Finding my way through the begrimed passages that connect the ventricular routes of the London Tube service beneath Piccadilly Circus Station the other day, I happened upon a poster advertising an upcoming open-air reenactment of the trial, torture and death of Christianity’s favorite messianic prophet, Jesus H. Christ.
The Passion of Jesus, a modern imagining of the medieval passion play, will be performed in Trafalgar Square on Friday March 29th by Surrey based religious drama troupe, The Wintershall Players. More than just providing spiritual gratification for the already faithful, the producers hope that the farcical offing of a bronze age middle-eastern illiterate will help in recruiting stray lambs into their ever diminishing flock. For producer and writer, Peter Hutley, spreading the Christian faith is paramount:
We demonstrate publicly our Christian faith to illustrate the benefits of faith in God; to show those who may have forgotten; the way to return and for those who have never known the truth: the existence of our Christian God
Speaking ahead of his group’s 2010’s performance, he enthused:
We are evangelizing as hard as we can. We are trying to give the story to people who have not had the opportunity to hear it. It is not taught any longer, it is not considered as essential knowledge.
I would never be so brash as to suggest Hutley of fanaticism, but bear in mind that this is the same man who voiced the rather unsettling view that, “we all need Christianity to help us grow up. We’re all babies. We need a daddy.”
The use of religious drama as a conversionary tool is no new trick. The Spanish missionaries, for example, used the form to communicate the core ideologies of catholicism to the indigenous populations during their conquest of the New World. Whether this was necessarily for the better depends entirely on which side of history you happen to find yourself currently standing; a discussion we will save perhaps for another date. However, to simply dismiss the genre as a piece of tawdry liturgical propaganda would be all too disingenuous. In his 1951 essay, The Corpus Christi Passion Plays as Dramatic Art, Waldo McNeir commended the creative ingenuity of Medieval dramatic authors who “within a frame prescribed by scripture, they(sic) show remarkable freedom and remarkable success in dramatic storytelling”. For McNeir, the dramatization of Christian doctrine produced a form that “communicates the feeling of the Middle Ages and gives and gauge of their artistic achievement”. Quoting Charles Mills Gayley’s 1907 article, Plays of our Fathers, McNeir concludes his essay with the consideration that “if we would know how our fathers lived and dreamed we should study their temples of dramatic verse as well as their aspirations in stone.” It is, of course, possible to attend and appreciate a passion play without having to succumb to the superstitions and devotional necessities of the Christian faith. As Christopher Hitchens eloquently pointed out:
The word for that, the ability to have these things, to have John Milton’s poetry, to have Philip Larkin’s Poem “Church Going”, to have Shakespeare, without the superstition is called culture on which we’ve all laid our lives and which we’ve all sworn to defend ourselves and our civilization against, especially now, precisely against religious barbarism, against those who know they are right, against those who say they only need one book , against those who say they know God’s on their side…that’s what culture is, that’s what we’re defending. Yes, we’d be better off with culture and yes we can have it without religion, which is a mind forged manacle.
During his time as Supreme Emperor of Catholicism, Pope Benedict XVI voiced the opinion that artistic appreciation is directly predicated on the presence of religious faith. Despite the assertions of the more culturally myopic members of the church, however, the passion play is by no means the exclusive property of Christianity. As far back as the 16th century, the introduction of nonliturgical vernacular and subversive subject matters had developed the previously faith driven drama into an increasingly secular spectacle. A shift that deeply unsettled the ecclesiastical authorities of the time. Consequently, the church separated itself from the practice with the 1548 Parliament of Paris forbidding the production of The Mysteries of the Passion of our Redeemer and other Spiritual Mysteries. For the next several centuries, the genre operated as a marginal attraction in relative obscurity until a resurgence of public interest brought about a revival of the form towards the end of the 19th century. With The Passion of Jesus, Peter Hutley has constructed a spectacle fit for the 21st century. Boasting a budget of £85,000, the event is nothing short of multimedia extravaganza, featuring an onsite technical crew, historically accurate wardrobe and the sort of audiovisual exhibition infrastructure usually found at a Metallica concert. Previous performances have attracted criticism for the production’s liberal application of bloodshed with some commentators likening the play to Mel Gibson‘s 2006 fetishistic (and somewhat fascistic) monstrosity, The Passion of the Christ. “It’s a gruesome event, a horrible thing” explained Hutley in a 2010 interview “We don’t pull any punches. It’s a tough story.” A tough story indeed, but one that needs to be graphically enacted at mid-day in the centre of Westminster. Perhaps next year we could have a live retelling of the trial and hanging of Saddam Hussein, or a musical interpretation of the Ugandan cult murders… A Joan of Arc bonfire. The Wintershall Players have every right to perform their spectacularly outlandish passion play, however, they should also expect that a sizable portion of this year’s audience will be watching with a disbelief achieved more through a sense of irony than reverence. I know as I will be one of them.