A Tale of Two Passions
It is often said that life is stranger than fiction. Fair enough, I wouldn’t argue with this. Here I wish to point out two cases where fiction, narrative, or stories influence life. Admittedly, this is not any story, but the story based on the Passion.
Kazantzakis, perhaps best known for having written that other passionate character, Zorba the Greek, published his version of the Passion, Christ Recrucified, in 1948. It is a novel set in a Greek village in Asia Minor during the Ottoman Empire. The villagers are given a free hand in the running of their village affairs as long as they keep quiet, and the Agha (the local Ottoman governor), who likes to enjoy life’s little pleasures, happy.
Trouble, and the plot, comes to the village with the sudden arrival of a group of refugees led by their priest – their village was destroyed by the Turks in the fermenting tensions between Greece and the crumbling Empire. The locals don’t want the refugees in their village, but turn a blind eye, initially, to their camping on a barren mountainside just outside the village.
It is Easter Week approaching, and the village elders are preoccupied with allocating the roles of the Passion story to the locals: who will be “Judas,” “Christ,” or “Mary Magdalene?” Once the preparations for the Holy Week are underway, the chosen actors begin to identify with their allocated characters; they become more saintly, with the exception of “Judas” who becomes treacherous. The novel then takes off, with the actors coming in between the newly arrived refugees and their needs for food and shelter, and the resenting and increasingly intolerant locals. It has a terrific climax, wonderful psychological portraits both of individuals and social groups; it is one of my favourite Greek novels.
Well, in the Bavarian village of Oberammergau, in the foothills of the Alps, another Passion Play has been performed for centuries. In the year 1633, the village suffering from the plague, struck a deal with God: they would perform the Passion Play every ten years if God, in return, kept them free from the plague. Both sides seem to have kept their bargain – though the villagers did not hold the metaphorical plague of the World War II against God – and the play goes on. This year, 2010, sees the 41st performance.
The village performs the Play wholeheartedly, with villagers living and growing up with the preparations and performances all through their lives. Their aspirations, dreams and competition for the main roles achieve the status of basic needs. However, only those born and bred there, or those who have lived for at least twenty years in the village, are allowed to take part. Over two thousand locals (half the village) are involved in the performances that last the whole summer, from May to October, performing to an audience of over four thousand people daily! The rest are involved in the catering for and accommodating of the thousands of visitors in a small village.
Now the reason I brought these two together here, the novel by Kazantzakis and the performances of the Passion Play in real life Oberammergau, is more than that they share the same basic story; more important than the fact (and my need to brag about it) that I will be going to see the Play this year; more than the influence that Kazantzakis’ novel had on the background to my own novel, Alexandria’s 40: In the Shade of the Lemon Tree. It is how in both, Kazantzakis’ novel and the village of the Passion Play, a similar psychological phenomenon seems to be taking place. The actors tend to become more like the characters of the Passion story. The villages tend to show similarities with the folk of the original story.
In Oberammergau, one of the locals cast as Virgin Mary, I read, refused to marry afterwards; one of the “Jesuses” kept ‘blessing people’ long after the performance was over. One of the actors playing this year’s “Jesus” is reportedly tempted to defer to the actors who played previously “Jesus” and let them mount the donkey entering Jerusalem. There is also the story of King Ludwig II, making presents of silver spoons to the actors of the performance he attended, with the exception of “Judas,” to whom he gave a tin spoon. As for the village politics, they are reported to be tinged with the sometimes polarizing passions of the original story.
In the Kazantzakis novel, a similar but more pronounced process seems to be taking place. The main characters of the Play take on the qualities of those they portray. The actor Judas behaves like “Judas,” the local prostitute starts behaving like “Mary Magdalene,” similarly “apostle Peter” and “Christ.” The villagers and the mob equally seem to become caught in a web that almost dictates a necessity of action that follows the Passion. It is as if a need arises for the Play to become embodied and concretely played out in the village of the novel.
It is this unsettling echo between the two depictions I wish to highlight. Even on the side of the spectator, newspaper articles about the Oberammergau Play, inchluding the Spiegel online, attract our attention by reporting that one of this year’s chosen inhabitants to portray “Jesus” is a psychologist; “Mary Magdalene” a Lufthansa flight attendant. This points to an expectation in ourselves to weld together the roles in the Passion Play with the Oberammergau locals playing them. When they do not fit – after all who would have thought of Christ been played by a psychologist? – a sense of discrepancy, perhaps a sense of the Uncanny arises.
An interesting analogy may be found in the discrepancy between what one wants to say and the way one expresses it through language, which is smaller in one’s native language than in a second/adopted language. While in the first case the metaphor of “bathing in language” is appropriate, in the second – when the gap between what one wishes to say and the way it is said is too wide – the expression “like bathing in a ski-suit” has been used by Tammy Ho Lai-Ming. A shift from the latter, uncanny experience to the more comfortable one of having the appropriate linguistic tools (the “bathing suit”) to express oneself is accomplishable through practice. In real-life Oberammergau, the endless rehearsals, revisions and reworking of the text, the advice sought and given, ensure that the fit between the Passion and its performance improves with each passing decade.
Kazantzakis’ novel, of course, has the advantage of setting this theme of the actor, the role and reality on a fictional stage. On this stage, the actors no longer simply perform but rather re-enact – as if the role fitted them like a glove. Better still, as if there were no distance between the narrative of the Play, the specific role, and the self. Or, as if: “World and dream are one,” as a boy in the novel sings to the Agha.
But then perhaps I am making too much of this: after all, one of the Oberammergau inhabitants who played Christ in the year 2000 performance is now, in the year 2010, playing Judas!