Passion Plays

by Friar Thomas Bacon (David Moreno)
Orignally published in the April 2004, A.S. XXXVIII issue of the Dragonflyre, a publication of the Barony of Vatavia.

A recent movie has resulted in new attention to an old form of drama: the Passion play. The Passion play is controversial not for its primary subject, the death of Jesus Christ, but for the images that support that action and how people responded to them. This is how it got there.

The Passion play is just a specific example of a miracle or mystery play. These plays are an outgrowth of an effort to enliven the standard liturgy of the church. The priests, instead of just reciting the gospel, would act out the action. Over time, bits kept being added till they became full scale plays embedded in the Mass. The earliest indications of these efforts can be found in the 9th century and were fully developed by the 13th. It should be noted that these dramas, also known as tropes, were mostly sung not spoken with a great mass of antiphon, hymns and chants were written to support them. While elements of these tropes survived until the 16th century, by the 13th, they had accumulated enough secular elements that church authorities began to ban them from the church, and began an independent existence outside it.

While there were tropes for all seasons, they were most prominent during Easter. The early tropes centered their attention on the events of the Resurrection, principally the empty tomb. However, during the course of the disastrous 14th century there was a theological shift from the Resurrection and the entering of the heavenly paradise to the Crucifixion and Christ’s suffering to redeem man’s sin. And the plays followed this shift. The word passion derives from the Latin word ‘pati’ which means ‘to suffer’.

While nearly every large community in Europe has its form of Passion play, they were most popular in Germany, and many of their texts survive. In England, the Passion play was incorporated into the cycle of plays associated with the Feast of Corpus Christi held in June. Divorced from the liturgy, the language of these plays switched from Latin to the local tongue. The actors ceased being priests and were either local townsmen or traveling professionals.

These were not short productions. Some took a full week to be fully acted out. While the Crucifixion was the central theme, in many cases it played only a relatively small part in the over all play. For example, the cycle plays of England covered all of history, from Creation to the Day of Judgment. Popular elements found in many Passion plays include not only the Last Supper and the Resurrection, but also the Raising of Lazarus, the wedding of Cana and the Harrowing of Hell. Scenes from the Old Testament that could be seen as prefiguring the Crucifixion were also frequently added.

The stages upon which these plays were acted out were usually simple platforms with a backdrop with no scenery and few props. The more elaborate ones had a balcony to represent heaven and a trap door to go to Hell. In the larger pageants, these platforms would have wheels and there would be a procession of scenes. Settings and actions were more invoked then presented. The intent was not to provide a realist version of the events, but to demonstrate a public piety.

It is on that last point that the Passion play gets into trouble. The essence of all drama is conflict. In the Passion play, Jesus is obviously the hero, and therefore the villains have to be those who kill him. Since the early church formed in the environment of the Roman Empire, the role of Rome in the Crucifixion was downplayed, and therefore by necessity, the role of the Jews was played up. Thus there was a long-standing tradition of portraying the Jews as God killers, a portrayal that was incorporated into the plays. While there is no documentation that a production of a Passion play directly provoked an attack on the Jews, it perpetuated the image of the Jew as a hostile outsider, and thus enable the various massacres and expulsions that the Jews suffered during the Late Middle Ages.

By the 16th century, the forces that transformed the liturgical tropes into the miracle plays had transformed the mystery plays into vaudeville like carnival plays. In addition, the Protestant Reformation caused many to look with disfavor on much of the religious imagery found in the Passion plays. Thus church authorities of both flavors began to suppress the Passion plays. Moreover, dramatic taste had shifted to the more allegorical morality plays. And these in turn would give rise to the Renaissance theater with its crowning genius Shakespeare.

The Passion play was an expression of civic pride and piety. An amateur production in a time when the community was the central focus of a person’s life. They fell victim to changing taste, to changing piety, to changing economics. The twentieth century has seen a mini-revival of the Passion play. Perhaps an echo of the impulse that produced them in the 14th century given the travails of the 20th.



Barnet, Sylvan, Morton Berman, and William Burto, ed. The Genius of the Early English Theater. New York: New American Library, 1962.

Cohen, Walter. Drama of a Nation: Public Theater in Renaissance England and Spain. Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1985.

"Passion Play." Encyclopedia Britannica. ed. Chicago 1986. pp. 187

"Passion Play." New Catholic Encyclopedia. ed. Washington: Catholic University of America Press, 2002.

Taylor, Jerome, and Alan Nelson, ed. Medieval English Drama: Essays Critical and Contextual. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1972.


Copyright © 1997 - present His Lordship Friar Thomas Bacon (David Moreno). All rights reserved.

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