Famous Passion Plays from 1634 to 2024
There have been countless performances of the Easter story, specifically the crucifixion of Jesus Christ which is the central event of the Passion. From 1634 when a Passion Play was started in a Bavarian village in thanksgiving for being spared the plague to film productions of the Passion today, there are many famous, and infamous, re-tellings of the Easter story.
You might be aware of some of the famous Passion Plays showing the crucifixion and you can read our blog to find out about more of them below. Alternatively, you can use our interactive map to find a Passion Play near you to experience free live theatre next Easter.
Passion Play at Oberammergau
This Passion Play at Oberammergau was first staged in 1634. The Thirty Years’ War (1618-1648) resulted in widespread poverty and disease. Most frightening of all was the plague that killed thousands. Some 80 died in tiny Oberammergau
alone. After months of suffering, the Oberammergauers vowed to God, to perform the Play of the Suffering, Death and Resurrection of Our Lord Jesus Christ every ten years if God assisted them. The disease halted and at Whitsun in 1634, the villagers fulfilled their promise. The first-ever performance took place on a stage set up in the cemetery above the graves of recent plague victims. The Passion has been going on since then. In the last Passion play in 2010, 2000 villagers took part and there were 102 performances. Musically, the play included two hours o music, performed by an orchestra of 60 members and a choir. Rochus Dedler, born in Oberammergau in 1779, composed the music for the Passion Play. Whilst there have been several adaptations of his music in the intervening years the music performed during the Passion Play is still based on Dedler’s original score.
Wagner’s sacred drama
Wagner treated the sacred themes in various of his operas, most notably in Parsifal described by Wagner as a ‘Buhnenweihfestspiel’, a ‘stage consecrating festival play’. In Parsifal there are specific references to the passion and death of Christ, such as the spear, the wound in the side breast, the grail, the stage enactment of holy Communion, etc. It was considered a truly religious experience and some Wagnerians still today listen to Parsifal at 3pm on Good Friday. You can read more about the history of sacred and secular music based on the Passion on our website here.
In the 20 century there have been Passion Musicals, such as Jesus Christ Super Star (1970) by Andrew Lloyd Webber with lyrics by Tim Rice or Godspell a by Schwartz based on a book by Tebelak. It premiered in Off-Broadway on May 17th, 1971. The structure of Godspell is that of a series of parables, mostly based on the Gospel of Matthew (three of the featured parables are recorded only in the Gospel of Luke). The parables are interwined with a variety of modern music set primarily to lyrics from traditional hymns, the Passion of Christ is treated towards the end of the performance
The Passion opera
The opera The Passion (2016), was a fully stage version of the Bach’s oratorio St Matthew Passion. The cast was made of The Sixteen and performers who have experienced homelessness from Streetwise Opera Manchester. It was a collaboration with Manchester center for visual art, film and theatre. Penny Woolcock directed it, with multiple performers playing the leading role as a reminder of Jesus’s vulnerability and universality. The production featured a new ‘resurrection’ finale which had been jointly written by Streetwise Opera’s performers and composer Sir James MacMillan. Bleak images were followed by glimmers of hope in The Passion’s joyous closing chorus.
You can see a recording here.
Mel Gibson’s The Passion of the Christ
This infamous depiction of the Passion is extremely violent with details of the torture and death of Jesus. It is a graphic and highly visual representation of the crucifixion. Some people say that although it attempts to be realistic in its violence, it is not realistic at all because there is too much blood!
According to David Ansen, writing in Newsweek, “the relentless gore is self-defeating”:
Instead of being moved by Christ’s suffering or awed by his sacrifice, I felt abused by a filmmaker intent on punishing an audience, for who knows what sins.
There was not only relentless gore in the film, with lead actor Jim Caviezel covered in cosmetic bruises, cuts, lashes, gashes, and copious amounts of fake blood, there were also many mishaps during the making of the film. Caviezel got struck by lightning and dislocated his shoulder while carrying the cross to Golgotha. The wooden construction weighed 150 pounds but Caviezel said it felt “like 600 pounds” as the day went on. He was also on the cross “in 25-degree temperatures with 30-knot winds” and suffered from hypothermia, a lung infection and subsequent pneumonia.
There is also a sequel coming soon which will be a lot less violent. The Passion of the Christ: Resurrection will dramatise the events surrounding Jesus Christ’s resurrection and will reportedly take place during the three days between Jesus’ crucifixion and eventual return to life. Jim Caviezel has confirmed he will reprise the role of Jesus for the sequel and it will come out sometime in 2025.
This addition to famous Passion Plays showing the Crucifixion will perhaps inspire others to explore dramatic portrayals of the Resurrection.