A passion play is a dramatization of the suffering and crucifixion of Jesus of Nazareth, also called the Christ, the founder of Christianity. The roots of this dramatic form can be traced as far back as the ancient Egyptians, who performed plays dedicated to Osiris, the god of the underworld and judge of the dead. The passion play was also influenced by the Greeks, who acted out plays in honor of Dionysus, the god of fertility, wine, and drama. During the Middle Ages (c. 450–c. 1500) these plays were centered primarily on Jesus Christ and were performed in Latin by clergymen. By the thirteenth century many passion plays were being performed in German by laymen rather than the clergy. By the fifteenth century the passion play had become somewhat degraded through contact with carnival plays and the religious community forbade further performances.
The passion play then became a part of the miracle play, which involved acting out the lives of saints or the Virgin Mary (the mother of Jesus) in exchange for favors or as a demonstration of devotion. When the bubonic plague (also known as the Black Death) ravaged Europe (1347–50) the villagers of Oberammergau, Germany (in the Bavarian Alps), vowed to perform a passion play every ten years from then on in hopes of being spared from the deadly disease. They first performed the play in 1634 and have continued to stage it every ten years.
Further Information: "Passion Plays." Electric Library. [Online] Available http://www.encyclopedia.com/articles/13369.html, October 23, 2000; "Passion Plays." MSN Encarta. [Online] Available http://encarta.msn.com/index/conciseindex/15/015BD000.htm, October 23, 2000; Sticca, Sandro. Latin Passion Play. Albany, N.Y.: State University of New York Press, 1970.