The Passion Play originated in the ritual of the Roman Catholic Church that orders the Gospel on Good Friday to be sung in parts by different people. Later, the Passion Play appeared, first in Latin, then in vernacular languages. The content of the Passion Play was adapted over time to meet audience expectations until the fifteenth century, when popular religious plays were developed. Here is a brief overview of the Passion Play including its history and recent rediscovery.
Addition of music and characters: overview
The early history of Passion Plays from the fourteenth century show that they sometimes broke from Christian ritual with the addition of some drama. This included the appearance of the Virgin Mary, the mother of Jesus and Mary Magdalene in the action. The Passion Play developed very rapidly and since the mid-fourteenth century the Vienna Passion, the St. Gall Passion, the oldest Frankfort Passion, and the Maestricht Passion were regularly performed with all four plays written in rhyme, usually in German.
The Vienna Passion begins with the revolt and fall of Lucifer and ends with Jesus and his Twelve Apostles sitting at the Last Supper. The oldest Frankfort Passion play from the mid-fourteenth century was performed over two days and was much more elaborate than other Passion Plays of this period. The history of the magnificent productions of the Passion Plays during the fifteenth century was connected with the growth and increasing self-confidence of the cities with some productions using one-hundred or more actors from across different classes.
The Passion Play almost disappears: overview
In the sixteenth century, Passion Plays often became festive occasions and clergy were ordered to suppress the plays in their parish districts because of the irreverence interspersed through the productions. The advent of the Protestant Reformation saw the Synod of Strasburg of 1549 opposed to the religious plays, and the Parliament of Paris of 1548 forbade the dramatic production of the Passion Plays and other Spiritual Mysteries, so they almost disappeared from history.
In the seventeenth century, the Passion Plays, still largely secularised, were relegated to out-of-the-way villages and to the monasteries. Toward the end of the eighteenth century efforts were made in Catholic Germany, particularly in Bavaria and the Tirol, to destroy even the remnants of the tradition of medieval plays.
Rediscovery of the Passion Play: overview
The Bavarian Oberammergau Passion Play, first performed in 1634 is one of the few Passion Plays that continued to be performed. Now taking place in the last year of each decade, it has drawn objections from Jewish groups that feel the performances promote anti-Semitism. The plays longevity is due in part to the past belief of villagers that their commitment to staging it resulted in God’s blessing and protected them from the plague. In the mid-nineteenth century, it was the only such play produced in Bavaria. Oberammergau Passion Play now involves more than 2,000 performers, musicians, and stage technicians, all of whom are residents of the village. The Oberammergau play has a running time of approximately seven hours, with a meal being served during the intermission.
More broadly, Passion Plays have recently been rediscovered and have experienced a significant resurgence of popularity throughout the world among both Protestants and Catholics.
United Kingdom: overview
Passion Plays in Britain portray the Easter story. Throughout history they have depicted the events of Jesus Christ’s trial, death and resurrection and though some also extend to the events of his life, works and miracles. Today they are performed at Easter and often take place in public spaces as free, community-led performances.
Popular biblical dramas of the Middle Ages are the history behind modern Passion Plays. The Mystery Plays were epic play cycles, large-scale productions financed and produced by medieval guilds for the glory of God and the honour of their city. The most well-known in UK history took place in York, Coventry and Chester.
This dramatic heritage is acknowledged in modern Passion Plays. The Passion Trust is a registered charity which supports, resources and researches Passion Plays in the UK. In many cases, local community volunteers are a mixture of backgrounds, denominations and nationalities and Passion plays take place the length and breadth of Britain.