A Passion play is a religious drama of medieval origin dealing with the suffering, death, and Resurrection of Christ. Early Passion plays (in Latin) consisted of readings from the Gospel with interpolated poetical sections on the events of Christ’s Passion and related subjects, such as Mary Magdalene’s life and repentance, the raising of Lazarus, the Last Supper, and the lament of the Virgin Mary. Use of the vernacular in these interpolations led to the development of independent vernacular plays, the earliest surviving examples being in German. Such plays were at first only preludes to dramatic presentations of the Resurrection. The introduction of Satan (which became typical of German and Czech plays), and thus of introductory representations of the fall of Lucifer and the Fall of man (as in the early 14th-century Vienna Passion), and of scenes from the Old Testament and of the Last Judgment, led to development of cyclic plays similar to the Corpus Christi cycles. The great Celtic Passion cycles of Cornwall and Brittany, and the St. Gall Passion play (which begins with the entry of St. Augustine, who introduces the Old Testament prophets and patriarchs, and also includes the marriage at Cana), exemplify this type of Passion play.
The Tirol plays early formed a separate group, representing only scenes from the Passion and Resurrection. The Bohemian plays, such as the St. Eger Passion, developed from a simpler version of the Vienna Passion, were also distinct in style and incident.
The earliest Passion plays of France and Flanders are thought to have their source in a nondramatic narrative poem of the 13th century, the Passion des jongleurs. These plays became highly elaborated in the course of their development, culminating in performances (Mons, 1501; Valenciennes, 1547) lasting more than a week. Confraternities were founded for performance of Passion plays, the most famous being the Confrérie de la Passion (1402). Passion plays were also performed in Spain, Italy, and elsewhere, with local variations.
By the 16th century, many of the Passion plays, debased by secular influences, had degenerated into mere popular entertainments, full of crude slapstick and buffoonery. Many were forbidden by ecclesiastical authorities, and many more were suppressed after the Reformation.
The most famous of the Passion plays to survive into the 20th century is that performed at Oberammergau, in the Bavarian Alps. According to tradition, the play has been presented every 10 years since 1634, in fulfillment of a vow made after the village was spared an epidemic of plague (shifting to decennial years in 1700), except in 1870 during the Franco-Prussian War and World War II, when religious plays were banned. It remains an entirely local production, with villagers taking all the parts and singing in the chorus. Since 1930 roofed seats have protected the audience from the weather. The production runs from May through September. Some villagers and some Jewish organizations have protested anti-Semitic overtones in the 1860 text. Traditional Passion plays have also been revived in villages in the Austrian Tirol. In northern Spain, during Lent and Holy Week, a Catalan Passion play is performed by villagers; and in Tegelen, in the Netherlands, a modern play by the Dutch poet Jacques Scheurs is given every five years.