Pen American award; The Fourth Freedom Forum Playwriting Award from The Kennedy Center
This intimate epic occurs at the timely intersection of politics and religion, centered on a community of players rehearsing their annual staging of the Easter Passion in three different eras: 1575 Northern England, just before Queen Elizabeth outlaws the ritual; 1934 Oberammergau, Bavaria, as Hitler is rising to power; and Spearfish, South Dakota, from the time of Vietnam through Reagan’s presidency. In each period, the players grapple with the transformative nature of art, and politics are never far in the background.
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.