Baja men perform Passion play outside in San Diego's Old Town

Ritual on a Saturday afternoon

For a Christian, this was more than theater.
  • For a Christian, this was more than theater.
  • Image by David Diaz

On the afternoon preceding Easter Sunday, a group of young men from Baja California performed the Passion Play in San Diego's Old Town. The production — amateur and popular in style, intense and affecting in the personal commitment of the actors — was the work of Salvador Sanchez Mercado from the Iglesia de la Immaculada Concepción in Tijuana, the local sponsor being the Old San Diego Chamber of Commerce. It was an exceptionally interesting and moving theatrical experience.

A person of authority I met while we were both viewing the crucifixion suggested that it might be inappropriate for me to write about such things. “This isn't theater,” he said. What he meant, I think, was that for Christians the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ is both a historical truth and a focal point of absolute personal meaningfulness, which is not the case with those trivial entertainments that some people think theater is exclusively composed of. It is true enough that there is a vast distance between the Passion Play and Barefoot in the Park. But in fact what we were witnessing last Saturday was not only authentic theater but theater of the most fundamental kind; this was the source, the archetype, and virtually the definition of theater.

There is much evidence to suggest that theater originally grew out of religious ritual, and that the ritual in question was specifically the re-enactment of the death and revival of a god. The earliest play we know anything about was an Egyptian representation of the death, dismemberment, reunification, and revival of the god Osiris. The Greek tragic theater was associated with the rites of Dionysus, another of the many ancient gods whose myth included dying and being brought to life again; it has been conjectured that the extant Greek tragedies are descendants of rituals depicting these divine events. As for the theater of the European Middle Ages, there no conjecture is needed: we know quite certainly that this theater grew out of the liturgy of the Catholic Church, and specifically out of that moment in the Easter service describing the disciples’ discovery that Jesus had risen from the tomb. From this origin, there developed the huge cycles of Biblical plays which flourished in all the major countries of Europe, and which remain alive in such modern Passion Plays as that of Oberammergau in Austria or the one we saw in Old Town last week. In the Middle Ages, these were called Mystery Cycles, and it is a sign of how our culture and our theater have changed that nowadays most of us would expect a mystery cycle to be a television series based on Sleuth. We might equally expect a passion play to show us Sylvester Stallone and Raquel Welch in a bedroom at the Holiday Inn. But "mystery" derives from "ministerium,” which means "church service," and the original meaning of "passion" is ''suffering.”

Ancient rituals about dying and resurrected gods were probably intended to have a magical effect on divine and natural events. The modern Passion Play is supposedly quite different: it is a memorial, a reminder, an incitement towards the strengthening of Christian faith. All through the Old Town Passion Play, an announcer with a portable loudspeaker kept reminding the audience (mainly in Spanish) that this was only theater, that it was not reality, not ritual, not magic, but only a vivid means of reiterating the central Christian doctrine of Christ's sacrifice for our sins and the personal salvation that Christ’s death made possible. When Jesus, tied to a tree in Old Town Plaza, was being mercilessly scourged by a centurion, the announcer cautioned us not to believe in what we were seeing: this was nothing but a simulacrum, not Jesus but an actor, not a real whipping but a mere theatrical pretense. As the bloody, exhausted, thorn-crowned Jesus dragged the heavy cross along the Via Crucis (San Diego Avenue), the announcer insisted that the audience, following along behind and at either side, ought not simply to observe and empathize with Christ's suffering, but that we should try to understand and remember its doctrinal meaning; our sinfulness, Christ’s love, and so on.

And yet, for all this clerical moralizing, explaining, rationalizing, demystifying, all these attempts to make the Passion Play illustrative and instructive, like a parable in a sermon, still the ritual, magical power of the theatrical action itself could not be disguised. Christ and the two thieves were crucified on the rough hillside above Conde Street, the three skinny, youthful bodies hanging from the giant crosses against a background olive-green brush, prickly-pear cactus, violet ice-plant, and scattered clusters of yellow marguerite daisies. In a certain sense. I suppose, you could call this a mere illustration: a living tableau of a Renaissance painting of the crucifixion, like one you might see at the Laguna Beach Art Festival. But in spite of the fact that these were only actors, young fellows from Tijuana dressed in loincloths as though for a masquerade; in spite of the local kids, clambering over the hillside in order to get a better view and refusing to come down after repeated adjurations; in spite of the tourist who planted himself at the foot of Jesus’s cross to take photos; in spite of the modern American houses on the ridge of the hill, with their tall TV antennas, and a curious dog watching the unusual scene from a balcony and wagging his tail; in spite of the sermonizing of the announcer, whose pious, didactic, amplified voice nearly drowned out the hoarse, heart-rending cries of the crucified Christ, “Padre! Porqué me has abandonado?” — nevertheless, something else came through, like the intermittent opening of a lens into a world of terror and holiness and all-consuming reality: God, nailed to a cross, suffering, dying, dead. You might call this religious dread, or the ultimate power of ritual theater — but it was certainly something more than the illustration of a sermon.

What style of acting is appropriate to a Passion Play? This is not an easy problem to deal with, because of the very nature of Christian belief. An actor playing Osiris or Dionysus, in a ritual enactment of their deaths and resurrections, would have no doubts about the required acting style: formal, hieratic, lofty, totally godlike, with the vulnerable, expressive human face concealed behind a huge, inhuman, terrifying mask. These ancient pagan gods were one hundred percent divinities, and there was only one way they could be played. It is the peculiar characteristic of the Christian deity that Jesus was totally human, without ceasing to be totally God. He had real human flesh and real human emotions. He felt real disappointment when the disciples fell asleep in the garden of Gethsemane, and real thirst while hanging upon the cross. The scourging, the crown of thorns, the buffeting of the crowd, and the nails through Jesus’s hands and feet — all these caused real physical agony. Yet it was God who was suffering in this way, the creator and and savior of the world.

Christian art — whether painting, poetry, or drama — has always felt some perplexity in rendering this essential theological paradox. Some artists have represented Jesus as purely divine; lofty, immensely powerful, remote from the minds and bodies of ordinary men and women. Others have shown the same Jesus as entirely human, dwelling (sometimes even sentimentally) on the pathos of the suffering body, the wounds, the despair. Between the superhuman Pantocratic Christ looking down hypnotically from the vault of some Greek Orthodox churches, and the pathetic Sicilian adolescent in the Renaissance paintings of Antonello da Messina, there lies a whole range of possible representations of this paradoxical God-Man.

The same possibilities are to be found in the Passion Play, and it is to the credit of Juan Manuel Ramos, who played Jesus in the Old Town production, that he managed to convey something both the human and the more-than-human in his interpretation of the role. A slight, pale, sandy-haired youth, with a thin beard and moustache, Mr. Ramos seemed ideally suited to the image of the human and pathetic Jesus; the pitiableness of his limp, blood-stained body as he was carried in a sheet down from “Golgotha” was almost unbearable. But there were also elements of the Godhead in this interpretation: a face that even when it was expressing agony seemed to be expressing it through a grandeur from beyond this world. The impression of grandeur was enhanced by the rhetorical style of speech employed by most of the actors in this production. No one made an effort to speak with the casualness, hesitancy, and expressiveness of ordinary conversation — there were no Montgomery Clifts or Diane Keatons in the cast. Speeches were delivered rather than merely spoken, in a manner suggestive of the old-fashioned classical stage. This is a style that works poorly English by magnificently in a language like Spanish. Francisco Castro, who gave a sharply characterized performance as Pilate, effectively used the style to magnify the disdain, the sensuality, and the authoritarianism of the Roman procurator; Maria Gutierrez pressed it to the point of hysteria in her almost frightening portrayal of Mary lamenting her dead son; and Mr. Ramos, most successfully of all, continually transformed the formal, fortissimo, public rhetoric of his delivery of the lines into a convincing sign that Jesus was not simply a man suffering torture and death, but someone larger, greater, higher.

One of the most striking theatrical characteristics of the Passion Play (and the liturgical drama out of which it grew) is the intermixture of actors with audience, of acting-space and audience-space, of the play itself with the real-life setting it is performed in. In the Old Town production, there was no stage — or, rather, the stage was the entire area from the Plaza to Conde Street. The actors moved from place to place, the audience following them, and the natural and architectural landmarks of Old Town provided the setting for specific moments of the action. This kind of theater eliminates the separation between players and public that characterizes most indoor playhouses; the actors are among us, we move aside to let them pass, we follow in their footsteps, we can reach out and touch them. Another effect of such theater is to erase the distinction between the theater and the world. The play does not take place in a special building set aside for a special kind of activity; it is one activity among many in the real environment where people live, work, and pursue their varied desires. The result is an extraordinary increase in the sense of reality, and in the participation by the audience in the action of the drama.

In the Old Town Passion Play, there was one specific result of this unusual type of staging. That was to point up the acute differences between the attitudes and values depicted in the play and the attitudes and values of the modern American world — on the one hand, god, salvation, and faith; on the other, secularism, commerce, and pleasure. The ironic counterpoint between the action and the setting was a vital (if unintended) aesthetic element in this theatrical experience. So Jesus concluded the Last Supper with Hamburguesa as a backdrop. He took up the cross between Seeley Stable and the Casa de Pedrorena bakery. He suffered the first fall of the Via Crucis just before reaching the crowded and busy parking lot. He dragged the cross’s heavy weight past O’Hungry’s soup kitchen, the Hawtree Trading Company, and Taco Bell, all doing business as usual. In front of Something Special from Scandinavia, Simon the Cyrenian, dressed like Lawrence of Arabia, helped Jesus carry the cross. In from of the Old Town Saloon, Veronica offered her veil, while a motorcycle revved up ferociously three yards from Jesus’s bent body. He fell again near Spice of Life, and, after passing the Shell station, fell for the last time while making the turn at Angel’s Gift Shop. Cars passed, children played and shouted, merchants rung up sales, well-dressed holiday strollers amused themselves, the bright San Diego sun shone, and the pleasant, insouciant life of pretty, artificial Old Town went on in its ordinary fashion. From the vantage point of their crosses high on the hill, the actors playing Jesus and the thieves would have enjoyed a panoramic view of Interstate 5 and its heavy traffic, the long chain of faceless warehouses next to it, the pleasure craft strewn over Mission Bay, and the comfortable residences of Crown Point. Performed in one of the poorer barrios of Tijuana, this Passion Play might have produced quite a different effect; as it was, it seemed particularly alien, an intrusion from another planet, a sincere but somehow irrelevant voice crying in the wilderness.

The final scene of the play, which summed up all its qualities, took place in the little entrance garden of the Old Adobe Chapel (Historical Landmark No. 49) on Conde Street, where the body of Jesus had been carried after the crucifixion. Centurions in the leather armor and crimson capes barred the gateway and the door to the chapel. the audience, considerably diminished by this time, stood around in the street, watching curiously, casually. It was a long wait. Some spectators began to drift away towards the shops and restaurants. Then, suddenly, there was a banging from inside the chapel; the door burst open; the centurions fled; and there was Jesus, restored, alive, robed all in white, arms raised towards heaven, coming down the steps out into the street, making a path through the crowd. You did not have to be a believer to perceive the stupendous force of this moment; it was not merely magnificent theater, it was the essential moment of all possible theater, the single action towards which the theatrical imagination is inevitably drawn. For a Christian, of course, it was even more than that.

But theater is temporary, after all; it is only play acting; it comes to an end. Juan Manuel Ramos moved among his public, God risen from the dead; but after taking a dozen steps his body relaxed, he heaved a sigh of relief, and in an instant he had turned into a tired kid, thoroughly human, sweetly smiling, and receiving the congratulatory handshakes of his friends. The audience applauded briefly but warmly. A voice with a Spanish accent, addressing the crowd, said, “Thank you very much.” And that was the end of the San Diego Passion Play of 1979.

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