In America, religion and government are ostensibly separated, though the subject remains contentious to this day. Even with that caveat, sometimes we forget just how remarkable the separation of church and state is when compared to other cultures – and to history.
Such are the ruminations you’ll likely have watching Sarah Ruhl’s provocative 2003 “Passion Play: Part 1 & 2,” which opens Friday at Fresno State.
It certainly speaks to director Ruth Griffin, who was drawn to the play’s provocative and darkly humorous premise of setting a “passion play” – the centuries-old custom of re-creating Christ’s last week before crucifixion – in the wildly disparate eras of Elizabethan England and Nazi Germany.
“More than any other play I’ve done I feel it is of serious import for our country now,” she says.
We caught up with her via email to talk about the production.
Q: What is the performance history?
A: “Passion Play” premiered at the Washington Arena Stage in 2005 and was then produced by the Goodman Theatre and Yale Repertory Theatre. It made its New York debut in 2010 with the Epic Theatre Ensemble. In 2008 it was heralded by the New Yorker as one of the 10 best plays of the year.
Q: How is it structured?
A: “Passion I” takes place in 1575 in England during the reign of Elizabeth I. It has an episodic structure. Poems and moments drift like in a dream. “Passion II” takes place in 1934 in Oberammergau, Germany, at the 300-hundred-year anniversary of the Passion Play’s first performance. In the writing style of this play, scenes are longer and the protagonist Erik is a more psychological character.
Q: For those who aren’t familiar, explain what a Passion play is.
A: The Passion play, or Easter pageant, is performed during Lent and depicts the last week of Jesus Christ: his trial, suffering and death. It emerged in Germany in the fourth century. Sara Ruhl also includes in “Passion I” scenes that would have been performed in the Mystery Plays, which were established in 15th-century festivals throughout England.
Q: What would be helpful to know about the staging?
A: “Passion Play” is in the style of Epic Theatre with a strong dose of magical realism. This is the theater of Bertolt Brecht. With his theater, the actor was to be his/her character and was also to be outside the character. This had the effect of enacting communication in a fresh light and was well suited to political, antirealist theater.
Q: Talk about the connection between government and religion.
A: Queen Elizabeth began her reign in 1558. Beginning with her coronation she enforced the return of her subjects to the Anglican Church. In 1558 the Act of Uniformity was passed by her government. It stipulated that the English Book of Common Prayer was to be universally upheld by her subjects. Further in 1559 the Act of Supremacy was passed, which arrogated ecclesiastical authority to the monarchy. This was followed in 1563 by “The Thirty-Nine Articles,” which pronounced that all Catholic images were to be destroyed: roods, vestments, stone altars, statues, stained glass windows and ornaments. Catholic ritual was forbidden. Queen Elizabeth I makes an appearance in the penultimate scene in “Passion I.”
Hitler’s visit near the end of “Passion II” did take place at the 1934 pageant. That marked the 300-year anniversary of the Passion play in the town of Oberammergau and the Nazis were intent to use it as a tool for anti-Semitic propaganda. Nazi officials and troops were present in the town to influence the script and direction as preparations for the performance of the Passion play of 1934 were underway. The Nazi officials saw propaganda as art and art as propaganda.
Passion Play: Part 1 & 2
- Opens 7:30 p.m. Friday, runs through Dec. 10
- Wright Theatre, Fresno State
- 559-278-2216, www.fresnostate.edu/artshum/theatrearts/
- $17, $10 students