Passion play

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Passion play,

genre of the miracle playmiracle play
or mystery play,
form of medieval drama that came from dramatization of the liturgy of the Roman Catholic Church. It developed from the 10th to the 16th cent., reaching its height in the 15th cent.
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 that has survived from the Middle Ages into modern times. Its subject is the suffering, death, and resurrection of Jesus. Passion plays were first given in Latin. By the 13th cent. they included German verses, and 200 years later the entire play was performed in German. Toward the end of the 15th cent. passion plays had become far more secular in content, having been degraded, in a religious sense, through their contact with carnival plays. Their production was forbidden by ecclesiastical authorities and only a few were revived after the Counter Reformation. The chief survival among the passion plays is the one performed at Oberammergau in the Bavarian Alps. This entirely amateur performance has been given every 10 years (last in 1990, originally in 1634, with only three interruptions caused by war) in fulfillment, it is said, of a vow that was made during a plague. Passion plays have been revived in a few cities in W Europe.


See S. Sticca, Latin Passion Play (1970).

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Passion Play

In the late Middle Ages many western European towns and cities hosted Passion plays on Good Friday. These plays told the story of Jesus' Passion, that is, the events that took place during the last days of Jesus'life. Passion plays began to die out in the sixteenth century. The custom survives, however, in Latin America, where it was introduced by the Spanish. It has also endured in certain regions of Germany. The inhabitants of the Bavarian town of Oberammergau produce a famous, old Passion play every ten years. Folk dramas of this kind can be found in a few other German towns as well as in a handful of Austrian and Swiss villages. Several dozen American towns have also adopted this old European custom. Furthermore, many American churches sponsor Easter pageants in which children act out the story of Jesus'death, resurrection, and ascension. These pageants may be thought of as modern American versions of the medieval European Passion play.

Mystery Plays

Passion plays belong to a category of folk drama known as mystery plays. Mystery plays evolved out of certain dramatic elements of medieval church services. In the Middle Ages western European clergy began to teach the Christian religion by dramatizing scenes from Bible stories during religious services. They offered these dramatizations on feast days, acting out certain aspects of the story behind the holiday. Eventually these biblical skits became known as "mystery plays," since they concerned the mysterious working of God on earth. These dramatizations began in churches with clergy members acting out all the roles. The playlets proved popular and soon townspeople and wandering actors started to produce the dramas themselves. They began to stage the new plays in the town square and thus attracted larger and more boisterous crowds. Moreover they translated the stories from Latin, the language of the Church, to local languages, and lengthened the dramas by adding new roles and dialogue. Much of this added material was coarse and humorous. Church officials found the new dramas irreverent and eventually condemned them. Nevertheless, the plays flourished until about the sixteenth century.

Passion Plays

The earliest known Passion play, written in Latin by the Benedictine monks of Monte Cassino, Italy, dates back to the twelfth century. The first Passion plays written in vernacular languages appear about two hundred years later in Germany and France. These fourteenth-century plays may have been inspired by the establishment of the feast of Corpus Christi, officially embraced by the Roman Catholic Church in the thirteenth century but not widely celebrated until the fourteenth century. This holiday, which falls on the Thursday after Trinity Sunday, or the second Thursday after Pentecost, honors the Last Supper and the gift of the Eucharist (for more on the Last Supper, see Maundy Thursday). The Last Supper plays a crucial role in the Passion, so people began to celebrate the festival by dramatizing elements of the Passion story. These Passion plays soon migrated to Good Friday, the day on which Christian churches commemorate Jesus' crucifixion (for more on crucifixion, see Cross).

Even before this development, however, western European Christians had incorporated dramatic elements into their Good Friday celebrations. These included a long, melodious lament, called the planc- tus, describing the sorrow of the Virgin Mary as she stood at the foot of her son's cross (see also Mary, Blessed Virgin). By the twelfth century priests chanted the planctus before the cross at Good Friday religious services. Moreover, Christ's reproaches to his persecutors as he hung on the cross, called the improperia, was set to music and sung by choirs. In the thirteenth century other incidents from the Passion story, including Jesus' trial, his journey to the site of the Crucifixion, and his slow death on the cross were added to these sung and chanted dramas. The addition of these dramatic elements to Good Friday church services also contributed to the birth of the Good Friday Passion play. Good Friday Passion plays reached the height of their popularity during the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries. They began to die out in the sixteenth century, along with other kinds of mystery plays. Researchers often attribute this decline to the effect of the Reformation, a sixteenth-century religious reform movement which eventually wielded great influence over the religious beliefs and behaviors of western Europeans.

Oberammergau's Passion Play

Remarkably, in Oberammergau, Germany, the custom of staging a Passion play on Good Friday has survived until present times. The Oberammergau tradition dates back to the time of the Thirty Years' War in the early seventeenth century. In the year 1632 Swedish troops destroyed much of the Bavarian countryside. An even more frightening devastation followed in their wake: an outbreak of an incurable and often-fatal disease known as the plague. As this menace reached nearer and nearer the mountain village of Oberammergau, the town council swore a solemn oath to God. They pledged that the town's citizens and their descendents would stage an elaborate Passion play once every ten years if the town were spared from the plague. Tradition has it that not one soul was lost to the deadly disease in Oberammergau after the pledge was made.

The town's citizens have lived up to the vow made by their ancestors. The first play was staged in 1634. In 1680 the town's citizens began to present the plays in years divisible by ten. In the past 375 years they have only failed to present two of the scheduled plays. In 1870 the Franco-Prussian War interrupted their plans to stage the drama and in 1940 another war, World War II, again prevented them from carrying out this ancestral duty. They postponed the 1920 play until 1922 due to severe economic conditions in Germany. In 1934 they produced a special play to commemorate the three-hundredth anniversary of their forebears' deliverance from the plague. Germany's recently appointed chancellor, Adolf Hitler, attended this performance of the play. Publicity posters for that year downplayed the drama's religious message and instead pitched it as a folk play about the Fatherland, or the "blessed powers of the earth," an interpretation more in keeping with the ideology of Hitler's Nazi political party.

In recent years the Oberammergau play has undergone several rewrites aimed at paring away various anti-Jewish elements contained in the traditional texts. The old script blamed the Jewish people for Jesus' death (see also Judas). The new script encourages the audience to examine their own shortcomings instead of placing blame on others (see also Sin). For example, the opening lines of the play include the following statement by the narrator: "Let no one try to find blame in others; let each of us recognize his own guilt in these events." Moreover, nowadays Jesus' disciples are shown dressed in Jewish clothing, instead of classical Roman garb, and the crowd that condemns Jesus before Pontius Pilate is shown to be religiously and ethnically mixed rather than composed completely of Jews.

Today's Passion play requires the participation of about half the town's 4,000 inhabitants. In the year 2000 about half a million visitors from around the world attended the town's Passion play, which ran from May till October. Each performance begins at 9:30 in the morning and ends after 6:00 p.m. Mercifully, the producers schedule a threehour lunch break about halfway through the performance.

Mexico City's Passion Play

Mexico City's Passion play lasts several days. It covers an area of four kilometers (about two and one-half miles), features several thousand participants, and draws crowds of three to four million people. The citizens of eight Mexico City neighborhoods spend months preparing the props, sets, wardrobe, makeup, and street decorations, as well as preparing to manage the large numbers of people who attend the event. The Passion play takes place in a district of Mexico City known as Iztapalapa. Mexican officials boast that this event may be considered the largest pageant of popular culture in the world.

The Iztapalapa Passion play began in 1833, when residents of Iztapalapa decided to reenact the Passion in order to express their gratitude to Jesus for stopping a cholera epidemic. Although the event has grown over the years, a number of families have maintained the right to certain roles and functions in the event, and some of them even have old documents assigning their ancestors to the same roles. An organizing committee, however, elects the individuals who fill the important roles of Jesus, the Blessed Virgin Mary, and the twelve disciples. In order to qualify for the role of Jesus a man must be widely recognized as pure and devout, possess a good reputation, live locally, and have parents born in Iztapalapa. He must also be willing to acquire the strength and endurance necessary to carry a 100-kilogram (about 45 pounds) cross for four kilometers. Moreover, when approached by members of the crowd desiring healings or miracles, he must respond kindly. Training for this formidable task begins months in advance.

Although based loosely on the story told in the Bible, the Iztapalapa Passion play also includes legendary events and characters. The players reenact the Last Supper and Jesus' betrayal on Maundy Thursday. On Good Friday, Christ carries his cross to the scene of the crucifixion. He is followed by thousands of young men carrying out vows to complete an act of penance during this procession (for more on pen- ance, see Repentance). These men, called Nazarenes, follow behind Christ in bare feet, carrying their own crosses and wearing crowns of thorns (see also Penitentes). Young women may walk in the procession, too, as a means of expressing their piety. The drama concludes with Jesus' crucifixion, while Judas hangs himself from a nearby tree. In 1999, officials estimate that about 4,600 people participated in the staging of the Passion play, more than 2,500 Nazarenes followed Christ to the site of the crucifixion, and three million people watched some or all of the spectacle.

Further Reading

Byrne, Lavinia. "Confronting the Truth Over Coffee with Christ." Financial Times (June 17-18, 2000): 9. Conte, Jeanne. "Passion 2000: Oberammergau's Easter Play." The World and I 15, 4 (April 2000): 175. "Drama, Christian." In E. A. Livingstone, ed. The Oxford Dictionary of the Christian Church. Third edition. Oxford, England: Oxford University Press, 1997. Dunn, E. C. "Passion Play." In New Catholic Encyclopedia. Volume 10. New York: McGraw-Hill, 1967. Hogan, Julie. Treasury of Easter Celebrations. Nashville, TN: Ideals Publications, 1999. Monti, James. The Week of Salvation. Huntington, IN: Our Sunday Visitor Publications, 1993. "Mystery Play." In Phyllis Hartnoll, ed. The Oxford Companion to the Theatre. Fourth edition. Oxford, England: Oxford University Press, 1983. "Oberammergau." In E. A. Livingstone, ed. The Oxford Dictionary of the Chris- tian Church. Third edition. Oxford, England: Oxford University Press, 1997. "Passion Play." In Phyllis Hartnoll, ed. The Oxford Companion to the Theatre. Fourth edition. Oxford, England: Oxford University Press, 1983. Russ, Jennifer M. German Festivals and Customs. London, England: Oswald Wolff, 1982. Salzer, Anselm. "Passion Plays." In Charles G. Herbermann et al., eds. The Catholic Encyclopedia. New York: Appleton, 1913. Available online at:

Web Sites

See also "Semana Santa in Mexico," an article by May Herz, available from Inside Mexico, a company dedicated to producing quality educational materials on Mexican culture: See also the Oberammergau Passion play's web site at:
Encyclopedia of Easter, Carnival, and Lent, 1st ed. © Omnigraphics, Inc. 2002

Passion Play

dramatic presentation of Christ’s Passion, notably the production at Oberammergau. [Medieval Drama: Benét, 763]
Allusions—Cultural, Literary, Biblical, and Historical: A Thematic Dictionary. Copyright 2008 The Gale Group, Inc. All rights reserved.

Passion play

a play depicting the Passion of Christ
Collins Discovery Encyclopedia, 1st edition © HarperCollins Publishers 2005
References in periodicals archive ?
'This is my last (passion play performance),' he said.
Drama Kirk's Liz Blackman, who produces and directs the play, said:"Passion plays are a tradition dating back hundreds of years and were historically used as a way to tell the Easter story to whole towns and villages, in a time when many people couldn't read.
Though not professional actors, each person performing in the Passion Play in Iztapalapa has a great responsibility to the community All the approximately 7,000 people involved, from the smallest part to the role of Jesus, get ready physically and mentally.
Five Good Fridays later though and the hardworking town with its rooftops hemmed in between the sea and its three brooding hills could do with another dose of the magic that Passion Play delivered.
Groups in the Silksworth and Doxford area decorated the fourteen shopping trolleys as coal trucks to take part in the passion play The Great Community Passion, organised by the Church of England parishes of Silksworth and Doxford in the Diocese of Durham.
e Houghton-Le-Spring Passion Play will be performed in the Houghton Hillside Cemetery at noon on Good Friday April 3.
The first Aberdeen Passion Play was staged two years ago when Iain grew a beard and long hair to take on the part of the disciple Peter.
AS ANY serious drama student will know from his or her research, the English Passion Play was an intrinsic part of the development of early English theatre.
Since 2005 Kent Butler has held a part in the Great Passion Play in Eureka Springs.
PONTEFRACT: 6.50 Fenwick Gale, 7.20 Passion Play, 7.50 ALL OR NOTHIN (NAP), 8.20 Muntasir, 8.50 Cadmium Loch, 9.20 Bilash.
The traditional Passion Play involved children from North Ormesby Primary School.