Jolyon Mitchell

Passion Plays: The Mysterious Revivals of Religious Drama

by Jolyon Mitchell, Professor of Communications, Arts and Religion at the University of Edinburgh

A review by John Davies 09 March 2018

This was more a presentation, using still images, maps, topic lists and  film extracts, than a formal lecture. There was much, mostly invited, audience participation as Professor Mitchell demonstrated a revival of mystery and passion plays, not only in Britain but in continental Europe, dating from the 1950s (Oberammergau was an exception, being much older, but, if I understood correctly, even this was a revival, albeit in 1634, of mediaeval plays from manuscripts
of the 15th and 16th centuries.) Professor Mitchell showed how this fifties development was preceded by Dorothy Sayers’ radio series The Man Born to be King (originally broadcast in 1941 -2) and elicited from the audience very interesting explanations of the revival of a tradition. One was that these revivals derived from Jungian theories of the collective unconscious, another that
deep myth was a need felt particularly after World War I and World War II with their attendant
horrors and this need was expressed not only by the renewal of mystery plays but by the revival of
Greek tragedy at the same time.
Professor Mitchell covered a large range of examples from small parish church performances, to the splendour of the York production (Lincoln was by no means omitted; perhaps our lecturer
would not have dared otherwise, with representatives of past and present casts in the audience).

His film examples included one in a United States prison where many of the actors were lifers and all African Americans. This, in particular, showed how participation could change character and
was tellingly titled “Cast the First Stone.” For many, in many communities, participation is an immersion in the gospel story, whether a permission to act, a bringing to life of existing church
experiences, an expression of contemporary communal griefs and sorrows, (the play at Port Talbot was an example as probably that in Edinburgh), or of other contemporary issues – war for example, or industrial decline.

Among the many reasons for participating which Professor Mitchell found in his on-the-hoof researches throughout Britain and beyond were the creating and preserving of communal memories, enjoying communal participation, promoting or reviving passionate belief, translating, carrying into the present, tradition in a particular place, embodying devotional action, trying out skittles, the pleasures of live performance for actors and audiences alike in a local or specific
context.

There were, one might say, extreme offshoots. Godspell and Jesus Christ Superstar were mentioned by audience members; at the other end Professor Mitchell referred to reenactments in the Philippines in which nails were actually driven into the hands of participants, dramatising and performing extreme penance within the Passion story.

So, we had a survey of what is going on rather than a history of passion plays . Mitchell’s emphasis was on multi-media performance, on locality and community, on varieties of production and meaning (in an aside, Professor Mitchell referred to the influence of Brecht and of the theatre of the Absurd in some earlier productions; might he have added Artaud and the theatre of cruelty?)

But where was the theology in all this? For me it was incarnational. In Lincoln (and elsewhere) a large group of people embody the Bible story and are recognised by the audience as simultaneously in role and as their everyday selves. This is always true of community, of amateur theatre but here I think the meaning is deeper. Whether individual cast members know it or not, they (and we, the audience) are all caught up in the cosmic and local story of Jesus of Nazareth
who is also local for us – as are all the other characters. The history, the mystery, become one and, through word, action and music, the salvation history of Lincoln is revealed.

This was a lively, unconventional experience for our theiological society.