More than 6 million of the faithful have lined up for Arkansas’s Great Passion Play. Art is where you find it.
I’m looking forward to when Our Savior gets lifted up on that wire,” says the man next to me. His name is Earl Potjeau and he is pointing to a cable high above our heads. We are sitting with 4,000 other Christians on Mount Oberammergau in northwestern Arkansas, waiting for the Great Passion Play to begin. Over on its own mountain, seven stories tall, its arms outstretched in invitation, the Christ of the Ozarks statue gleams in the setting sun. In the valley right below us lies the city of Jerusalem, 500 feet wide and 400 feet deep, with Calvary about 100 yards upstage on an opposing hill. The camels have been called to places. In the aisles, circulating among a Baptist youth group wearing T-shirts that read Jesus – the Rock that Rules, a shepherd sells programs and paper fans printed with fruitily sentimental depictions of scenes from the New Testament. Earl and his wife have driven to Eureka Springs from Alabama to watch this spectacular reenactment of the last week in Jesus’s life. Earl, a farmer, looks to be about 50. This is his first play ever, but he already knows the plot. “All I know is what I’ve studied in the Bible. I hope they’re not going to change it any.”Order now
Earl says this serenely, securely unaware that the Crusades had been launched for less, but I feel, for the first of many times during my weekend in the Ozarks, Zero at the Bone. The image is Emily Dickinson’s, who uses it when she accidentally meets a snake in the grass. Coastal Americans, educated Americans and artists find fundamentalist Christians very easy to feel superior to, very easy to imitate for laughs and perilously easy to dismiss. Yet righteous, filled-with-the-spirit Earl Potjeau would be as upset by any alteration to Holy Gospel to suit dramatic license as civil libertarians of every stripe are with current efforts to diddle the First Amendment. The difference is that Earl, like the Crusaders, will be far easier to mobilize. Paul says to the Ephesians: Therefore put on the full armor of God, so that when the day of evil comes, you may be able to stand your ground, and after you have done everything, to stand (6:13).
Evangelicals, at least the kind I grew up with, believe in a life of personal witness, which means a retelling of their personal experience of Jesus Christ and his redeeming love. I feel bound to get out some of my own witness before I start criticizing what I saw in Arkansas. My adolescence was spent in one of the centers of the Bible Belt, a Chicago suburb of 40,000 where the churches outnumber the gas stations by a substantial margin. Over the years I watched more and more of my friends and family members cross over to Christ. Pat Robertson, the Bakkers, Jerry Falwell, Ernest Ainsley, Jimmy Swaggart and a host of lesser UHF lights pitched continuous woo from the portable TV over the dishwasher. Demons were cast out of strangers in our living room. My mother kept, may still keep, oil in her glove compartment for healing calls. Since I was 15 I’ve been hearing tongues and testimony and seeing prayers get answered in powerful, uncomfortable ways.
On the other hand, the people I lived among, and still choose to visit, make lots of money, own vacation homes and freely stalk the malls like everyone else. They use computers. Their faith is ordinary; most have had it from birth, so it’s a reflex . They are no more or no less petty or sanctified or loving or sly or banal or interesting than any other subset of Americans, but they have a worldview. They know they are saved, and it is that spot reserved in heaven especially for them that makes them complacent and irritating and gets me into trouble. America was founded as a Christian nation, and they want it back. While it is indeed far more expedient to regard the religious right as a horde of tacky, snake-handling nutbags, that has not been my experience; because I have seen Christ work miracles in people’s lives, I cannot write their faith away.
So even if my family was thrilled that I was being sent to Eureka Springs, I was afraid. I was going alone. There we’d be, 4,100 self-satisfied soldiers of Christ and one susceptible fence-sitter with a pad and pen. My armor would be a lifetime of self-distancing paratexts – Emily Dickinson, Flannery O’Connor, “Hee Haw,” Elmer Gantry, Walt Whitman – a useless, useless slingshot before a population completely without irony, a population for whom there is only one text, and that Word was God. After 25 years of operation, the Great Passion Play in Eureka Springs received its six millionth paying customer this summer on faith and word-of-mouth alone. Christ’s final days, from Palm Sunday to the Ascension, are historically bigger than LORT, and they don’t need the publicity. How, I wondered, was I ever going to get back?
Eureka Springs, which flourished as a mineral spa earlier in the century, is now also one of the essential destinations for vacationing Christians from around the world. Owned and operated by the Elna M. Smith Foundation, the Great Passion Play was chartered by Gerald L.K. Smith and Elna M. Smith, who, having retired to Eureka Springs after long and prayerful lives, had a vision to uplift Christ and bring his message to all people. The Passion Play, which opened on July 15, 1968, is but one of five Sacred Projects that fulfills this vision. The others are the Christ of the Ozarks statue, which was designed by Emmett Sullivan, who worked on Mt. Rushmore; the Christ Only Art Gallery, featuring more than 1,000 pieces of religious art in 64 different media, including butterfly wings; the Bible Museum, which houses more than 7,000 Bibles printed in 625 languages; and the New Holy Land, an ambitious project begun in 1990 to recreate a full-scale representation of the significant events in the life of Christ. To date, the Dead Sea, the River Jordan, the Temple Gate and the Nativity have been completed on the 50-acre site. But, from the end of April to the end of October, the Passion Play is the real draw.
Friday evening, after landing in Springfield, Mo. and driving two hours to Eureka Springs, I check into the Jordan Drive Hide-away. My hostess, Lavonne Snyder, tells me I should go early to the Passion Play because there are lots of “free things before the show.” Christians love bargains; swap-meets and All You Can Eat, I believe, originated with them. But I prefer a gradual reentry into the Life and elect to stop at the Dixie Pit Bar BQ and dine with some secular humanists instead, maybe overhear what they have to say about their man from Hope, who had selected Senator Gore as his running mate only the day before. Well, baptism isn’t a slow immersion – as I walk in, a group of teenagers holding hands and praying over their food in free-form cadences takes me straight back to my high school lunchroom. The familiar cackle of Christian women set loose for the night from nonbelieving husbands sounds from the right. They all have pie, and are going to see Anita Bryant in her show just up the road. I eat pork barbecue and fried okra at a table with a Mennonite family. Everyone is white. All weekend long, everyone is white as paint – no freckles, no olive complexions, no tans, just Walker Evans white, Boo Radley white, “Duelling Banjos” white.
More than 200 actors appear in the spectacle I am about to witness, and there isn’t a single person of color in the cast. If you ask Don Berrigan, for seven years the director of the Passion Play, why there are no African-Americans in the cast, he will tell you that there are no blacks in that part of the state. There are other reasons why the National Endowment for the Arts or Theatre Communications Group might look askance at what’s going down in Old Jerusalem, but, as I hope I’ve been making clear, the NEA has more to fear from the Smith Foundation than the other way around. But I’m getting ahead of myself.
The Potjeaus and I are excited as show time approaches. By 8:20, Roman guards are taking their stations at the city gates. A voice comes over the sound system. “There are those who believe that Jesus was no more than a prophet, a martyred reformer … we ask your permission to go with us into heaven … feel the significance of the Crucifixion … feel a reawakening of Christ’s love in hardened and unbelieving hearts … otherwise, Calvary is no more than a common execution.”
Well, without giving away the plot, let me just say that the production was thorough, and, although I would have liked to see Judas hanging in a tree, the Passion Play is better than Sunday School as a way to nail down just who tertiary characters like Barabbas, Emmaeus, Nicodemus and Joseph of Arimathea were. I did feel that the author spent too much time with the power-broking Sanhedrin and not enough with Jesus or the women characters. The sense of spectacle is excellent, and the director does a great job of telling us where to look on a stage the equivalent of a raked football field. It’s thrilling to go from an empty street to an open market scene with 200 actors and herds of livestock in 30 seconds, and when the fickle populace tears up the hill by torchlight to arrest Jesus, it looks just like an old Frankenstein movie. The Last Supper is appropriately edifying, and they don’t stint on the stage blood.
The most troubling aspect of the Passion Play is its pre-recorded soundtrack – lines, whips, laughter, miracles, hooves, the peas and carrots of the crowd scenes, everything is on a tape made long ago. So skilled are the actors at miming their parts, it took me 20 minutes to conclude that the show was not miked, but dubbed. I suppose it is spiritually fitting that the story and the words are more powerful than any actor, and individuals, all equal before the Lord, can only humble themselves in roles that can never change. Theatrically, though, there is no spark between the human and the divine; all the good people of Eureka Springs are replaceable mannequins, which seems uncomfortably close to received ideas about evangelicals anyway.
The audience, for its part, is rapt throughout. They laugh at Herod’s more outrageous bits of business, and applaud twice – once when the rock rolls away from the tomb while the angel appears in a blaze of light, and again when Jesus ascends into heaven. “Only follow me,” Jesus calls to his followers across the centuries, rising 40 feet into the air. As he disappears into the trees, a spot remains on his cross, and the “Hallelujah Chorus” bumps up over the soundtrack. Tears are streaming down Earl’s face. There is no curtain call.
I wake up at 4 a.m. from a terrifying vision. I am in a parked car with a friend. We watch a man in another parked car smother a baby with a white handkerchief, then swaddle him in it. He stuffs the child into the glove compartment. He knows we are watching him, dares us to tell. His car disappears. I meet up with many people, but I do not report what I have seen. I am sweating profusely when I wake. The trees are too close to the house. This is not a nightmare, this is prophecy. This is why I was afraid to come.
In the morning, over breakfast, I do some non-licensed dream work. The dead baby is a political issue, and my silence is Peter’s. I am not at all reassured. I still have to tour the Holy Land.
Our guide for the backstage set tour had played the role of Phillip the night before. He and his wife, who was also in the show, are Methodist ministers between churches. A theatre major at one time, he lets us in on Passion Play trade secrets. He shows us the breakaway tables used when Jesus cleanses the temple, and the scrim for his magical “appearance” in the Upper Room. The resurrection belt is by Foy, the people who fly Peter Pan. There are two actors who appear as Jesus. David Bland is an insurance salesman who started in the Passion Play at the age of 13. Joe Smith is a high school art teacher. The oldest cast member is 85-year-old Laura Colvin, who uses a cane but has come every night for 25 years. Children mature, marry, and raise their own children on Mount Oberammergau – family values for an election or any other year. Teenagers start as street people, then raise themselves up to become lepers, guards, priests, etc. Those with star quality are earmarked for the big parts and stay with them – Ole Herod has been camping his way through the part for 18 years. The pay is low, scaled to seniority and dramatic complexity. Our guide says most look upon the work as a ministry. While no spiritual qualifications are necessary to be in the Passion Play, many have become Christian by being in it. To the guide’s recollection, no one had ever left the Passion Play to become an actor in New York.
Although the show is taped, he also explains that players are instructed to memorize the lines, not only because it helps them with their acting, but because the Foundation likes to uphold the simulacrum for patrons with binoculars. The show – four reels of tape in sync with a computerized light board – is run from a booth under the audience. Nothing can ever go wrong. “A computer is a lot more efficient than human hands.” The only live sound is a hammer on an anvil used when Christ is nailed to the cross.
I head to historic downtown Eureka Springs, all of it limestone. Hatchet Hall, the last home of Carrie Nation, is closed. I am not in the market for gingham. throws, so I wander listlessly through nests of boutiques until something stops me in a jumble shop. A Nile-green skeleton with a tambour is dancing on a black skeleton with a tambour is dancing on a black background under blood-red block letters: Federal Theatre Presents Marlowe’s Faustus. An original WPA poster for the 1937 Orson Welles production. After blanching in front of a series of truly demented canvases in the Christ Only Gallery, the lithograph strikes me as a secular treasure of staggering connections: Welles, Marlowe, the Dance of Death, the Federal Theatre Project a government that actually created opportunities for artists during a time of economic disaster. What on earth is it doing there? Is this from God? Is this from the Enemy? Will they take a check?
Saturday night, I interview Don Berrigan in Jerusalem as the play progresses around us. Originally in film and theatre on the West Coast, Berrigan had been with the Passion Play for eight seasons. As we talk, he uses a hand-held tape recorder to take performance notes for the cast. Around 10:15,, we climb up to Calvary for the Crucifixion with the rest of the cast. A soft-spoken man, he nevertheless holds firm opinions.
“The audience doesn’t know whether they’re in a church or a theatre. That’s why they don’t respond much.”
“The biggest challenge with a show like this is cast morale. We’ve got some hill people in the company – if you yell at one, the whole family is mad at you.”
“We have to come up with the minimum expectations that a believer is going to have. Jesus can’t be chewing gum up there. You have to preserve His dignity even after He’s been whipped.”
“There’s no curtain call, because we lift up scripture, not people.”
“I’ve gotten some changes put in, but the Foundation has the final say. They’re the producers; No one could touch the Christ figure before. He couldn’t smile or express joy. Now that’s what I call a cautious chicken passion play.”
(To the tape recorder) “Too much talking on the Via Dolorosa – I think it was those Romans.”
“I believe in detail. I’m a Wagnerite. I wish there was some way to remove the element of chance in this show completely.”
I speed away as fast as I can, not caring where I spend the night, as long as it is in Missouri. Next day, when my hop-flight to Memphis takes off, in defiance of all FAA regulations, I hold the WPA poster on my lap like a shield.
Art is where you find it. Art is how you hold it I didn’t have to travel all that distance to determine that the Great Passion Pray of Eureka Springs wasn’t “good theatre” as I knew it, but I could respect Earl Potjeau’s rapture. That the spectacle didn’t strike me as particularly “spirit-filled” was the surprise. When I stood and watched the Crucifixion at 15 feet, surrounded by the costumed population of Eureka Springs, more secular perhaps than their forebears who stood on the play wagons in Aachen and Fleury and Wakefield, I was held by the idea of a grand continuum of faith. But I was more moved by their passion in cobbling together a mystery out of anvils, cheesecloth and wire.
I go to the theatre with the hope of being scared by brilliance, blinded by the fanatical visions of others, changed through crisis. At one point on the Holy Land Tour, LaJuana Amicone, our driver and leader, had taken us out of the bus to look at the concrete reacreation of Gotgotha. We were standing in a grove of trees when she suddenly murmured in a voice that had lived pain and redemption: “It is so much easier to fear God than to love Him. When you feel you have hit bottom, all you need to say is |Jesus, come and be the Savior of my life.’ He is as close as His name, any time, in the middle of the night.” LaJuana’s witness wasn’t for show. The juiet intensity of her invitation needed no loudspeaker. She was talking to me.
I wish some of LaJuana’s spontaneous, unmediated drama could have come forth in the Great Passion Play. This last objection, however, is of no import to Christians, who take content over form as a matter of course, and who, unlike theatre critics, always trust the message.