The “American Passion Play,” the annual spring spectacle staged in Bloomington, is currently in its 94th consecutive season. This is a remarkable run, especially when one considers the cast and crew are volunteers, and how difficult it is to maintain such a monumental undertaking over successive generations.
A staged, highly theatrical retelling of Christ’s ministry, crucifixion and resurrection, the local Passion Play also speaks to an earlier time in American society when membership in one or more freemasonry or fraternal societies was a welcomed social obligation for many men. These groups — from the Knights Templar to the Independent Order of Odd Fellows — boasted numbers in the millions, built grand lodge halls and temples, and staged elaborate and secretive rituals to welcome newcomers and test the character and allegiance of current members.
The Passion Play owes its origin and success to the Ancient and Accepted Scottish Rite of Freemasonry, one of several major Masonic orders (the Shrine or Shriners is another).
The play sprung from the fertile mind and restless ambition of Scottish Rite leader Delmar D. Darrah, a former instructor of elocution at Illinois Wesleyan University. Scottish Rite members pass through a series of advanced degrees that involve historical, moral and religious pageants or plays. As a member of the Scottish Rite ritual committee on the supreme council, Darrah put his considerable artistic talents to work directing and revising such degree work in Bloomington.
In fact, the 1922 Scottish Rite Temple, located on the north end of downtown Bloomington, was built for these spectacle-like degree presentations. And not surprisingly, this building has served as the home to the local Passion Play since its very beginnings.
The “American Passion Play” emerged from two interrelated Darrah projects. In the fall of 1923, during the Scottish Rite’s fall reunion at the Consistory (as the temple building was also known), Darrah staged the trial, crucifixion and resurrection of Christ as an epilogue to an 18th degree presentation, the Knight of the Rose Croix. This production is now considered the first of the play’s 94 seasons.
And in December 1923, Darrah’s “The Star In the East,” a retelling of Christ’s birth, was staged at the Consistory and meant for a wider audience than Scottish Rite membership.
The success of this Christmastime pageant told Darrah that the local community was ready for a similarly grand staging of Passion of Jesus.
The first full Passion Play season, carrying the title “The Life of Our Savior Jesus Christ,” was held Easter weekend, April 18-20, 1924, with one performance on Friday and two each on Saturday and Sunday.
Today, depictions of Jesus — from Mel Gibson’s widescreen release “The Passion of Christ” to local high school productions of “Jesus Christ Superstar”—are commonplace. But back in the 1920s, there was considerable uneasiness with Darrah’s whole project.
In fact, when he first proposed a local Passion Play, some local residents maintained that a theatrical pageant centered upon a living representation of Christ bordered on the sacrilegious. The Ministerial Alliance of Bloomington, for instance, initially opposed the play.
Darrah, assuaging local concerns, emphasized that his reverential production would not deviate from standard scriptural interpretation, and that all the dialogue would mirror, as much as possible, the “exact phraseology” of the Bible.
That’s not to say that Darrah — who was (bombastic talent and all) Bloomington’s very own Andrew Lloyd Webber — didn’t skimp on spectacle. The first full production in 1924 was said to feature a cast of more than 200, some 250 costumes, thousands of dollars worth of new scenery, and a 25-member stage crew (though it should come as no surprise that the earliest productions featured plenty of Scottish Rite costumes, scenery and equipment). There was also a full-blown prologue, 30 scenes and 19 stage settings. The music included two choirs, an orchestra, pipe organ and a “set of cathedral chimes.”
The 8,000 or so tickets available for the five shows in April 1924 were mostly distributed to members of the Scottish Rite and their families.
The “American Passion Play” was a work-in-progress, with Darrah continually tinkering with every aspect of the production — from the number of scenes to changes in music or lighting. After its first full season the play became increasingly elaborate, with the finely costumed and bewigged cast arrayed in ever-larger numbers across the Consistory’s mammoth 85- by 45-foot stage. There were hundreds of finely crafted and detailed props, from thrones to tombs, and several dozen hand-painted “drops” or curtains that when employed in various layered combinations offered stunning vistas of Holy Land locales. Live animals lent further authenticity (if also unpredictability) to the production, as did ingenious effects, most famously the show-stopping trick of flooding the stage and having Jesus walk on water.
The cast represented a cross-section of occupations and backgrounds of the local community, at least among white middle and upper-middle class residents. Fredrick Hitch, the longtime owner of the Woolen Mill store, received high marks for his portrayal of Jesus. Hitch, who was of slight stature and no taller than 5 feet, 8 inches, was noted for his ethereal voice and deportment. Other notable early cast members included Henry Stanberry as Judas and Clara L. Koogle as Mary, mother of Jesus.
The general reception to the first full season of the Passion Play was overwhelming positive, and a local boycott or protest never materialized. Mainline Protestant leaders pronounced Darrah’s pageant well within the bounds of decorum. Rev. F.A. McCarty of First Methodist Episcopal Church, for one, called the production a “wonderful piece of daring.”
“The spirit of reverence which surrounded the whole performance was remarkable,” he told his parishioners during a Sunday evening service as the Passion Play’s 1924 run came to an end. “The fact that this was a labor of love, and not the work of professionals, deepened its significance.”
Yet his support came with a caveat. “To simply regard it as fine spectacle, that stirs our emotions,” he warned, “and yet fail to make those emotions the motives of higher living, will simply harden one’s life and take something of the sacredness from the Easter story.”
The Scottish Rite Temple is now the city-owned Bloomington Center for the Performing Arts, and the restored theater serves as one of the community’s indispensable cultural hubs.
There are three remaining performances for the “American Passion Play’s” 94th season: April 8, April 9 and April 22. See you there!