Sarah Ruhl’s “Passion Play” blurs the line between the real and the staged

The Passion Play has existed for centuries, and is “a dramatic reenactment of the suffering of Christ…. The focus is on Jesus’s last week of his life” (Chancetheater). Sarah Ruhl is an American playwright who is particularly interested in the Passion Play in Oberammergau, a small town in Germany that have been performing the Passion Play since 1633. She found accounts from the early 1900s that described how there were close similarities between the figures represented in the plays and the individuals who would perform these roles. For instance, “the woman who played Mary was, in real life, just as pure as the Virgin” (Ruhl ix). Ruhl’s epic play, Passion Play, deals with how the play spills into daily life off stage. She investigated specific times, places and communities that practice the Passion Play, and her play is written in a way that unifies these different times and spaces. Ruhl breaks down her play into three distinct acts. The opening act is set in England in 1575 when “Queen Elizabeth was about to shut down the Passion Plays in order to control religious representation”; the second act is centered on Oberammergau and their Passion Play in 1934; and the final act happens in 1969 in South Dakota, where a German actor started putting on the Passion Pay in the 1940s (Ruhl ix). By unifying time and space in her play, Ruhl attempts to explore the importance of the Passion Play beyond the stage by blurring the lines between reality and pretend.

I had to read Ruhl’s play twice. The first time, I was utterly confused as I could not understand the brevity of each scene and how this would be acted out. I found it difficult to keep track of the characters and make the connection between the different times and places as I journeyed from the Elizabethan era, to the time of Hitler’s Germany, to (rather randomly, I thought) South Dakota. In fact I saw read each act as being a sort of afterlife of the previous one. However after watching snippets of representations of Passion Plays and news coverage of the play in Oberammergau, I came to understand the importance of the Passion Play and exactly what it was about.

I believe Ruhl wrote Passion Play not only to highlight how the Passion Play dominates life as a sort of ritual, but how it is ever changing. When writing about ta’ziyeh, Chelkowski discusses how the Iranian play is not meant to be static like a museum piece. He explains that ta’ziyeh “needs to grow and develop its own style while remaining true to its origins and traditions” (Chelkowski 90). Similarly, Ruhl’s play informs audiences that the Passion Play is shaped by the temporal and spatial contexts it is performed in. This is seen through Ruhl’s choice to write Passion Play as an exploration not only of the final performance, but of the process of directing the play. By doing so, Passion Play examines what goes on beyond the stage. It then becomes an interesting commentary on how the lives of the actors revolve around the play; how they are transformed by it, and how they become distinguished by the roles they play. In Scene 3, the visiting friar is excited to meet John who plays Christ in the Passion Play, and even treats him as holy. Ruhl’s text also becomes a commentary on the relationship between the church and the state. Hitler and Reagan exist within Ruhl’s play but of course not within the original framework of the Passion Play as being a historical retelling of a religious story. In fact, Ruhl acknowledges that some of the dialogues spoken by these characters are direct quotes. The state is then seen as having a stake on the representation of the Passion Play. Ruhl’s Passion Play examines the importance of the Passion Play not as a representation of a religious story, but as a transformative performance that is tied to the social and political conditions of a state.

Works Cited:
Chancetheater. “Sarah Ruhl’s Passion Play – Dramaturg Carla Neuss.” YouTube. YouTube, 16 Apr. 2014. Web. 01 Oct. 2015. <https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=l5tXwVkXZXw&gt;.
Chelkowski, Peter J. Eternal Performance: Taʻziyeh and Other Shiite Rituals. London: Seagull, 2010. Print.
Ruhl, Sarah. Passion Play. First ed. New York, NY: Theatre Communications Group, 2010. Print.

 

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