September 23, 2010
The Success of this Passion: Getting Particular and Becoming Universal
— Peter A. Pettit
I participated this May in a script review of the Oberammergau Passion Play, and in late June saw the production. There the script opened more of its elegance to me, and I found several dimensions of theatricality that make the production’s impact significantly different than the script’s. This notoriously anti-Jewish institution has been transformed under the current directors.
Seen in Oberammergau, the play’s most striking impression may be that this is a communal Christian project. Grounded in a vow taken in 1633 and now in its forty-first production, the project is avowedly Christian and more than 2,000 of the 5,000 Oberammergau residents take part. Directors Otto Huber and Christian Stückl both trace back family participation through generations – the Stückl name appears on the original vow and Hubers have held key roles throughout the twentieth century. Here, family legacies are as much about stage histories as workaday identities.
The essence of this play is the uninterrupted performance of a vow, inherited with the woodshops and fields, the cobblestones and mountain vistas as the stuff of daily life. That makes it tricky to assess the play as either theatre or theology. Yet, as both, it is more than respectable, and the interaction of theatre and theology makes this a different kind of Passion Play.
Huber and Stückl have used the Greek chorus tellingly. By restricting all Christian expression to the chorus and its lead spokesperson, the “Prologue,” they have staged the Jesus story as a Jewish story played out under Roman occupation. Not one disciple, prescient priest, Roman, or anonymous on-looker – and not even Jesus -- voices a distinctively Christian sentiment. They tell a Jewish story with integrity, and the chorus invites and embodies Christian reflection with equal integrity.
A similar make-over has been given to the tableaux vivants, still-life portrayals of scenes from Israel’s biblical history that have been a key source of the play’s supersessionist dynamics. No longer do they set up a triumphant Christianity by depicting a failed Judaism. Rather, the dynamic now echoes that of the gospel writers: to understand Israel’s God, one must look to God’s history with Israel for a paradigm. Through literary criticism and comparative midrash we now recognize the paradigmatic tropes from biblical Israel that shaped the gospel stories, and this is how the tableaux vivants now function. “Just as” God acted in Israel’s life, “so also” God has acted in Jesus’ life.
With these two structural changes, the directors have opened up more dramatic space for the key characters. Pilate has become the callous, manipulative political animal that non-biblical sources show him to be; Judas is a complicated human figure whose remorse at the unintended consequences of his best intentions is within every viewer’s reach; and Caiaphas is a middle-man surfing on the waves of power, desperate to hold his edge in an environment over which he has no ultimate control. In the world of this production, everyone is either Roman or Jewish, and everyone has a responsible hand in the tragedy that plays out as the crucifixion. But in such a world, it no longer matters who is Roman and who is Jewish, because their guilty flaws are broadly human. The ultimate challenge is put to the audience: “If God is barred from one’s heart, then – as one can see in the world – we will also hate our fellow humans” (Act VIII, Chorus).
This play is not the place to find critical historical reconstruction or sophisticated theological discussion. Neither should one minimize, however, its witness to a universal spiritual challenge. Anyone can recognize it, and among people of different faiths it can even engender meaningful dialogue. People will value this particular spiritual struggle variously, and the directors do not defend their theology as the best or only one; they dramatize it effectively and leave it to the audience to engage with it.
Most importantly, they have cleared the stage of the distractions of classical Christian anti-Jewish tropes by taking seriously the calling to portray a Jewish Jesus. By making the story more historically time-bound and the interpretive framework more explicitly Christian and contemporary, this production succeeds in conveying the universal significance that Christians have always seen in Jesus’ passion. Here it is told courageously with a language of faith informed by God’s covenantal bond to Jesus’ own people, the Jews.
The Rev. Peter A. Pettit is Director of the Institute for Jewish-Christian Understanding and Associate Professor of Religion Studies at Muhlenberg College.