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Crashing the Passion Play

Over seven million people have seen the Great Passion Play of Eureka Springs, Arkansas, since its opening in 1969. The play was founded by a Midwestern preacher and politician, Gerald L.K. Smith, whose thrice-failed bid for president promised “the preservation of our Christian faith against the threat of Jew Communism.” It has been re-written several times since Smith’s death in 1976, and I wanted to see if it still reflected its anti-Semitic roots—not only was Smith an avowed foe of “Christ-hating Jews,” but Passion Plays as a genre have a troubled history dating back to the Middle Ages. The most interesting way to see the show, I decided, was from the inside. So I volunteered as an extra.

While researching Rapture Ready, my exploration of Christian pop culture, I planned always to identify myself and my intentions honestly. But The Great Passion Play has had some bad experience with the media so I decided, just this once, to go incognito… and just avoid any outright lies. I called the 800 number and asked if there were any openings.

The man who answered seemed disappointed that I hadn’t seen the show. “We usually ask people to be familiar with the play first.”

“I understand,” I said, seeing my opportunity slip away. “but I was really hoping to do this.” And then I heard myself say, “It’s something I felt called to do.”

“Do you have your own sandals?” he asked.

“You the fella from New York?” A man wearing a security badge gripped my hand and led me through a gate into first century Jerusalem. The effect of the set, which stretched the length of two football fields, was stunning: Sand and grit swirled around a dense row of buildings. Jars of clay rested alongside a stone well. It was as if an entire street had been lifted out of time and plopped down at the base of an Arkansas hill.

The guard pointed me backstage to a small, bunker-like dressing room crowded with men and women in period dress sipping Diet Cokes. The room’s matron sized me up for a costume — a pile of rough, earth-toned linen and rope – and introduced me to a big man with a warm, snaggletoothed smile. “My name’s Danny,” he said.

“I’m Daniel.”

“Well how about that!”

I liked Danny immediately. He explained that as an extra, my job would be to enhance the illusion of a bustling city, carrying props and making appropriate gesticulations in crowd scenes. I would not have any lines, but then, nobody would, really. All the dialogue in The Great Passion Play is pre-recorded and played through loudspeakers at the front of the seats. Actors lip-synch their dialogue with broad gestures. The audience, 20 feet above the set and at least 400 feet from where most of the action takes place, is too far away to actually hear anything, so Danny could talk me through scenes as we do them. “Some nights I play King Herod,” he said wistfully as I belted my mantle. “Tonight I’m just a traveler, so you can be my assistant or something.”

“OK, your attention please, everybody.” The matron came out from behind her counter. “A few quick announcements. We’re a small group again tonight, so when Jesus comes out, please do not all run over to him. We need to keep the stage populated. If you feel the need to go to Jesus, at least try not to bunch up.” She went on to an issue that was apparently related to the reduced number of volunteer actors. “The office has made an important decision about next season. Starting in the spring, we’ll have Monday nights off too. Now let’s pray.”

A few minutes later I was outside, waiting with Danny at the dark end of an alley for our cue. “We’ll follow the sheep,” said Danny. A couple of giggly children in shepherd costumes slapped each other playfully.

The music began. The kids chased a dozen sheep onto the set and we set off after them. Around us, women fetched water from the well, priests climbed the temple steps, and everyone made way for a man leading a camel. I followed Danny confidently through this chaos to the far side of the stage, where we stepped into the semi-darkness and stopped again. My first scene was over.

While we waited offstage again, a spotlight came up on a palace, where the Sanhedrin, the council of Jewish priests, was holding an urgent discussion.

“What are we to do? This man does many miracles.” The priests waved their arms for attention as their lines played through the loudspeakers.

“If we do not intervene, all men will believe in him!” Considering that the dialogue needed to be recorded only once, you’d think it would have been done by professional actors. This did not seem to be the case.

In the next scene, Danny and I stepped out through a stone arch and were confronted by two teenage centurions in red cloaks and crested helmets. “Halt!” boomed a voice over the loudspeaker. The unamplified soldiers pawed at our satchels. “What do you got in there, drugs?” one asked. We ambled over toward Herod’s palace where we pantomimed a sales pitch for earthenware pots until the king and queen threw oversized wooden shekels at us. “I want a receipt,” the queen joked.

The main action, of course, was taking place elsewhere. But it was difficult to hear the speakers from where we were, so I had very little idea what was going on until Jesus rode in on an ass and everybody ran over to him, just as we had been instructed not to do.

He began grasping outstretched hands like a politician working a rope line. “Did you touch him?” Danny asked me. From his gestures, I gathered this was meant to be in character.

"I couldn’t get close enough.”

Danny nodded. “He’s our best Jesus. We’ve got three, but he’s the one who really looks the part.” The crowd dispersed as Jesus began healing lepers. “That’s a good role,” Danny continued. “He gets a lot of lines.”

As the action moved back to the temple we stayed off to the side, populating the stage. Danny asked me, “So, do you go to church up there in New York?”

“Uh… Yeah, sure.” It’s not exactly a lie, I told myself. We just call it “synagogue.”

“What kind?”

“Nondenominational.” OK, that was a lie, but at least it would end this line of questioning.

“Church of Christ?”

Fuck. I mentally riffled through the books I’d been reading about evangelicalism. If he asked, does it mean he’s Church of Christ? “No… Uh…” Danny smiled kindly waiting for me to go on. And then, just at that moment, Jesus saved me. Not in his usual manner, but by causing a distraction — kicking over tables on the temple steps.

By my next scene, the tide had turned against Jesus. “Shake your fist or something,” Danny advised. Jesus was paraded past us in chains, and it fell to Danny’s character to turn to a neighbor and deliver the line that would express our growing antipathy toward this false prophet. Raising his arms, Danny caught a buddy’s eye. “I just realized,” he mock shouted, as the loudspeaker blared his actual dialogue. “With the new schedule, not working Monday nights, we’re going to get to see every single NFL game!”

Off stage again, Danny and I watched a guilt-ridden Judas hurl his blood money to the floor. “He’s a pilot for Wal-Mart,” Danny said. “Whenever one of the executives wants to fly somewhere, he’s the guy that takes them. He makes good money doing that.”

“Well he’s making good money here tonight.”

Perhaps for the best, Danny missed my lame thirty-pieces-of-silver joke. “Nah, not so much,” he replied. “He makes maybe twenty, thirty dollars a night. The Christ figures, they make a hundred and twenty.”

“Why do you do it?” I asked.

“Ministry,” he said quickly and earnestly. We looked back at the stage. “And put a little extra money in my pocket,” he added. “Plus we get free tickets to all the shows in Branson.”

Danny stood. “Big scene coming up,” he told me. We navigated toward the alley where we would make our next entrance, avoiding the audience’s sight lines. Along the way, we passed three women in their early 20s gossiping happily. “These girls are from Texas,” Danny said as we stopped to say hello. “Daniel here is from New York.”

“New York?” gasped one, laughing. “Get a rope!” From her hasty, “Only joking” I gathered that she was indeed proposing a lynching, and that she thought this was something to joke about. Much later, a non-New Yorker informed me that she was probably parroting a catch phrase from a regional salsa commercial. That might have made a difference.

A palace in Jerusalem, two thousand years ago. Outside, a crowd has gathered. Pontius Pilate steps forward as his soldiers drag a beaten Jesus behind him. “As you can all see, this poor man has been punished severely,” he tells the onlookers. “Therefore it is my desire, in expression of the goodness of Rome, to release him.”

The crowd explodes. “No! No! He must be crucified!”

“But why? Clearly this man has done nothing to deserve death. Therefore, I propose to let him off with a flogging.” Two soldiers tie Jesus to a post and begin lashing him as the crowd screams for blood. When it is over, Pilate stands above him. “Behold your king. He has been flogged, beaten, ridiculed, spit upon. What more can you want?” “He must be crucified!” The crowd shrieks as one. “Crucify him! Still, the compassionate Pilate can not believe his ears. “Crucify him?” “Crucify him!” Pilate calls for a bowl of water. “My hands are clean of this innocent man’s blood. I ask you one last and final time, what would you have me do with him?” “Crucify him!”

I don’t know how this scene played in the audience. No doubt the hammy acting, the stiff dialogue, the church-pageant costumes and cornball music all worked mightily against any emotional engagement. But as I stood in the jostling crowd on that dusty set, some strange alchemy took place. There were spectators out there somewhere, but all I could see was inky darkness. The sky, far from any city, was black and dizzy with stars, exactly as it must have been two thousand years ago. All around me, dozens of presumably well-meaning Christians were representing themselves as Jews and acting out a scene that for centuries has been used to justify hatred and oppression.

Not only was I feeling sick about being along for the ride, but I started to have this mad hallucination that I had fallen into some eternal retelling of this story — that I was back at the actual moment of Jesus’s ordeal; or rather, at the moment when whatever in fact happened on that day was first re-experienced as a story of persecution by a Jewish mob. I was under the gaze not merely of a few hundred contemporary Americans but of all past and future generations. I was at a lynchpin of history, and I had choice: be complicit in this grotesque distortion of events — or try to change it.

“Maybe we should reconsider this!” I shouted desperately. “Maybe a flogging is enough!”

Danny laughed. He hadn’t heard that one before. The audience couldn’t hear me, of course, but they could see me. The rest of the cast shouted and shook their fists. From behind me, four Jews emerged with masks over their faces and cudgels in their hands, pushing through the crowd to get in a few more shots at the fallen Jesus.

I waved my arms for them to stop. I turned away, burying my face in my hands. I exaggerated every movement so that even from 400 feet away the audience might see something that they had never witnessed before, never considered: a compassionate Jew who was not willing to accept Jesus as the messiah, but who didn’t want him tortured to death either.

The jeering crowd followed Jesus offstage as he dragged his heavy cross and set off up the hillside to Golgotha of the Ozarks, and I genuinely felt like I’d failed. Danny put a hand out to stop me. “It’s pretty steep up there, and we don’t have insurance for volunteers.”

Watching the end of the drama unfold, I felt glum. My silly gestures hadn’t made the Passion play any less offensive, and as for dispelling the stereotype of cunning, manipulative Jews — I fiddled with the digital recorder I’d hidden in my pocket and tried to count the lies and half-truths that had brought me here. I imagined the look of disappointment on Danny’s face.

But I don’t think I deserved to be lynched.

Excerpted from Rapture Ready! by Daniel Radosh, published by Scribner.

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