Devotio Moderna: Ted Neeley’s Passion Play
By Kimberlee A. Cloutier-Blazzard
There was something strangely sweet about this Christ, a sadness that was not divine, but human. You sensed He was weeping, dying like a human being, and thus the faithful who knelt before Him shuddered at the sight, for they felt it was they themselves who were suspended upon the cross, convulsed with pain.
- Nikos Kazantzakis, Saint Francis
What is a Passion play? What effect is it meant to have on the viewer? What, if any, effect might it have on the actor who plays Christ? These are the questions that I would like to answer, turning attention towards how the answers to those questions have changed over time—in history and our own modern time.
As the centerpieces of my project, I have chosen the modern Passion play Jesus Christ Superstar, and its iconic lead actor, Ted Neeley, who famously played Christ in the motion picture. Aside from his widely-acclaimed ability to channel Christ’s essence, Neeley is a natural choice as he has a unique perspective on the subject among performers; he has played the role of Christ for three-and-a-half decades: first in the Broadway and LA productions, then in the feature film and in two subsequent stage revivals.
The rock opera Jesus Christ Superstar (by Tim Rice and Andrew Lloyd Webber) was first introduced as a concept album in 1970. A year later the “brown album” became the best-selling record in the US, the same year the play made its debut on Broadway. The movie adaptation, directed by Norman Jewison, was released a couple of years later in August of 1973.
The narrative covers the last seven days of Jesus’ life, from the preparation of Christ’s entry into Jerusalem to his Crucifixion. This follows the traditional construct of the Passion play as a story which depicts the trial, suffering and death of Jesus. The Superstar version is completely sung, told predominantly from the viewpoints of Judas Iscariot, Pontius Pilate, Jesus, Mary Magdalene, Caiaphas, Annas, Herod and a few others. Singing the story and using such a small cast are unusual in recent Passion plays. However, it was very typical of early liturgical Passion plays in which the lines of the key characters (including the Virgin Mary and Mary Magdalene) were written as church hymns, voiced by the clergy.
The earliest desire for Passion dramaturgy arose in the Eleventh Century, with the writings of such men as St. Bernard of Clairvaux and St. Anselm. These clergymen were at the fore of a Christocentric Piety movement that radically humanized the figure of Christ, focusing acutely on his Incarnational aspects. Later, in their wake, some desired to make the contemplation of Christ’s humanity a more vivid visual experience. With a creative combination of emotive, evocative art and music, the Passion play was born.
Hitherto, there had been Easter plays in the church, joyful celebrations of the Resurrection, but no Passion plays. The Mass and communion, it seems, were deemed a sufficient reenactment of the Passion. In fact, early Medieval commentators refer to the Mass as an authentic drama, with the Church as the theater, and the priest the tragic actor. (Sandro Sticca, “The Montecassino Passion and the Origin of the Latin Passion Play,” Italica, Vol. 44, No. 2, [Jun., 1967], 211.)
Over time, the original liturgical concert pieces, known as oratorios (without theatrical accoutrements), were staged as operas. At that point, they came to include costumes, props, and additional, non-clergy cast members. There was even the startling innovation of placing women in the female roles (though this practice remained unconventional until the Seventeenth Century). Eventually, wildly popular late Medieval Passion plays left the confines of the church for the streets, and their expanded cast included the whole town (sometimes numbering in the hundreds). There were actors, singers and stagehands, drawn from every class and profession. Historical accuracy had not yet been invented, so all the costume was contemporary dress. These elaborate productions could last for up to seven days. Participation in the religious play was considered to be a form of worship.
Eventually, because these plays took place in the village square, and were community-driven, they began to incorporate greater levels of extraneous narrative and humor. Though both high and low forms of art were blended in Medieval Christianity, over time dogmatic church officials increasingly came to see the “secularized” Passion plays as farcical, coarse and undignified. This was an unfortunate change from the serio-comical nature of earliest Christian theater traditions: a break with the past that culminated in our own largely humorless post-Enlightenment modern culture.
Though it had come full-circle to its historical roots (intentionally or not), when Jesus Christ Superstar first arrived on the scene in the Seventies, it was considered controversial for its use of contemporary costume, modern vernacular and its humanization (sometimes called “secularization”) of its characters, including a singing, emotional Christ and an unmediated, close rapport between Christ and the other leads. Few critics then, for instance, seemed ready to believe that Mary Magdalene sought a loving, Platonic relationship with her rabbi, Christ.
In the post-Sixties period, an age sensitive to ‘identity politics’, Superstar was also closely scrutinized for political agendas. For example, when Norman Jewison cast Carl Anderson, an African American, to play Judas, his choice unintentionally sparked controversy about the demonizing of Blacks in popular culture. Jewison strongly responded that he chose the actor based solely upon his merits as a performer. And, as with most Passion plays, anti-Semitism was also read into the script. This, too, Jewison vehemently denied. An anti-war agenda was also read into the use of machine guns, Israeli tanks and fighter planes.
Together with Carl Anderson, Jewison chose another Hollywood-unknown: Ted Neeley. This prescient choice arguably accounts for much of the film’s and stage production’s continuing success. Neeley’s penetrating, other-worldly glance—with his wide-set hazel eyes—and his impassioned voice—with its remarkable ability to venture into the soprano range—give his performance a mesmerizing, even “mystifying” power. Read the rest of this entry »