Passion Plays

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The Passion play was a genre of medieval religious drama, of relatively late and slow development, which concentrated on the suffering, death, and Resurrection of Christ, and was thus distinguished from the Corpus Christi cycles narrating the entire Biblical story from Creation to Judgment (see drama, medieval).

Origins. A survey of the origins and primitive forms of Passion drama reveals the liturgical background and lyrical character of these cautious and tentative experiments and will discloses the pattern of the more elaborate plays staged in Germany and France during the late Middle Ages. The absence of any dramatic representation of Christ's death until the early 13th century, when all other types of liturgical play had long been performed, may very well mean a reluctance to imitate in a fictive manner the awesome mystery of Christ's sacrifice, especially since the Mass as the central act of the liturgy was itself the actual continuation of that sacrifice.

During the 12th century, however, the custom of chanting a long, lyrical planctus, or lament, of the Blessed Virgin became attached to the Good Friday veneration of the cross. The latter ceremony already included the choral singing of the Savior's reproaches (the improperia) and the uncovering of a veiled crucifix with the words "Ecce lignum crucis." A cleric would then stand before this cross and sing the lament of the Sorrowful Mother in stanzas of Latin verse marked by the literary and musical artistry characteristic of the great Sequences and hymns (see sequence). Some texts contained lines of reply in the voice of Christ or of St. John, and, as impersonation of these voices probably accompanied the chanting, real drama was present. Rubrics calling for solemn, stylized gestures eventually appeared (e.g., in the text from Cividale, Italy). Karl Young regarded such activity as genuine Passion drama. When incidents from Christ's trial, journey to Calvary, and Crucifixion were included in the plays of the 13th century, the planctus of Mary was structured into the complex design, the texts often using the two best known of the earlier lyrical compositions, the "Planctus ante nescia" and the "Flete, fideles animae."

Further Influences. Other formative influences on these plays have been suggested. One was the dramatic homily on the Passion, in which the preacher often came close to impersonation of characters through quoted speech and imitated gesture. Important, too, was the long narrative poem on the death of Christ, the most important being the so-called Passion des jongleurs, written c. 1200, which is said to underlie a whole group of Burgundian dramas of about a century later. The only extant texts of Passion plays in Latin, however, are the two in the Benediktbeuern MS from the 13th century, and their form suggests a development rather by elaboration of already existing liturgical plays than by accretion to dramatic lyric, sermon, or narrative poem.

The first of these Benediktbeuern plays, the Ludus breviter de Passione, was meant to be followed by a Resurrection scene, as the rubric directs, and therefore can be regarded as a prologue to the Easter play. It covers the events from the Last Supper to the burial of Christ, but much of its action was left to be performed in pantomime, e.g., the nailing to the cross. Hardin Craig, who regards this short text as an expansion backward of an Easter play, believes also that the longer Passion dramatization in the same MS was built around an already existing and highly embellished play of Mary Magdalene and her brother Lazarus. Such a hypothesis about the origin of the Passion play in earlier liturgical drama, rather than in any extrinsic source, is supported by the difference in literary maturity between the prose of the Passion incidents (which often reads like mere stage direction) and the mature poetry of the Magdalene performance, some of it in Latin and some in German. Both of these Benediktbeuern plays reveal lyrical associations, however, for they contain the planctus Mariae, the shorter text using the "Planctus ante nescia" and the longer one the "Flete, fideles animae." Although these texts from Germany are the only surviving ones, records of nonextant plays of the same nature are to be found in Siena, Padua, and Sulmona in Italy.

Vernacular Plays. The early vernacular Passion plays belong to the turn of the 14th century in both Germany and France. It is clear that this stage of development for the dramas on the death of Christ was reached more slowly than the parallel elaboration of the Christmas plays, which had probably achieved cyclic proportions in the 13th century. In any case, it is important to regard the Passion play as an integral unit separate from the Christmas plays and also from the Corpus Christi plays. The typical plan of the vernacular Passion drama is a threefold design: the Fall (of the angels and of man), the suffering of Christ, and finally the Resurrection. This plan omits virtually all of the Old Testament history except the original sin of Adam and Eve and ordinarily does not include the Nativity of the Savior. The life of Christ may be taken up at the beginning of His public ministry or at His triumphal entry into Jerusalem.

German Plays. The oldest surviving German Passion play is found in a St. Gall MS, undated but probably of the early 14th century. Its span of sacred history extends from the marriage feast of Cana to the Resurrection. Of comparable date is the Vienna play, which adds to the St. Gall pattern the narrative of Adam's Fall, thus presenting

for the first time the triptych effect of the usual Passion play. Perhaps the most notable feature of the St. Gall text is the presence of a prologue in the voice of St. Augustine, a trace thus appearing of the famous Prophet plays, in which the Church Father summoned a procession of witnesses to the Messiah. This prophetic prologue was a common feature of the Christmas plays, but Creizenach regards the abridged form of it in the St. Gall text as an indication that it fulfilled the same function for the Passion plays. Augustine serves also as a commentator here, at times interrupting to give a brief outline of coming action and at other times to give a little homily based on a scene just concluded. After Christ washes the feet of the Disciples, for example, Augustine gives an exhortation to humility, and after the Crucifixion he offers a meditation on the sorrows of Mary.

The flowering of German Passion plays occurred in the 15th and 16th centuries, which witnessed the expansion of the texts to many thousands of lines and thus to an action requiring three days for performance. Among those surviving, two groups of plays call for special mention, the Frankfurt and the Tyrol texts.

The nucleus of the first group of plays is the Frankfurt Dirigierrolle, that is, an outline or register of the characters, incidents, and cues for a Passion play. It reveals in skeletal form a very extensive undertaking, from a Prophet play to an Ascension scene, with an epilogue debate between the allegorical figures Ecclesia and Synagoga. This is a director's manual, but it is rich enough in detail to reveal indebtedness to a long narrative poem on the Redemption entitled Die Erlösung and to simpler plays of the St. Gall type. In its turn it has served as a point of departure for other Passion plays performed in the same general area, of which the best known are the Alsfeld and the Heidelberg texts. These come to us in MSS written shortly after 1500, and the latter in its present form is really a library version rather than an actors' copy. The great length of the scenes is due to the loquacity of the characters, immeasurably changed and grown from the cryptic speeches in the early plays, and to the lavish use of comic motifs.

The presence of buffoonery is quite marked in these southwestern German plays, notably in the scenes of merry devils, of Mary Magdalene's worldly life, and even of the counting out and quarreling over Judas's 30 silver coins. Allegory is used sparingly, but effectively, e.g., in the Heidelberg personification of Death as summoner of Lazarus; Death boasts ironically of his unlimited power and then suffers humiliation in his defeat by Christ's miracle at Lazarus's tomb (Jn 11.146). Also noteworthy in this text is the juxtaposition of prefigurative scenes from the Old Testament immediately before the corresponding events of the New Testament related typologically to them. Thus, the acquittal of Susanna by Daniel (Daniel ch. 13) is staged as a prelude to Christ's encounter with the woman taken in adultery (Jn 8.111). This method of structuring type and antitype in sacred history is not widespread in drama. The much later Oberammergau play has something akin to this arrangement in a series of tableaux vivants from prefigurative Old Testament events preceding each New Testament scene.

The Tyrol Passion plays from the eastern Alpine region are, like the Frankfurt group, related one to another and are presumed to have a common origin. They are distinguished from other German specimens by a greater selectivity of incident and by a uniformly elevated tone. Omitting Old Testament material, they begin late in the life of the Redeemer, with the council of the Jews plotting His death. They cover a three-day division of performance: the arrest and trials of Christ, the Crucifixion, and the Resurrection. On the first two days, comic intrusion into the solemn scenes is virtually absent, but on the third day there is a notable amount of it. It is highly probable that the first and second divisions were actually performed on Holy Thursday and Good Friday, when the buffoonery would have been regarded as unacceptable; the third day's action, given on Easter or shortly afterward, would have a context of returning joy capable of supporting the comic dimension.

French Plays. French Passion plays reveal much the same history as do those in Germany. The early vernacular texts are of Burgundian provenance and are all related ultimately to the nondramatic narrative poem Passion des jongleurs, mentioned above. The oldest play in this group is called La Passion du Palatinus. Although it has many dramatic and interesting touchessuch as the forging of the nails for the Crucifixion by the wife of the blacksmith, who himself refuses the odious taskthis play is still clumsy and awkward in many ways. G. Cohen has even expressed doubt that it was actually performed, since it lacks rubrics that can be regarded as stage directions. There is a closely related Passion d'Autun, existing in two versions; and a much later and more elaborate Passion de Semur associated with the Burgundian area.

The really great French Passion plays are those of Eustache Mercadé and Arnoul Greban, both 15th-century dramatists whose gigantic plays were subjected to revision and adaptation by later writers, most skilfully by Jean Michel. These French mystères show divergence from the standard German design; although they omit most of the Old Testament narrative, they do include the Nativity and early life of Christ. Moreover, they envelope the titanic serial narrative in a unifying framework known as the Procès de Paradis, quite different from the German forms of prophetic prologue and Augustinian commentary. The Procès is a dramatization of the debate among Righteousness, Mercy, Truth, and Peace at the throne of God, allegorizing the conflict between His justice and His mercy. The allegorized virtues, known in homiletic literature as the Four Daughters of God, are reconciled only when the Second Person of the Trinity undertakes to expiate man's sin; they reappear at intervals in the long cycle, most notably at the return of Christ to heaven when Justice (Righteousness) at first sulks in a corner, but then, in a dramatic and thrilling capitulation, accepts the satisfaction made by the Redeemer.

Mercadé's Passion d'Arras, as it is called, surpasses Greban's in the theological profundity of its material, but is in turn excelled by the latter's skill in poetry and music. The position held by Greban as organist and choirmaster at Notre Dame Cathedral in Paris developed in him the technical mastery that he displayed in versification, dialogue, lyric forms, and musical pieces. His Passion has been well termed a melodrama, not in the modern sense, but in the original concept of a play rich in musical melody. Closely associated with this technical achievement and inseparable from it is Greban's mastery of emotional language, especially that of tenderness and pity. He could thus express in moving fashion the anguish of Christ in the Garden and His plea to the Father; above all he could imaginatively represent the role of the Sorrowful Mother pleading with her Son to evade the Passion and cross, then lamenting in her traditional planctus Mariae the actualization of her worst fears for His welfare.

Modern Survival. Performances of Passion plays continued long into modern times. One of the German dramas is still flourishing in a regular presentation at Oberammergau every tenth year. The origin of this custom is a well-known series of events related to the Thirty Years' War of the early 17th century. During the devastation of the Bavarian countryside by Swedish troops in 1632, a severe outbreak of the plague occurred, first in the lowlands, spreading gradually to the upland villages, including Oberammergau. After months of such disaster, the town council of this devout Catholic village decided upon a vow: they would sacrifice a year in every decade to the presentation of a Passion play. This promise was made by all the villagers for themselves and their descendants as an act of penance and petition for deliverance; it is the Oberammergau tradition that no one died of the plague after this solemn religious act. The most famous actors to play the role of the "Christus" in the 20th century have been members of the Lang family, Anton and a distant relative, Alois.

From the 12th-century planctus Mariae and the simple Latin plays of the Benediktbeuern MS to the gigantic spectacles of the German and French cycles, the Passion play has been a paraliturgical expression of popular devotion to the suffering of the Redeemer and has engaged the talents of innumerable craftsmen, poets, musicians, and actors, who have coveted an opportunity to take part in it by designing its scenes, singing in its chorus, or being chosen to act in the great role of the "Christus."

Bibliography: g. cohen, Le Théâtre en France au moyen âge (rev. ed. Paris 1948). h. craig, English Religious Drama of the Middle Ages (Oxford 1955). w. m. a. creizenach, Geschichte des neueren Dramas, 5 v. (Halle 18931916; v. 2, rev. ed. 1918). g. frank, The Medieval French Drama (Oxford 1954). c. j. stratman, Bibliography of the Medieval Drama (Berkeley 1954). k. young, The Drama of the Medieval Church, 2 v. (Oxford 1933). e. h. corathiel, Oberammergau and Its Passion Play (Westminster, Md. 1960). r. froning, ed., Das Drama des Mittelalters, 3 v. (Stuttgart 189192). f. mone, ed., Schauspiele des Mittelalters (Karlsruhe 1846). Le Mystère de la Passion d'Arnoul Greban, ed. g. paris and g. raynaud (Paris 1878). e. roy, Le Mystère de la Passion en France du XIV e au XVI e siècle, 2 v. (Dijon 190304), still a classic, but corrected by later studies. j. e. wackernell, Altdeutsche Passionsspiele aus Tirol (Graz 1897).

[e. c. dunn]