The Great Passion Play
Eureka Springs, Arkansas
The Great Passion Play recreates the last week of Jesus's life, from his entry into Jerusalem to his rising from the dead. It's modeled after the Oberammergau Passion Play in Bavaria, which literally takes a week to perform, but which is staged only once every decade. This version -- condensed into 2.5 hours -- goes on five nights a week in the summer, and less frequently as the nights get chilly.
The idea for a stateside Great Passion Play came to right-wing-Christian-theme-park-entrepreneur Gerald L.K. Smith when he saw a hollow at the top of Magnetic Mountain and realized that it would make a natural outdoor amphitheater. Into the hillside he had built 6,000 seats facing a 550-ft-wide, a three-story set the size of two football fields, including a 400-foot reproduction of a street in old Jerusalem.
Performed by a cast of "over 250 dedicated Christians" -- according to its literature -- as well as live donkeys, camels, mules, horses, and sheep, it is still the largest outdoor pageant in the United States. Jesus rises into the night sky at its end.
Since it opened in 1968, the Great Passion Play has become "the number one attended outdoor drama in America," according to a North Carolina outfit named the Institute of Outdoor Drama. Reportedly over 7 million people have witnessed it.
The Great Passion Play has not been without controversy. Smith, who was a bigot, called his Play "the only presentation of its kind in the world which has not diluted its content to flatter the Christ-hating Jews." Jewish groups in turn denounced the Play as anti-Semitic.
We did not see the Great Passion Play -- we had to be in Oklahoma that night -- but since the rest of this Christian theme park seems to have put animosity behind it, perhaps tempers on both sides of the Passion Play have cooled as well.
Vernon Payne, who's been here since 1992, could recall only one instance of an audience member who was angered by the Great Passion Play -- and that was because the dialog departed from the text of the King James Version.