammergau denied knowing anything about concentration camps, although Dachau (where Oberammergau’s one Jew was sent during the war) was only seventy-five miles away.
The Passion Play, which often incited pogroms during Easter when performed in medieval Germany, became a kind of historical perversion during the war, seen with our contemporary lens. In 1934, Hitler saw the Passion and was greeted with open arms. He came a second time on August 13, 1934—six weeks after “Night of the Long Knives”, when Hitler purged his leadership of known homosexuals, Communists, and Jews. Act II of Passion Play quotes the 19th century Oberammergau script (famous for its anti-Semitism) as well as quoting a speech Hitler made at a dinner, expressing his admiration for the Oberammergau Passion in 1942. Everything else in the play is an invention. I am indebted to Saul Friedman and James Shapiro for their careful research.
It should be said that, since the war, Oberammergau has made many attempts to reform their Passion Play; has invited Jewish scholars and has revised their text in order to reflect a more ecumenical view. Many Passion Plays have enlisted the anti-defamation league to get it right, or at least, more right. And yet, even today, we are plunged into the same kind of moral/aesthetic debates when Mel Gibson took up the mantle of the Passion, which had one of the biggest viewerships, ironically, in the Arab world. But more people talked about “Passion-dollars”—the surprise commercial success of the movie—than they did about the dangers of focusing the Gospel story on violent scape-goating.
Ten years after beginning Passion Play parts 1 and 2 (which I began with the encouragement of Paula Vogel) I returned to the cycle. I discovered that there is now a Passion Play in Spearfish, South Dakota, started by an actor from Germany in the 1940s. I felt that I had to continue the story. Serendipitously, Arena Stage in Washington DC asked me to write a play about America. A daunting task. Until I realized that little is more American than the nexus of religious rhetoric, politics, and theatricality. Especially at the present moment, when it seems as if we are in the midst of an unacknowledged holy war, conducted by a man who feels himself to be appointed by God (he must have been appointed by someone, he wasn’t appointed by the popular vote in 2000). Never have the medieval world and the digital age seemed so oddly conjoined. I find myself fascinated by how leaders use, mis-use and legislate religion for their own political aims, and how leaders turn themselves into theatrical icons. Queen Elizabeth, wearing layers and layers of make-up, “married” herself to England; Hitler took photographs of himself gesticulating until he got it right; Ronald Reagan, who paved the way for our current political climate, had miraculous and natural powers as an actor. But what is the difference between acting as performance and acting as moral action? It is no accident that we refer to theaters of war.
More and more, it seems to me that the separation between church and state is coming into question in our country. We are a divided nation. And the more divided we are, the less we talk about what divides us. The left is perceived of as anti-religious ideological secularists; the right as religious zealots. But whatever happened to the founding father’s rationale for separating church and state? More devotion was possible, and more kinds of devotion would be possible, the less the state controlled religious rhetoric. More devotion, and more conversation about devotion, would be possible with that freedom. I miss that conversation, and I think theater is a good place for it. To my mind, devotion is like a quality of light—how is it possible to legislate the quality of light? It would be like legislating the invisible moments that happen in a theater. And ultimately, this play is about those moments—about how actors wring moments out of their private lives in order bear witness in the community.
Ideally, Passion Play (parts 1, 2, and 3) would be performed all together in one evening or else in rotating repertory. Together, the three parts form a cycle play—alone, they do something different, but they can technically stand alone. If in repertory, I suggest doing Parts 1 and 2 on one night, and Part 3 on the next. If the resources of one theater are too limited to produce the entire cycle, I can imagine two theaters in one city collaborating to put the cycle up together. In the original guild productions of the Passion, the carpenters in the village would handle the crucifixion scene and the bakers would handle the Last Supper. Perhaps our theatrical communities could borrow from the primitive guild model.
I wrote the first draft of Passion Play, part 3 before the 2004 election, with a great sense of urgency. Now it’s 2007. It’s easy to feel powerless as the great political wheels turn, financed by enormous wealth. But then you get to thinking about what starts every grass-roots revolution—people organizing in one room. Luckily that very special right is protected by our Constitution. And as ill-suited as some theater artists are to some meanings of the word organization—there is one thing all of us tend to do well, and that is to organize people to come to one room. It is not that the play you are about to read is a political treatise—not at all—but it does provide us with another occasion to be in one room together as we continue to meditate on the relationship of community to political icons. And to meditate on what we can do to affect change in very solemn times indeed.
This play is for Paula Vogel.
A village in Northern England, spring, 1575.
John the Fisherman/plays Jesus and Adam
Carpenter 1 (Sam)/plays the angel Gabriel
Carpenter 2 (Simon)/plays Joseph
Fish Gutter/plays Pontius and Satan
Mary 1/plays the Virgin Mary and Eve
Mary 2/plays Mary Magdalen
Machinist/plays an emperor
Queen Elizabeth (preferably a man in drag)
The suggestion of the sea.
A playing space.
We make our play in England
In the north
By the sea
In the open air of England.
The Virgin Queen is on her throne
The Catholics are mostly done.
Take pity on our simple play—
We’ve no fancy lights
only the bare light of day.
The good lord tells us,
to be most simple is to be most good
so here is honest rough-hewn wood.
We ask you, dear audience to use your eyes, ears, your most inward sight
For here is day (a painted sun)
And here is night (a painted moon)
And now, the play.
SCENE 1: Building the Rood
A man on a cross. The sound of sawing.
At first we are not sure whether or not this is a real crucifixion.
Carpenter 1 measures John the Fisherman from head to toe.
CARPENTER 1 (Sam):
You have g--grown.
I’m afraid so. I wish my bones would not make such work for you year after year.
You cannot stop your bones from gr-gr--growing.
My cousin’s bones stopped growing three years ago, and his bones have troubled no seamstress with new stitches since. Perhaps he should play my part.
CARPENTER 2 (Simon):
Oh, but he’s a limp wee little thing. His back’s as crooked as the road to hell!
Now you mustn’t make fun of poor Pontius.
What mmmm mighty arms you have! You could swing many a fi fi fine lady on those br-brawny arms.
You could knock me down easily, Sam!
Nnno. I would never hhhurt my John boy.
Now me and him may be twins, but we’re as different as two peas in different pods. He likes his ale light, I like it dark. He likes Sundays, I detest ‘em. I like blondes, and he likes his brunettes, don’t you there, Sam?
Sam blushes and busies himself with his work
Well, I can tell you that he does, though Sam would never brag about such things, I’ve heard more brunettes hollering in the field than I can count.
Well, I have, and I’ll say it too, even if you blush and squirm like a flower pushing its way out of the mud, I’ve heard what I’ve heard and know what I know.
The Sky Turns Red.
Why there’s that red light again!
So it is! What the devil...
It’s been a’ creeping and a cr cr crawling into the cracks in the windows! It makes me afffraid.
They stand, transfixed. The light disperses and becomes natural.
Oh well, I suppose the sun must be angry about something. Only one more little nail.
He pounds in a nail.
There. Your measurements, my good man, have been taken.
He helps John off the cross.
Exit Sam and John.
Simon stays behind to tell the audience:
I have blisters and splinters and all for the glory of God. My father’s father was a carpenter. My father’s father’s father was a carpenter. We all have blisters and splinters in our fingers and all for the glory of God.
SCENE 2: A traveling friar.
Pontius, to the audience.
All my life I’ve wanted to play Christ...if only, I thought, they put me on a cross, I would feel holy, I would walk upright. And every year my cousin plays the Savior.
I want to kill my cousin. No--I want--when he is on the cross--and if I left him on just the slightest bit too long--and if the pretend nails were real...then they would nail me to the cross, and I would follow him to glory.
My cousin is a good man--ah, the tingling in my head again--something pulling--like a string at the top—a puppet--up down up down, string.
Today the sky turned red, the sky turned red, and we should kneel down and take notice but everyone’s too busy eating their bloody porridge!
On the other side of the stage, a Visitng Friar appears.
He is in disguise.
VISITING FRIAR: (addressing audience)
Today I walked far and far until I noticed that the shrubbery had changed and I was out of my province. And then--the sky turned red! At two in the afternoon! If shivers didn’t crawl up and down my spine like worms...
PONTIUS: (to audience)
My cousin is nothing but a bastard!
VISITING FRIAR: (to audience)
I will conceal myself behind a tree and observe this young man.
PONTIUS: (to audience)
He is a thorn in my side that must be plucked out. If I were a woman I could bake this malice into my bread, but as it is, I am a man and I must make this malice a knife. I will store my acorns of malice, I will guard them and I will harvest them in the spring.
(Pontius notices the Friar and changes his face)
Hello, traveler! What brings you to our little town? New faces are seldom seen here.
I come from a neighboring village but am tired and require water. Are you not the famed village that plays the Passion, scattering tales of its holiness across the land?
We are that very village, sir.
Not many towns dare in these dark days to play the Passion in England.
Aye. This town is slow to change.
Are you then the same town famed for a most beautiful and graceful young man who plays the part of Christ?
He is, in point of fact--my cousin.
Your family must be proud of such a relation.
My family is very proud of my cousin, I’m sure.
(A grimace to the audience. A smile to the Friar.)
And you? What do you play?
Pontius Pilate—and Satan.
Ah! To be sure!
Another grimace to the audience.
A smile to the Friar.
Would you like to take a drink of water at my home?
I would be most grateful. Perhaps I can meet the famed cousin of yours.
By all means!
(to the audience)
Between gritted teeth, between bloody gritted teeth!
SCENE 3: John the Fisherman’s kitchen. Day.
You’re just as comely and upright as they say.
With the same dimple in the chin.
You must be hungry. Can I make you some eggs, sir?
I would be honored to eat an egg made by your holy hands.
(checking the door, in low tones)
Young man, can I trust you’re a Catholic?
We are all Catholic in our private hearts though we have no public house of worship left. The stage is our house of worship.
The Visiting Friar takes off his disguise, revealing a priest’s cowl.
John kneels down and kisses the hand of the Friar.
God save you! Is it not dangerous for you to stay here? Are they not catching priests and putting them into prison?
Aye. We’re hidden in closets and priest-holes all over England.
And are you now in need of a hiding place?
Aye. But I would not dream of putting you in danger.
Stay with us.
I know now why they tell tales of your Christ. You have His spirit.
You really mustn’t believe such things, good Friar. Perhaps you’d like to come to our rehearsal today. You could see the scaffolds that lift men up, the machinery that brings men down. You'll see that I’m no better than the tattered costume that I wear.
I would be honored to see the famed village rehearse.
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