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Passion Play cannot be described; it must be seen and lived.
One thing, however, is certain. To anyone who, with an alert mind and an open heart, witnessed that sacred pageant, all merely theatrical presentations must henceforth appear tawdry and hollow. The utter absence of conventional stage tricks, the naturalness and sincerity of the surprisingly well-chosen cast, the simple and dignified appositeness of the scenery; above all, the magnitude and magnificence of the production-these things carried with them such an impressiveness and conviction that, for the time being, at least, even the agnostic most spiritually colorblind must have struck his breast with the centurion at that appalling climax, and like the centurion made that spontaneous confession of faith: "Indeed, this was the Son of God!”
In San Francisco's Passion Play we had, among other things, the drama divorced from the theatre. From scene to scene the production gripped with soul-searching intensity; but there was present nothing whatever of the theatrical atmosphere. The simple purple curtains which draped the stages had little in common with the gaudily decorated "rag" of the modern playhouse, and nothing at all with the hideous advertising curtain which is an affront alike to the aesthetic sense and the sense of humor. And the orchestra, instead of being planted in front of the stage, were banked at the rear of the auditorium, behind the audience. The atmosphere was not theatrical. Rather, it was ecclesiastical in the best sense of the word.
What helped very materially strengthen the production and to chisel the stage pictures in the memory was the musical accompaniment. The score was of a composite nature, and was brought into unity by Father Peter Huesges. To him is due the unqualified success of the orchestration. From the masterpieces of Gounod, Palestrina, Handel, Mendelssohn and Rossini, Father Huesges made careful and appropriate selections. To these he added some of his own really unusual compositions, and blended the whole into a score that proved fully equal to the occasion. The music was an integral part of the production. Neither the orchestra nor
the chorus obtruded itself into undue prominence, but both, observing harmony with the dialogue and the tableaux, added to the artistic and devotional aspects of the production.
For the production was both artistic and devotional. From neither viewpoint was it deficient, and from neither viewpoint was it overdone. The ultra artistic nauseates and the ultra-devotional annoys. The artistic triumph of San Francisco's Passion Play was attested by the wrapt attention of the audience and by the almost palpable stirring of the profoundest emotional depths observable as the play approached its matchless climax. The devotional thrall of the drama was not less in evidence. There is little exaggeration in the statement that men who came to scoff remained to pray, and whatever exaggeration there is refers only to the scoffers. Few, if any, of the vast audience were present through unworthy motives, but curiosity brought scores; and it was precisely on such persons that the play seemed to have the deepest effect.
One reason of the success of the Passion Play in San Francisco was its novelty. But that alone does not suffice to explain its unprecedented triumph. Novelty might, indeed, prompt a man to drop in on the play for one night, that he might say he had seen it; but it was something more than novelty that lured veteran theatregoers from musical comedy and American melodrama and French comedy and "advanced" vaudeville for four successive evenings. Witnessing San Francisco's Passion Play was an experience at once unique and uplifting.
Once I heard of a man with a hatred of heroes and hero-worship who was persuaded to visit the tomb of Napoleon. He had no use for Napoleon. The remarkable Corsican he regarded as an upstart and a trickster, a man devoid of ideals, of manhood, of greatness. But he visited the tomb of Napoleon. He went with a scoff on his lips; he came with his head bowed.
"Well" queried a friend.
"We," returned the hero hater, "I've changed my mind. You know the low opinion I have always had of Napoleon. That opinion is mine no more. Napoleon was a wonderful, wonderful man."