The Passion Play or Easter pageant is a dramatic presentation depicting the Passion of Jesus Christ: his trial, suffering and death. It is a traditional part of Lent in several Christian denominations, particularly in Catholic tradition.
Origin and history
The Easter play precedent
The development of the Passion Play was about the same as that of the Easter Drama. 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, the Passion Play made its appearance, first in Latin, then in vernacular languages; contents and forms were adapted more and more to audience expectations, until, in the fifteenth century, the popular religious plays had developed. 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.
Addition of music and characters
Yet even this oldest of the Passion Plays already shows a tendency to break away from the ritual and to adopt a more dramatic form. This evolution is shown 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. From these humble beginnings, the Passion Play developed very rapidly, since in the fourteenth century it was at a stage of development that 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 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 (1350–1381), 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. Historian J. E. Wackernell, with the aid of the plays that have reached us, has reconstructed this period. In Tyrol the Passion Plays received elaborate cultivation; at Bolzano they were presented with great splendour and, in 1514, lasted no less than 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 the background of old-time middle east. 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
School dramas now came into vogue in Catholic and Protestant schools, and frequently enough became the battle-ground of religious controversies. When, in the 17th century the 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.
Public interest in the Passion Play developed in the last decades of the 19th century, and the statistician Karl Pearson wrote a book about them.
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
In Australia, several major productions of The Passion are staged annually during 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.
- The Moogerah Passion Play, established in 1993, is produced annually, at Easter time, in Queensland. It is staged "realistically" at The Lake Theatre, a large, purpose built, lakeside theatre designed specifically for the Moogerah Passion Play. Contemporary versions of the play endeavour to use different Bibles to convey messages to the audience every year.
- In New South Wales, at Turramurra, The Turramurra Passion is a contemporary, character-driven interpretation, using multimedia elements and an original score.
- In the Riverstage botanical gardens, in Brisbane, Queensland, a new group of enthusiastic people staged a version of the Passion Play, with an original score and script written by Roy Pires, that was staged for the first time in 2007. It "was very successful, touching the lives of many people".
The chief survivor of former times is the Oberammergau Passion Play, first performed in the Bavarian village of Oberammergau in 1634 and now performed every 10 years. The next Oberammergau Passion Play was to take place in 2020 but was delayed to 2022 amid COVID-19 concerns.
In 2010, about half the inhabitants of Oberammergau took part in the once-a-decade Passion Play; over 2,000 villagers brought the story of Jesus of Nazareth to life for audiences that flocked in from around the world. In accordance with tradition, the play started with Jesus entering Jerusalem, continued with his death on the cross, and finished with the Resurrection.
2010 saw a new production directed by Christian Stückl, director at Munich's noted Volkstheater. He was supported by the artistic team that, along with him, staged the 2000 Passion Play: deputy director and dramatic adviser Otto Huber, set and costume designer Stefan Hageneier, music director Marxus Zwink, and conductor Michael Bocklet. All four of these collaborators are from Oberammergau. The play started at 14.30 and included a three-hour interval, ending at 22.30. Performances took place between mid-May and early October 2010.
The Passion of Christ is performed in Sordevolo (Piedmont) every five years since 1816, from June to September, by all the inhabitants of the village in an open-air amphitheatre 4.000 squared meters wide, of 2.400 seats under cover. In front of the audience is rebuilt a corner of Jerusalem. Each actor involved (about 500 people) is a volunteer, as well as who works "behind the scenes"(about 300 people) for scenography, costumes, script, horses. It is one of the greatest shows about the Passion of Christ in Italy, sacred in the topic, popular in its realization. About 40 shows are performed for each season. The next edition was planned for 2020, but was postponed to summer 2021 due to the Coronavirus pandemic (from 12 June to 26 September).
The Passion of the Christ is performed every year during Easter, in a purpose-built 100,000-square-metre (1,100,000 sq ft) 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 nine separate stages within the stone walls of the New Jerusalem city-theatre.
- 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. Performers are a mix of professionals and volunteers from across Alberta and Canada, with nearly 300 actors and musicians annually.
- In Hamilton, Ontario, Cardinal Newman Catholic Secondary School puts on a Passion Play annually for all the students who attend it.
- In Kingston, Ontario, a full-scale Passion Play production has been traditionally performed for decades at the Kingston Gospel Temple, a Pentecostal worship center. The production features local amateur and professional talent.
- In Manitoba, located in the La Riviere Valley at Oak Valley's Outdoor theatre, located on the edge of the Pembina Valley. The cast and crew are volunteers from all over southern Manitoba. Rehearsals usually start in April or early May and are ready for mid-July performances.
- In Thornhill, Ontario, in what has become an annual tradition at St. Joseph the Worker Parish, over 200 parish youth and young adults annually come together to present the LIfe and Passion of Christ, the decisive event in history that gave victory to hope, love, light, and life. Every year, the StJW Parish Passion Play increases in quality and number as the bar continues to be raised. Funds raised from the Passion Play go to subsidize the StJW Youth's annual trip to the Steubenville Youth Conference.
- In Queensway Cathedral (Toronto, Ontario) a Passion Play takes place during the Easter Season. For more than 20 years, the Church on the Queensway (formally Queensway Cathedral) has presented different versions of the Passion Play in their 3200-seat venue, using hundreds of volunteers, live animals, singers and dancers. The play has become a favorite, and most shows experience capacity crowds. This presentation is known for its powerful portrayal of the life of Christ, dramatic resurrection, and ascension scenes.
- There is also a well-known Passion Play in Vaughan, Ontario, organized by St. Peters Parish and performed at Holy Cross Catholic Academy.
Kőhegy (Stone Mountain) Chapel at Budaörs was built by Franz Wendler to whom Virgin Mary had appeared in a dream. He supposedly dreamt of a dog rose on Stone Mountain, every flower of which bore the face of Mary. On the petals he read: "I am the Immaculate Conception". In spring 1855, Wendler started construction. On 15 October 1855, the chapel was consecrated to Mary's Immaculate Conception. Franz Wendler lived in a cave next to the chapel from 1878 until his death. The chapel is one of the most important pilgrimage places for Germans of Hungary in the area of Buda. Every three years, Budaörs’ inhabitants stage a passion play with Hungarian and German text.
The island nation of Malta features many Passion Plays, put on by provincial club, societies, and theatres in various localities. Each village and town often hosts several plays, and there is some competition among the troupes to put on the most moving or beautiful display. These are often combined with processions and wirjiet ("exhibitions") that feature models and renditions of the Passion.
Since 2007, a Passion Play entitled Il-Mixja, with Jesus being played by popular Maltese actor Alan Fenech and featuring some of the most highly acclaimed actors in Malta, has become one of the highlights of the genre on the island with the audience experiencing the passion of Jesus Christ as if they were present on the streets of Jerusalem during those historical two days. The play is held outdoors and has so far been held four times in the streets of Rabat, once at Ħaġar Qim temples and four times (2013–2016) for charity on the grounds surrounding Mount Carmel Hospital. In 2017 the event was held at the presidential Verdala palace in aid of the Malta Community Chest Fund. In 2018 it was held both at Verdala Palace and on the grounds surrounding Mount Carmel Hospital whereas in 2019 the production once again changed location to the Romeo Gardens in Santa Venera with once again the Malta Community Chest Fund Foundation and the service users of Mount Carmel Hospital being the beneficiaries of this charity event.
- De Passiespelen is a re-enactment of the Passion of the Christ taking place every year that is divisible by 5, e.g., in 2005 and 2010. It is performed in the open air in Openluchttheater De Doolhof, in Tegelen. It originated in 1931 and has become an internationally acclaimed event drawing visitors from all over the world.
- Since 2011, Nederland 3 has broadcast The Passion, a live television musical that features a rendition of the story set in the present day, accompanied by popular music. Serving as a Dutch adaptation of BBC Three's special, Manchester Passion (2006), it has since been held annually in different cities, with the 2015 edition seen by approximately 3.57 million viewers. The concept has also been sold as a television format to other countries, such as Belgium and the United States.
The predominantly Catholic Philippines has Passion Plays called Senákulo, named after the Upper room, every Semana Santa (Holy Week). Theatre companies and community groups perform different versions of the Senákulo, using their own scripts that present the dialogue in either poetic or prosaic form. These scripts are decades or even centuries-old, and draw from both the Bible and folk tradition.
Costumes and scenery in traditional Senákulo conform to Hispanic iconography instead of actual historical realism, which is more common with recent productions (particularly by professional companies). Some productions use ropes to hold actors on crosses while others use actual nails.
One of the more popular Senákulo is Ang Pagtaltal in Jordan, Guimaras, which began in 1975 and draws some 150,000 visitors annually. Some people perform crucifixions outside of Passion Plays to fulfill a panatà (vow for a request or prayer granted), such as the famous penitents in Barangay San Pedro Cutud, San Fernando, Pampanga.
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.
- Since 1998, there has been a yearly Passion Play in Poznan, performed on Palm Sunday in open air of Cytadela City Park. Now it is the biggest performance of this kind in Europe. In 2009, 100,000 pilgrims were expected to attend.
In the 17th and 18th century, Passion Plays were organised in the towns of the Slovene Lands, like Kranj, Ljubljana, and Novo Mesto. Their language was German, Slovene, or both. They were all based on the tradition of the Ljubljana Passion Play, which was organised by Capuchins and first performed from ca. 1608 until ca. 1613. The most distinguished of them has been the Škofja Loka Passion Play. It was written by Father Romuald in 1715, with modifications until 1727, on the basis of an older tradition. It is the oldest preserved play in Slovene as well as the oldest preserved director's book in Europe and the only one extant from the Baroque period. The Škofja Loka Passion Play was performed each year until 1767. The procession was revived in 1999, and reprised in 2000 and 2009, with further reprisals planned for 2015 and 2021. The play's reprisals are the largest open-air theatre production in Slovenia.
In Catalonia, it is common for villages to present different Passion Plays every Easter, like the ones in Esparreguera, Olesa de Montserrat, Ulldecona or Cervera, first documented in 1538. Olesa's 1996 production surpassed the world record for the most people acting on stage at the same time, with 726 persons. Balmaseda, in the Spanish Basque Country, holds the leading Passion Play in the region.
The earliest Passion Plays in Sri Lanka, at Vanny in Mannar, Pesalai, Pamanugama, Mutuwal, Pallansena, Kalamulla, Duwa and Pitipana in Negombo, used life-size statues instead of living actors. Influenced by the Oberammergau Passion Play, K. Lawrence Perera, began the practice of using living actors in the Borelassa Passion Play. Women later began to take part in the play. However, for a period of time after 1939, the Archbishop of Colombo banned performances because of his disapproval of the women's participation. In the late 20th and early 21st centuries, there are many Passion Play enactments in Sri Lanka:
- Duwa Passion Play, near Negombo (1988)
- The Yagaya Passion Play at Kandawala, Katana (1990/92)
- Aho mage Senageni and Aho mage senageni at Halpe, Katana (1990s)
- Kurusiya Matha Miyadunemi, a modern Passion Play enacted in the villages of Katuwapitiya and Bolawalana in Negombo (1999, 2000, 2001)
- Thambakande Paskuwa at St. Bruno's Church in Negombo with a large number of celebrities as actors (2012)
- Tharakayano, the first ballet style Passion Play, enacted in Negombo (2012).
- Maha Premaya, the Easter passion play, was enacted on 24 March 2018 at Dungalpitiya, Don Bosco auditorium in Negombo. Over 80 actors participated. Produced by Rev. Fr. Manjula Priyantha (SDB), directed by George Dinesh Manthrige.
- Origin and history of the Passion Play in the United Kingdom
Passion Plays are biblical dramas that portray the Easter story. They depict the events of Jesus Christ's trial, death and resurrection and may also extend to the events of his life, works and miracles. Today they are performed at Easter and often take place in public spaces such as city centres and town squares as free, community-led performances.
Popular biblical dramas of the Middle Ages - including liturgical drama, Passion Plays and the Corpus Christi cycles or Mystery Play - are the originators of modern Passion Plays. The Mystery Plays were epic play cycles were large-scale productions financed and produced by medieval guilds for the glory of God and the honour of their city. The most well-known took place in York, Coventry and Chester.
This dramatic heritage is acknowledged by modern Passion Plays. The similarities between these community-led, Bible focussed plays from the Middle Ages and contemporary Mystery Plays and Passion Plays are recognised by artists involved in the plays, journalists and academic.
- The Aberdeen Passion is staged biennially in the North East of Scotland. First performed in 2012, this Passion Play recreates 1st-century Jerusalem in modern Aberdeen.
- The town of Abingdon Passion Play was a free, open-air production performed in 2013. This was the result of a community enterprise combining drama, music and dance which took place in different locations within Abingdon's historic Abbey Gardens.
- Members of Churches Together in Alresford, Hampshire produced a Broad Street adaptation from Palm Sunday to Good Friday through song, dance, mime and drama for the second time in ten years in 2014. Costumes were chosen reflecting what Jesus might have worn had he lived in the modern age; he wore jeans and those arresting him wore combat fatigues.
- Belper Passion Play took place in 2017 and 2018 with 120 performers. The Passion Play (directed by Jannice Richthof and written by George Gunby) included music from the 'This Man' Oratorio by local composer Anne De Waal and this was supplemented by the CTIB Flash Mob on the streets.
- Bewdley Passion Play took place in 2013 and was a promenade through the town in Worcestershire. Its central River Severn Bridge was closed for over an hour and the cast of volunteer and professional actors drew hundreds of spectators.
- Birmingham 1
- The Old Joint Stock Theatre Company based in Birmingham presented a modern retelling of the Passion Play in association with Birmingham Cathedral during Easter 2014.
- Birmingham 2
- In 2019 the Birmingham Passion Play was performed by a diverse team of a hundred community actors, musicians and stewards alongside Saltmine Theatre Company. This unique contemporary re-telling of the Easter story processed from Birmingham Bullring, along New Street to Victoria Square and finished inside St Philip’s Cathedral, LIVE for all to see.
- Volunteers from local communities in Brighton dramatise the days leading up to Jesus' arrest, death and resurrection from a script faithful to original scripture. Local community volunteers are mixture of backgrounds, denominations and nationalities. This Passion Play is part of the broader Easter celebrations of Soul by the Sea and has drawn crowds in the thousands since 2011.
- In 2019 the Carlisle Passion Play was performed by a cast of 47 actors, Crew of 10, plus 55 singers and musicians from CTC Musicians, a professional Soloist, the Salvation Army Band and Songsters, and the Carlisle Taize Choir rehearsed over a period of weeks in local Churches and the historical Tithe Barn. The play was a modern, contemporary interpretation performed using the whole of the City Centre historical Town Hall Square and a specially constructed stage.
- The town of Cowbridge in the Vale of Glamorgan presented a Passion Play on Good Friday 22 April 2011 at Holy Cross Church with the cast drawn from each of the denominations of churches there.
- A Passion Play takes place every ten years in the town in West Wiltshire; events from Christ's arrest to his crucifixion are depicted in a Jerusalem style promenade performance.
- Since 2005, a Passion Play has been staged in Princes Street Gardens over the Easter weekend. Crowds of up to 2,000 people come to watch the community theatre productions portraying the events of the Easter story. The 2014 production was written by Rob Drummond with obvious reference to modern-day Scotland without taking political sides; the diverging behaviours and reactions of the split Jewish community in Jerusalem played served to point to the dangers of people letting the 2014 independence referendum public debate break down any of their normal relationships.
- Great North Passion
- The Great North Passion drew a crowd of thousands and was televised on BBC One in a live one-hour event on Good Friday 2014. The twelve stations of the cross were the focus of twelve dramatic, artistic and musical interpretations from different local communities in Northumberland, Middlesbrough, North and South Tyneside and Gateshead.
- The town performed its first Passion Play in 2015 as a collective effort by its church congregations and their leaders in worship.
- Isle of Man
- The Manx Passion was a promenade performance that took place in the Spring of 2014, often outdoors at scenic sites on the isle. Its Acts and Scenes selected important teachings and messages in the Bible from Creation to the Passion. It was adapted from the Mystery Plays of York, Chester and the Wakefield Cycles by Christopher Denys.
- “Resurrection!” was performed in Hamilton town centre at 2:00 pm on Saturday, 31 March and an excerpt was performed in Strathclyde Country Park on Saturday, 14 April at 2:00 pm by Passion Play Lanarkshire. The play was adapted from an Edinburgh Easter Play script by Kamala Jane Santos. Other Passion Plays have been performed between 2017 and 2020.
- 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 in a different position in the streets and squares of the town centre. The 2008 performance included bespoke music by local composer Liam Dunachie.
- Manchester (2006)
- Manchester (2017)
- The people of Greater Manchester came together to stage a performance of Christ's crucifixion and resurrection. It was filmed by BBC Songs of Praise and was the subject of a documentary available online.
- The town of Newark-on-Trent hosted the Newark Passion written by James Pacey performed in 2011 in the Church of St. Mary Magdalene and in 2012 performed in nearby Southwell Minster.
- Liverpool Cathedral presents a Passion Play each year to dramatise the events of Holy Week. The 2014 production was written by Mark Lovelady and Dan Bishop hand included an extra act showing Jesus' resurrection.
- The Cowley Road Passion Play first took place in Oxford in 2012. Its 2014 production attracted national attention because it was cancelled at the last moment. City Council Licensing officials refused to let it proceed without a fully debated decision, having presumed the motive for notifying that authority regarding the 'Passion Play' would be that the play must, supported by its title, be a sex-related production necessitating full permission under the 2003 Act rather than the producers enquiring if the council would share the widespread view it fell within the meaning of "The provision of any entertainment or entertainment facilities for the purposes of, or for purposes incidental to, a religious meeting or service" following licensing deregulation by the Licensing Act 2003.
- The town of Poole stages the play viewed Through the Eyes of a Child every two years known as Poole Community Passion Play (PCPP). It has been performed since written in 2009. It is performed by a diverse inter-generational group of amateur and professional actors, actresses, singers and choreographed performers.
- Port Talbot
- The town of Port Talbot at BBC Wales studios hosted a Passion Play directed by award-winning actor Michael Sheen on 22–24 April 2011.
- The market town of Shrewsbury, in the heart of Shropshire staged its first Passion Play on Good Friday 2019 called The Shrewsbury Passion. What began many years ago as a silent 'walk of witness' through the town every Good Friday reached a culmination in 2019 when it was decided by the head of the Shrewsbury Street Pastors Steve Jones to create a short script which would dramatize the crucifixion of Christ's life. This was enthusiastically met by the town council. The Shrewsbury Passion brought together a cast of 14 locals and operated on a budget of only £1000. Many Christian denominations were involved in the production; Anglican, Catholic, Protestant, Evangelical and most notably the role of Jesus Christ played by an Orthodox Christian (actor Ryan Clement Kouroukis). The Shrewsbury Passion included the traditional 'walk of witness' (starting from St. Mary's church and ending in front of the Old Market Hall). The new inaugural production in 2019 was seen by approximately 600 people and lasted just over an hour. A new theatre company was formed soon afterwards to further promote and tell the Gospel stories through theatre. The Shrewsbury Mystery Plays is now a registered charity, and plans to perform the Passion play, a Christmas play and others on a regular year-to-year basis. The 2020 Shrewsbury Passion was to involve an expanded script, larger cast and larger budget but was cancelled due to the Covid-19 government shutdown.
- The city of Southampton hosted a modern largely musical-genre version, The Southampton Passion, on Good Friday, 22 April 2011. Another performance, One Man’s Passion, was performed in 2019 with 7 different characters, each with their own voice/accent, as well as the main ‘storyteller’. This was recorded for a radio program and broadcast on Unity Radio on Easter morning.
- South Woodham Ferrers
- The town in Essex performed its first Passion Play 2009 'to speak to all people of all times'; the characters variously wore contemporary clothes or traditional costumes and the actor playing Jesus arrived in the play on a Harley Davidson motorcycle. Its script is based on original accounts in the Bible, using modern language and realistic performances.
- Tonbridge Passion Play takes place in the grounds of Tonbridge Castle and Rochester Prison over the Easter Weekend since 2013.
- Trafalgar Square
- Trafalgar Square hosts The Passion of Christ play twice on Good Friday afternoon, drawing up to 20,000 spectators and having a large cast with colourful costumes, horses and a donkey. The Wintershall Players' performance from Surrey is supported by the Mayor of London and complements the one-week running The Nativity and The Life of Christ plays in June and December in Wintershall, Bramley, Surrey supported by the Diocese of Guildford, the Roman Catholic Diocese covering Surrey and Sussex (Arundel & Brighton) and ticket sales of the latter two plays.
- Christ's Passion for Wirral (2017) was a live, contemporary retelling of the Greatest Story Ever Told and a weekend of activity across the whole of the Wirral. It was a chance for people across Wirral, Merseyside, Cheshire and beyond to engage with the real-life events of the first Easter. The four-day Easter event on the Wirral was made into a radio documentary by Flame Christian Radio with interviews and sounds from the live events. The line-up of events on Easter Sunday took place at Birkenhead Park took place in front of the Jackson Memorial opposite the grand entrance and past the visitors' centre.
- Woodstock Passion Play in 2014 saw a promenade performance in the town square and the Oxfordshire Museum Gardens; a local community production with a cast of over 70 people and hundreds of spectators in the crowd.
- In Eureka Springs, Arkansas, The Great Passion Play is regularly performed from May through October, by a cast of 170 actors and dozens of live animals. Since its first performance in 1968, The Great Passion Play in Eureka Springs has been seen by over 7.7 million people, which makes it the largest-attended outdoor drama in America, according to the Institute of Outdoor Theatre of the University of East Carolina at Greenville, North Carolina. Also on the grounds of The Great Passion Play was the Christ of the Ozarks statue (the largest Christ statue in North America), the New Holy Land Tour, a full-scale re-creation of the Tabernacle in the Wilderness, a section of the Berlin Wall, and a Bible Museum with over 6,000 Bibles (including an original 1611 King James Bible, a leaf from the Gutenberg Bible, and the only Bible signed by all of the original founders of the Gideons). From time to time popular artists visit The Great Passion Play to perform in the 4,000-seat amphitheater where the play is performed.
- The Mesa Arizona Easter Pageant Jesus the Christ began in 1928 as a small sunrise Easter presentation. The pageant is now the "largest annual outdoor Easter pageant in the world." With a 450-member cast, the 65-minute pageant depicts the birth, life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ using song and dance.
- 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 has a cast of hundreds, live animals, and flying angels, among other unique aspects.
- Since 1993, Church of Good Shepard in Pittsburg, California has been doing their adaptation of the Passion Play. Tryouts are usually held in December and rehearsals are held in January through March, with 5 performances until Good Friday. This event has been held annually since its 1993 incarnation. The theme changes every year. Teens who try out are given scripts, props, costumes, and near the end of rehearsal timing, they do pictures and music. All that had to be done before their first performance, then they have 4 more performances after the first one, with the last one being on Good Friday.
- Since 1998, The Thorn has been performing during the Easter season in Colorado Springs. Often described as The Passion of the Christ meets Cirque du Soleil, this epic portrayal of Jesus' life and death features indoor pyrotechnics, acrobats, aerialists, and a cast and crew of nearly 1000. Beginning in 2011, The Thorn started holding an annual national tour and has performed for tens of thousands people in cities that include Charleston, Austin, Denver, Nashville and Seattle.
- For 38 years and counting, the St. Thomas Church of Southington, Connecticut has performed a Passion Play. Made up entirely of volunteers, rehearsals begin in January and conclude with a week's worth of shows prior to Easter, the last show being on Good Friday. Every year it is general admission, and there is no cost to view the play (however, donations are appreciated.)
- Florida's Passion Play is held in Wauchula, at the Cattleman's Arena, beginning Good Friday and continuing for the next several following weekends. It has a cast of over 200 people and 150 animals.
- Atlanta's Passion Play was produced by the First Baptist Church of Atlanta. It ran annually from 1977 to 2011.
- In Bloomington, Illinois, The American Passion Play has been portrayed annually since 1924 at the Bloomington Center for the Performing Arts and is one of the oldest continuously running passion Plays in North America. This play is unique in that it dramatizes Jesus' entire ministry, rather than only the events from Passion Week onward.
- In Zion, Illinois, the Zion Passion Play has been performed at Christ Community Church since 1935.
- Central Christian Church in Mount Vernon, Illinois portrayed "The Gospel of Christ" in an Easter Drama, using members of the church and church staff, choir, and children's groups. It was directed by drummer and church member Jimmy Bass. Although the play was a huge success, it has not been restaged, and is instead copied onto DVDs available at the church.
- Inverness, Illinois – Holy Family Parish teens put on a performance on Good Friday every year.
- Andrews University in Berrien Springs, Michigan has been performing an annual indoor and outdoor walk-through Passion Play since 2003. The play's outdoor scenes include a marketplace, and a Roman encampment.
- 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 in April 1989 and ended 22 April 2007.
- The New Melle Community Passion Play is presented by an all-volunteer ecumenical group in a "theater in the round" indoor setting. The story of the last days in the life of Christ is told using a script and music, based loosely on the cantata "Then Came Sunday", by Rodger Strader. It has grown in size and popularity over the past 32 years.
- The First United Methodist Church in Kosciusko, Mississippi has been performing their Passion Play for 30 years. It has been a mainstay in the community as well as the state. Members of the Church and community come together to share in fellowship and learn about the last days of Jesus Christ. This is an original script of the Passion, written by a former minister of the church.
- New Jersey
- The longest running Passion Play in the United States has been performed in North Hudson, New Jersey since 1915 and at the Park Performing Arts Center since 1931. In 1997, there was a minor controversy when an African-American actor was cast as Jesus.
- The Jesus Story, presented by Bible Baptist Church in Hasbrouck Heights, New Jersey, has been running for 20 years. First starting out as a small representation of the passion of Jesus, this production has developed into a full-time musical performance. Over the years, the play's format has changed focusing on the point of view of several different people including Mary the mother of Jesus, the Roman Soldiers, the Thieves on the Cross, and many others. The show is performed at Felician College in Lodi, New Jersey, and runs for approximately seven shows per year. Every year it is general admission, and there is no cost to view the play.
- In Cambridge, Ohio, the Living Word Outdoor Drama has been offered every summer since 1975.
- In Duncan Falls, Ohio, Cornerstone Full Gospel Church has put on the drama Worthy Is The Lamb, for over 30 years. The drama features a cast of over 150+, is free to the public, and is presented on Good Friday and Easter Sunday of each year.
- One of the U.S.'s longest-running Passion Plays is held at the Holy City of the Wichitas, located within the Wichita Mountains Wildlife Refuge in Oklahoma. The Holy City started as an Easter Passion Play in the Wichita Mountains in 1926. The impetus behind both the pageant and city was the Reverend Anthony Mark Wallock (b. 1890, in Austria). In 1926, he took his Sunday school class up a mountain, where a tableau of the Resurrection was presented. The popularity of this service led to its becoming an annual event. In 1927, the service became nonsectarian and was referred to by the Lawton Constitution as "Oklahoma's Oberammergau."
- Since 1990, the Muskogee First Assembly of God has performed a widely popular version of the passion beginning Good Friday and running through Easter under the direction of Debra Rose. The drama utilizes acting, music, dance and live animals by a volunteer cast and crew of 50.
- 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.
- In Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, Harrisburg Christian Performing Arts Center performs annual Passion Plays during the two weekends before Easter. They have been doing this since 1973, with 2013 marking their 40th annual Passion Play. The Passion Plays produced here are written by staff members, and music under public domain is added to give it a musical aspect. A new play is produced every year, apart from the 40th Passion Play The Keys, which was previously produced in the early 90s.
- South Dakota
- The Black Hills Passion Play was performed every summer for almost 70 years in Spearfish, South Dakota; this production was an American version of the Lünen Passion Play that was brought over in 1932 by immigrants, who claimed that it had been produced since 1242. The production was Americanized by seventh-generation Passion Player Josef Meier, who toured it around the country before bringing it to Spearfish in the 1930s; until its last performance on 31 August 2008, the show was produced under the auspices of Meier's daughter Johanna, a world-famous opera singer who had her debut in the play at the age of five weeks. During the winter months from 1953 through 1998, the same cast also performed the play in Lake Wales, Florida.
- East Tennessee has hosted many Passion Plays, including The Smoky Mountain Passion Play in Townsend, Tennessee from 1973 to 1992, The Great Passion Play at Pigeon Forge, Tennessee in 1988, and The Gatlinburg, Tennessee Musical Passion Play, which closed in 1996.
- The Passion is performed annually in downtown San Antonio, Texas, with a procession leading from Milam Park to San Fernando Cathedral.
- One of the most widely viewed modified 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 one million people have seen The Promise.
- The Play has also been performed in Hughes Springs, Texas as The Passion Play.
- The Mormon Miracle Pageant is performed every summer in Manti, Utah, by members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. It includes a visitation by Jesus Christ, shortly after His resurrection, to inhabitants of ancient America, as recorded in The Book of Mormon.
- The American version of the Oberammergau Passion Play was performed in Strasburg, Virginia, each summer from 1973 to 1986. This version was originally written by Val Balfour. Locals volunteered as extras, and church groups came from all over Virginia, Maryland, etc. to see the play. The same play toured all over the country in the fall and winter months.
- The Loudoun Passion Play is an outdoor re-enactment of the Easter story that has the audience walk between scenes to follow the story. It has been performed every year since 1986 on Palm Sunday weekend, in parks and other outdoor locations in and around Purcellville, Virginia.
- In Seattle, Washington, a large group of 8th graders performs the Passion Play at St. Joseph's School, on Palm Sunday and Good Friday. Their piece involves several songs from Jesus Christ Superstar, including "Heaven On Their Minds" and "Trials and Tribulations". This story also involves some minor parts, including the Women with Perfume, Mary Mother of Jesus, Peter denying knowing Jesus, and The Prayer in Gethsemane. This has been tradition at St. Joseph's for over 30 years.
- From 1990 to 2012, Lighthouse Christian Church's Impact Productions in Fond du Lac, Wisconsin performed The Promise during Holy Week, with breaks in 1995, 2006, and 2009. Beginning in 2000, the show was merged with another production by David T. Clydesdale, The Power of His Love, and the production was entitled The Promise: The Power of His Love.
In the town of Iztapalapa they do a passion play every Easter, and is according to the Via Crucis.
The Passion Play in motion pictures
Antisemitism in Passion plays
Many Passion Plays historically blamed the Jews for the death of Jesus in a polemical fashion, depicting a crowd of Jewish people condemning Jesus to crucifixion and a Jewish leader assuming eternal collective guilt for the crowd for the murder of Jesus, which, The Boston Globe explains, "for centuries prompted vicious attacks – or pogroms – on Europe's Jewish communities". Time magazine in its article, The Problem With Passion, explains that "such passages (are) highly subject to interpretation".
Although modern scholars interpret the "blood on our children" (Matthew 27:25) as "a specific group's oath of responsibility" some audiences have historically interpreted it as "an assumption of eternal, racial guilt". This last interpretation has often incited violence against Jews; according to the Anti-Defamation League, "Passion plays historically unleashed the torrents of hatred aimed at the Jews, who always were depicted as being in partnership with the devil and the reason for Jesus' death". The Christian Science Monitor, in its article, Capturing the Passion, explains that "historically, productions have reflected negative images of Jews and the long-time church teaching that the Jewish people were collectively responsible for Jesus' death. Violence against Jews as 'Christ-killers' often flared in their wake." Christianity Today in Why some Jews fear The Passion (of the Christ) observed that "Outbreaks of Christian antisemitism related to the Passion narrative have been...numerous and destructive."
Some of the oldest currently-running passion plays have had to reckon with past polemic portrayals of Jews in the work. The Oberammergau Passion Play is an especially notable example. First performed in 1634, the play continues to run today. In its original incarnation, the play relied upon the Antisemitic canard that Jews bore greater responsibility than any other group in the killing of Christ. It utilizes juxtaposition between pure Christians and wicked Jews in order to portray a greater battle between fundamental good versus evil. Following the events of World War II and the explicit support of Adolf Hitler for the play, several reforms and modifications were made.
While Oberammergau is perhaps the most famous example, this was not the only instance of Anti-Semitism or Anti-Semitic rhetoric in a Passion Play. The Towneley Mystery Plays, also known as the Wakefield Mystery Plays, also featured Anti-Semitic imagery, and ran from the late Middle Ages until 1578. It is believed to be one of the earliest and most explicit portrayals of Pontius Pilate as a king or a Jew (and sometimes as king of the Jews) in theater (although this tradition had already become well-established in paintings and other visual media by this point). Through these stylings, the Jews are further implicated in the killing of Christ as being both the judge and the jury. This consistent rendering was emulated throughout Christendom in the Middle Ages, and is perpetuated in subtler forms even today.
The Religion Newswriters Association observed that
"in Easter 2001, three incidents made national headlines and renewed [Jewish and Christian leaders'] fears. One was a column by Paul Weyrich, a conservative Christian leader and head of the Free Congress Foundation, who argued that "Christ was crucified by the Jews." Another was sparked by comments from the NBA point guard and born-again Christian Charlie Ward, who said in an interview that Jews were persecuting Christians and that Jews "had his [Jesus'] blood on their hands." Finally, the evangelical Christian comic strip artist Johnny Hart published a B.C. strip that showed a menorah disintegrating until it became a cross, with each panel featuring the last words of Jesus, including "Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do".
On 16 November 1998, Church Council of Evangelical Lutheran Church in America similarly adopted a resolution prepared by its Consultative Panel on Lutheran-Jewish Relations urging any Lutheran church presenting a Passion Play to adhere to their Guidelines for Lutheran-Jewish Relations, stating that "the New Testament . . . must not be used as justification for hostility towards present-day Jews," and that "blame for the death of Jesus should not be attributed to Judaism or the Jewish people."
In 2003 and 2004 some people compared Mel Gibson's film The Passion of the Christ to these kinds of Passion Plays, but this characterization is hotly disputed; an analysis of that topic is in the article on The Passion of the Christ.
Supporters of Passion Plays
The Passion Trust supports the resurgence of Passion Plays in the United Kingdom through resourcing, networking, advocating and financing new and existing plays. Established in 2011, its vision is to energise the growing number of Passion Plays taking place in the UK.
The Passion Trust hosts an annual conference in various locations around the UK, drawing together actors, arts practitioners, producers, directors, fundraisers and journalists to explore new and time-tested approaches to Passion Plays.
Keynote speakers at recent Passion Trust conferences include:
- Israel Oyelumade. Oyelumade played Jesus in Winchester's Passion Play in 2006 and is currently head of Character Development for Love Beyond, a musical based on the Bible story with vocal performances from West End stars and one of the biggest live orchestras of any musical theatre show in London.
- James Burke-Dunsmore. Burke-Dunsmore is a writer, director and actor who has played Jesus for over 17 years. He regularly performs in Trafalgar Square, Guildford and Wintershall and is currently artistic director for Soul by the Sea in Brighton.
- Sir Jack Stewart-Clark. Sir Jack facilitates Passion Plays in Scotland and internationally, most notably in Angola jail in Louisiana and in Rwanda.
- Suzanne Lofthus. Lofthus is a director with years of experience directing Passion Plays in local communities and in prisons. She recently directed the Edinburgh Passion Play which was described in The Scotsman as 'strikingly well-choreographed production'.
The Passion Trust also develops and disseminates important resources for people starting new Passion Plays or wanting to develop existing plays, including advice with script-writing, fund-raising, working with local councils and engaging with local communities.
Europassion is a large European organisation which supports Passion Plays in Europe. Established in 1982, this umbrella organisation draws together Passion Play communities from countries all over Europe, some of which have been performing their plays for hundreds of years. According to Mons. Fausto Panfili, the Chaplain of the Europassion:
"The experience of the Europassion constantly lets us experience a so far unexplored pathway, so that we can continue to grow. Surmounting a self-referred vision of our own experience obligates us to confront a regional, national, European and universal horizon. That is why a new vision, not fragmentary, is necessary. Unity doesn’t mean uniformity. A spiritual energy, stronger and more attentive to cultural elaboration, a more evident solidarity in order to be recognised as bearers of hope, to help the people and communities grow."
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