So, What is a Passion Play?
The events of Holy Week leading up to Easter are by their very nature dramatic. It is therefore not surprising that, beginning in the Middle Ages, Christians began to act out the events of the Passion and Resurrection of Jesus Christ.
Why ‘Passion’? We tend to think of ‘passion’ today as strong emotion – anger, fear, desire or love – but it originally meant ‘suffering’ – what people had to endure or put up with, and in particular what Jesus had to endure in his trials and execution. The first recorded account is of the four line encounter in the Gospel between the angels and the women visiting the tomb on Easter Sunday being spoken by two priests, as part of the Easter Sunday morning service:
Angel: Who are you looking for?
Mary: Jesus of Nazareth.
Angel: He is not here. He has risen, as he foretold. Go and announce that he is risen from the dead.
The idea caught on, and more and more scenes and characters from the events of Holy Week were added. Different parts of the church became locations for the action. The plays were in Latin, and all the players clergy – priests, monks, nuns, and choirboys. The earliest Passion Play was performed at Montecassino in the 12th Century. Its twelve scenes in sophisticated Latin verse begin with Judas bargaining with Caiaphas, and end with Mary’s lament for her son at the foot of the cross.The plays became so popular that they had to be moved outside the church building. In time, the plays were performed in the vernacular languages, by lay people, and aimed to tell the whole story of the Bible including Creation, Noah’s Ark and Christmas as well as the events of Holy Week. European cities vied with each other to stage lavish performances. The cycles of Mystery Plays such as the Coventry and York cycles took days to perform. Plays became less popular at the time of the Reformation, but continued in parts of Poland and Austria. Probably the most famous is the Oberammagau Passion Play first performed in 1634, and now performed every ten years. 2000 villagers are involved in the production, which plays to over 500,000 people in the season. Modern Passion Plays are performed all over the world, often with large casts and elaborate staging. The world record for the number of actors on stage at one time is held by Olesa in Spain (726!)
There have been several passion plays taged in the UK in recent years including those staged in Edinburgh, Glasgow, Manchester, Southampton and Port Talbot. The Aberdeen Passion is a local response of the Aberdeen & North East Scotland community to present the key events of St Luke’s account of the Passion and Resurrection in a clear modern accessible form, believing that the Good News is as relevant here and now as it has always been.