'Un Spectacle Immense’
Quebec its has its Passion Play—the only spectacle of its on the continent
R. L. SHAW
ON the last Sunday of September the flourishing little centre of St. Jerome. P.Q., presented its own Passion Play for the last time this season. Like its famous forerunner in the field of religious drama, Oberammergau, St. Jerome draws upon its own population for the actors in the moving tragedy of the Passion of Christ.
Now the exotic eastern scenery has been stored away until next year’s season opens: the players have exchanged their colorful costumes for the sober garments of everyday toil, and everybody in the town who contributed in some way or another to the success of the venture is congratulating himself or herself on the fact that they have helped to place their town ‘on the map ’ They will have had good cause to do so for large crowds of sightseers have flocked to St. Jerome for each performance of the spectacle.
Some may perhaps see, in this venture, the long delayed birth of a movement towards the founding of a national theatre in Canada. St.
Jerome’s excursion into the realms of religious spectacle is at once in keeping with its history and the piety of its townsfolk, founded as it was, by a missionary priest, and with the traditions of the drama in other places, whereby the saying came about that the theatre was cradled in the church.
’ I 'HE Passion Play has an ancient history. Its first performance was given in 1634 at Oberammergau, where the villagers made a solemn vow to repeat it every ten years in thanksgiving for deliverance from pestilence. St. Jerome had no such spur, but nevertheless has undertaken to produce the religious spectacle annually, by which it may be inferred that local pride hopes to accomplish as much in ten years as Oberammergau does in a century.
The first season, given in 1925, served to spread the fame of St.
Jerome's Passion Play far and wide.
The railways co-operated by running special excursions for the ‘pilgrims,’ as they styled those who availed themselves of the reduced fares offered, and advertised the event in advance by displaying on the walls of their stations posters announcing the Pasmón Play season. In fact, as the helpful program suggests, under the heading ‘Certain Counsels’: ‘It is not necessary to have an automobile to render oneself at St. Jerome.’
Those who regret the absence of a national theatre may pick up courage, for here is a play written, directed and acted by Canadians in Canada. The native talent, if a little crude in spots, is at least enthusiastic and sincere, throwing itself heart and soul into the interpretation of a script written by Abbe Jean d’Avilia Ethier, a son of the province of Quebec.
Every Sunday, during the season, ‘pilgrims’ are deposited by the trainload at the little railway station in the foothills of the Laurentian mountains, where big industry has invaded the primeval wilds. On arrival, the traveler is directed to the huge auditorium nearby, which looks rather like an aerodrome with its high arched roof, affording protection in case of rain. Here he may have his choice of any of the three thousand seats available by paying the price of admission, ranging from $2.50 to $1.50, to the hustling little business manager, Abbe Belanger, who swishes about busily in his long black soutane, or to one of his satellites in the box office.
A Colorful Audience
'T'HE huge auditorium buzzes with excitement.
Prosperous families who had moved away to the city, have come back in all the glory of town clothes, albeit in colors beloved of the French-Canadian, which
bid fair to rival these which will be seen presently on the stage in the costuming of the ‘descendants’ of gorgeously-coated Joseph of biblical fame.
All the local lights are there as well, in their Sunday best, and in the throng, flushed with the thrill of homecoming, are a few friars: a young Franciscan in his brown
habit and sandals, a Carmelite in white robes, and brothers of religious teaching communities wearing the distinctive marks of their orders. Priests who have shepherded members of their flocks from distant parishes to view'the ‘spectacle immense’are here, too, their soutanes smartened up for the groat occasion. Here also are priests from Ontario, the Maritime Provinces and states of the American Union, places where the traditional soutane is no longer worn. These in their short jackets might pass for Protestant ministers except for the crucifix dangling from vest pocket, and the voluble French of the province with which they greet one another.
Everybody is busy reading the program. Clerical pride has set forth the advantages of St. Jerome as a residential and business centre. This also would seem a good place to choose to die in, for the foreword proudly informs us that it possesses ‘one of the finest cemeteries in the province!’
Mysterious slams and muffled voices from behind the curtain which veils the huge stage—something over sixty feet in width—indicate that the Passion Play, which
the audience has eagerly anticipated, is about to begin Professor Jean Goulet, the musical director, stands before his orchestra, eyes upturned as if to catch the inspiration of his muse. He raises his baton, gives it a preliminary twirl, and the opening bars of the introductory theme float through the' auditorium. Music acts upon this audience as upon most, alas, as a stimulant to conversation—and voices buzz throughout the hall. Above all other sounds may still be heard the shrill cries of small boys peddling creme glacee and liqueurs, the latter proving to be nothing more intoxicating than ginger ale and cream soda.
Hardly a family in the town but has at least one member in the cast of five hundred players—even though the majority are “walking on” parts, in crowds and processions made gay with colorful costumes. Relatives of the actors may be recognized generally by their air of importance and anticipation, eyes glued to the stage oblivious of the interesting things that are going on around them, the arrival of newcomers—always a source of excitement in a small town —and the greetings of old friends long ago removed from St. Jerome to more cosmopolitan centres.
Talk and laughter are suddenly hushed as the curtain slowly rises to reveal the immense stage decked in all the luxuriance of an eastern scene, wherein the palm and the pine fraternize together on the same soil— evidently a joint tribute to the Holy Land and to Canada. Lilies blossom everywhere, and the garden is intersected by paths bordered with flowering shrubs. This scene is set for the Annunciation. The angel appears and addresses the Virgin;
‘ Je vous salue, Marie pleine de grace.” Mary, played by an actress who is well known among FrenchCanadian audiences, is clothed in the blue robes made familiar by the paintings which adorn the homes of the people of Quebec.
History’s Greatest Drama
PORTIONS of the audience, not wishing to appear irreverent, suppress their chuckles w'hen the lusty cries of a baby, borrowed for the occasion, announce the next tableau, representing the scene around the manger. Up goes the curtain, shepherds adore the Babe, Mary and Joseph standing by. The Kings from the East offer their gifts, and the chanting of the heavenly host is heard.
Next comes the flight into Egypt, when the Babe and His Mother riding on an ass, are led by Joseph along a road over which a night of traditional Egyptian blackness falls. This is the last scene from the infancy of Christ. In all the other tableaux in which He appears the grandeur ^of the central figure of the Passion is manifest.
Christ is next portrayed on his way to the house of Simon the Leper. He is met by the repentant Magdalene who falls to her knees and in a touching speech, implores forgiveness.
The sequence of the events in history’s greatest drama moves forward. Trumpets sound to announce the gathering of the caravans, and a host of pilgrims sets forth for the Holy City. In this scene several hundred persons occupy the stage, and with all the trappings for a long journey, the procession of men, women and children winds its way along the mountainside and across the plain, chanting as it advances. Recognizing the Master in their midst, the pilgrims hail Him with songs of praise.
The curtain is rung down on the pilgrimage. The audience, which, judging from its intent expression, had been carried awray from the present to participate in the happenings of two thousand years ago, is brought back to St. Jerome Abbe Be’anger, clutching the folds of his
soutane, hops briskly on to a chair and holds above his his head a strange white object. This, he explains with a smile, is a longue-vue, to help out the eyesight of those at the rear of the auditorium. The curiosity outdoes the proverbial hot cakes in popularity, since it is also a thermometer and a compass—and all for the modest price of cinquante cents.
In the seventh tableau is depicted a gathering at the home of Simon the Leper, where Christ bids His Mother farewell. Crowds gather around, eager to catch a word from His lips. Mary Magdalene anoints His feet and incurs the protest of the avaricious Judas.
Immediately after, comes the triumphal entry into Jerusalem.
Throngs escort Christ on His way into che Holy City, strewing His path with palms and garlands, chanting as they go.
Later in the afternoon, some members of the audience decide to stretch their legs. Passing around to the back of the auditorium, shouts of glee strike the ear.
Amid the lumber left over from building the auditorium, the ‘Jewish crowd,’ which but a few moments before was proceeding to Jerusalem for the Paschal Feast, is disporting itself in full costume on improvised see-saws!
At seven o’clock in the evening, almost five hours after the opening of the Passion Play, an intermission is called for supper, served in the basement of the adjoining church, where, as the ever-thoughtful program announces, a splendid restaurant has been installed. The actors show themselves not above mimstering to their auditors in a different role and even St. Peter, venerable with white hair and beard, but looking strangely young on close view, hustles about with steaming cobs of ble d'Inde, assisted in the operation of the kitchen by St. John, who has donned an apron.
An Emotional Climax
'T'HE inner man and woman satisfied, the audience
once more turns its attention to the sacred drama. By night the effects are even more brilliant, the installations les plus modernes as the program describes the excellent stage lighting devices, throwing into high relief the scenes and the figures of the actors.
As event follows event in rapid sequence, and the final chapters of the fateful story are neared, the audience loses interest in the refreshments industriously hawked by the vendors between acts, and becomes more and more absorbed in the play. Each scene takes about five minutes to perform; there is a brief wait and the curtain rises on the next episode.
The action becomes more and more intense and developments follow as if impelled by the hand of fate. Members of the Sanhedrin, the High Priests gorgeous in their gowns trimmed with ermine and wearing feathered caps, plot to entrap Christ. Judas agrees to betray his Master, and is commissioned to carry out the scheme.
The scene in which Christ eats the last supper with His disciples is faithfully copied from the famous painting. All are seated at a long oaken table in the upper chamber. Christ washes the feet of the brethren.
Next comes the scene in the Garden of Gethsemane. A shaft of light illumines the agonized face of Christ, and the angel of consolation appears.
Then comes the betrayal. The ominous sound of angry voices heralds the approach of the soldiers and the mob. Judas advances and greets Christ with the traitor’s kiss, and He is delivered into the hands of the legionaries.
The trial scene follows. Peter denies his Lord, twice reiterates the denial, and the cock crows. Next, Judas in despair throws down the thirty pieces of silver before the Sanhedrin.
Pilate’s doubt ends in the delivery of Christ to the people. The ascent of Calvary, the victim staggering under the burden of the cross and urged on by the soldiers, follows immediately after. The cross is laid on Simon of Cyrene.
While the earlier scenes in the Passion Play are elaborate in their detail, the most striking from an artistic point of view are the later tableaux representing the crucifixion, the resurrection and the ascension, wherein scenic detail is subordinated and the dramatic effect is concentrated in the principal characters.
The most moving scene in the whole presentation is that depicting the crucifixion, which is carried out, not by mere suggestion, but with the utmost realism. The living Christ is, to all
Magdalene meets rhe risen Christ, and is bidden to go and tell the disciples.
At the ascension, the disciples are shown on the mounttain top, grouped in a semi-circle about their Master, Who stands a little apart on a slight eminence. As He blesses the kneeling company and commands them to go into the world and preach the gospel to all nations, He is slowly drawn up into the skies. The scene is remarkably well presented, as there is entire absence of decorative effect to distract the eye, and the ascension is worked out without any mechanical aid being apparent.
A symbolical representation of the entry of Christ into Heaven is given in the twenty-fourth tableau, while the following and final scene of the twentyfive which compose the Passion Play,
I is an allegory depicting the salvation
of the world through the power of the cross.
The great crowd disperses. The Passion Play has made a deep impression on simple and sophisticated alike, and the train journey home is made in thoughtful silence, as the scenes of the drama are pondered and stored away among memories. The actors have packed their costumes and the orchestra its musical instruments. The auditorium slumbers under the quiet sky.
In reviewing the production, one may feel that in some parts it is crude compared with the sophisticated theatre of the large city. But it is none the less impressive. The vastness of the theme, embracing as it does, every outstanding event in the Passion, and the magnitude of the
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appearances, nailed to the great oaken cross, and the sound of the hammers rings through the auditorium with the impact of tremendous doom. The two thieves are crucified one on either side, and the three crosses are then lifted by the soldiers and driven upright into the ground After a long, agonizing period, darkness falls. The life less body of Christ droops upon the cross and thunder and lightning rend the skies. In the next tableau, the resurrection is enacted. The stone rolled away, Christ, transfigured with light, rises from the tomb. The startled Roman soldiers fall to the ground in fright at the apparition. Presently, Mary
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staging redeem it from the commonplace, while the actors have been well drilled in their parts and the action proceeds without a break.
While some of the players are stilted in their stage technique, they are for the most part quite convincing; so much so that the critical spectator, who may have been lured to St. Jerome out of curiosity, finds himself entirely carried away and his sophistication forgotten in the sincerity of the presentation. It is given with all the lack of self-consciousness of simple folk, who, after all, are perhaps not so unlike the humble people of Palestine, who wonderingly followed in the footsteps of Christ.
It is refreshing to find, for example,
that the authority of the haughty official of the Sanhedrin, the Jewish tribunal, is by week-day subject to the mandate of the factory foreman, for Caiaphas works in the local plant of the Dominion Rubber Company. Veronica, that touching figure of devotion, is played by a girl, who is employed in St. Jerome’s general store. So it goes with the rest, nearly all of whom follow humble callings in their private capacity and assume grander vocations on Sunday throughout the Passion Play season. There are some exceptions, for the actor who plays the role of Christ is a lawyer of some repute. Madame Emma Bouzelli, who portrays the Virgin Mary, as has been noted, is an actress, well-known among her own people.
The typical French-Canadian fondness for gay colors finds expression in the costumes which make the stage a veritable kaleidoscope at times, and might have been drawn from illustrations of the Bible. Wig makers must have reaped a harvest for every man is decked out with luxuriant locks and sports a flowing beard in true patriarchial style, in any shade from white to red. The long tresses of the women and girls prove that the vogue of the shingle and bob has yet to conquer St. Jerome.
Stage effects are quite spectacular
throughout, and must have cost the corps of scenic artists and workmen much time and labor. Immense backgrounds necessitated by the great width of the stage, depict certain night scenes showing clusters of dwellings from whose windows warm light glows. Rocks in massy formation, with here and there ä sparse clump of hardy vegetation, provide settings for scenes in the open spaces between towns, while other tableaux exhibit tropical flowers and trees in the greatest luxuriance.
It would appear that the weather authorities in Palestine atone for the heat of the country by providing a con tinuous high wind, as in most scenes cloud wrack shot with gold, silver, violet
and rose, travels across the sky at the rate of twenty miles an hour. The effect is very colorful and adds further movement to the action on the stage.
Not all the scenes are laid in the open, for the interior of the house of the High Priest, the court of Pilate’s mansion and other settings quite faithfully reproduce details of Roman architecture.
The receipts from the initial production of the Passion Play were used to build the auditorium in which the spectacle is given. The proceeds of the season just closed, and others to come, will provide extensive development for the little town. The youth of St. Jerome is to be provided with facilities for recreation in the way of bowling alleys, a gymnasium and swimming pool, together with attention to its intellectual needs through class rooms and lecture halls where night school will be held for those who work in factory by day. One of the chief ambitions recorded is the erection of a hostel where accommodation will be provided for the daughters of neighbouring parishes who come to work in St. Jerome. A hospital to serve the needs of the district for miles around is another cherished project, and one much needed in a region where medical aid is difficult to obtain in an emergency and hospital accommodation not to be found nearer than Montreal.