The Rise of American-Medieval Hybrid Passion Plays

From the Lecture Series: The Medieval Legacy

By Carol Symes, University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign

Oberammergau, a Bavarian Passion play, made the genre extremely popular after which home-grown medieval plays began springing up in the United States. However, it was in March of 1879, that an entrepreneur, called Salmi Morse, created a sensation by staging The Passion: A Miracle Play in Ten Acts for enthusiastic audiences in San Francisco.

A vintage combination of a theatre building.
The Oberammergau was a Bavarian Passion play that was performed every 10 years in Oberammergau. (Image: Rijksmuseum/Public domain)

The Passion: A Miracle Play in Ten Acts

It was in 1878 that Salmi Morse hit upon the idea to capitalize on the Oberammergau Passion Play’s enormous popularity.

The Oberammergau Passion Play was a Bavarian play, a medieval version of Christ’s Passion performed every 10 years. Morse mounted a production overseen by the theatrical impresario David Belasco and featuring the 32-year-old James O’Neill in his first starring role—as Jesus.

Like its Bavarian model, this spectacle was a huge extravaganza requiring an enormous cast, including, allegedly, a hundred real mothers cradling real infants—standing in for the Slaughter of the Innocents—and a flock of real sheep.


Although the theatrical depiction of religious subject matter was considered blasphemous by many critics, Morse had taken care to secure the blessing of the city’s Roman Catholic archbishop and had advertised The Passion as appropriate for the season of Lent.

As such, an attempt to restage the play in New York City, the following year, was blocked by the city’s Protestant aldermen, who viewed the play as Catholic propaganda. In 1897, however, a 19-minute silent film version was made by the enterprising owner of a Broadway wax museum and picture show palace. He used local actors, and yet billed this entertainment, accompanied by live music, as an authentic version of the Oberammergau Passion.

This article comes directly from content in the video series The Medieval Legacy. Watch it now, on Wondrium.

Local Passion Plays Find Roots

In the ensuing decades, an uncounted number of annual local Passion plays became rooted throughout the US. The longest running has been staged in North Hudson, New Jersey, since 1915. Perennial productions were also inaugurated in Arizona, Florida, Illinois, and Oklahoma during the 1920s. The most well-known of these American-medieval hybrids was the Black Hills Passion Play, staged each summer from 1939 to 2008 in Spearfish, South Dakota, and attracting some 150,000 visitors annually.

As Claire Sponsler has shown in her book, Ritual Imports: Performing Medieval Drama in America, a great deal of this play’s success was predicated on its alleged pedigree—not shared by any other American Passion play—of direct descent from a 13th century text (which probably never existed) brought to the states by an amateur German actor who claimed be a 7th generation performer of that authentic medieval Passionspiel. That guiding spirit was Josef Meier, an immigrant from Lünen, an industrial town in northern Germany with no historically attested medieval Passion play tradition.

A Play for German Immigrants

A photo showing actors performing a Passion Play.
Passion plays had become all the rage in the early 20th century. (Image: Internet Archive Book Images/Public domain)

And yet apparently, by some time in the early 20th century, Lünen, an unlikely and unpicturesque German town was staging what it claimed to be a 700-year-old script that claimed to predate the much more famous spectacle at Oberammergau.

A visit to Lünen had, thus, inflamed the imagination of a tourist from Pittsburgh, a man called Fred Hardesty, who tried to persuade Meier’s father, who had portrayed Jesus, to bring the Lünen play to America. Instead, the 28-year-old Josef took over the role and recruited a troupe of local actors who traveled to Pittsburgh in 1932, where they initially planned to perform for German immigrant communities. But Meier soon discovered that the production could draw much larger and more diverse audiences and began to perform the play in English.

Customizing for the Audience

For the next six years, his small company toured the United States, enlisting the enthusiastic support of local communities—even in the depths of the Depression.

Unlike his West Coast predecessor, Morse, Meier cannily avoided New York and other major cities. He also made efforts to tone down what he rightly described as the “hateful language” of the “old version” of the play, removing passages and scenes that were openly anti-Semitic—at precisely the time when those same elements were being heightened at Oberammergau, with the explicit encouragement of the Nazi regime.

Downplaying Teutonic Roots

Meier was thus able to bill his version of the play as simultaneously authentic and up-to-date, and himself as the inheritor of an unbroken, centuries-long performance tradition that had eventually found its permanent home in another remote village, this time in the Black Hills rather than the Bavarian Alps.

In their advertising campaigns, local Spearfish businessmen packaged the play as one of the many sights to be seen by visitors, who would also be enticed to view Mount Rushmore and other tourist attractions.

However, with the ascendancy of Nazism in Germany, the original ‘Teutonic’ roots of the so-called ‘Luenen Passion’ were now being carefully downplayed; a new (mythical) origin story now held that the play had originally been written in Latin by medieval monks, before being translated for the laity—but only after the Protestant Reformation.

How Passion Plays Became an American Institution

At the same time, the manifestly commercial raison d’être of the play was carefully disguised by copying aspects of the Oberammergau Passion playbook, which had long conflated the actors with their spiritual alter-egos. By the 1940s, the actor Josef Maier had become Jesus, his American wife Clare was the Virgin Mary, and their own baby daughter, Johanna, was ‘the Child’ Jesus, the pious company’s youngest member.

The Black Hills Passion Play thus evolved into a thoroughly American institution, with the cult of the middle-class Meier family at its center. Meier himself, while continuing to play the role of Jesus for decades was increasingly pictured in lavishly illustrated brochures as a Roy Rogers-style rancher, complete with rearing white stallion.

Common Questions about Passion Plays

Q: Who was Salmi Morse?

Salmi Morse was an entrepreneur who staged The Passion: A Miracle Play in Ten Acts in San Francisco in 1879 and kicked off the trend of American-medieval hybrid passion plays in America.

Q: What was the Oberammergau?

The Oberammergau was a Bavarian Passion play, a medieval version of Christ’s Passion.

Q: Which script claimed to predate Oberammergau?

By some time in the early 20th century, Lünen, an unlikely and unpicturesque German town was staging what it claimed to be a 700-year-old script that claimed to predate the much more famous spectacle at Oberammergau.

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