Date of Award


Document Type


Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy (PhD)



First Advisor

Leslie A. Wade


The purpose of this dissertation is to trace the development of the outdoor passion plays in the United States, comparing their content and approach with the continental medieval tradition and analyzing how effectively the current American plays are modifying their presentations to meet the expectations of today's modern society. This study documents the historical development and physical plants for the eight passion play productions in the United States that maintained membership in the Institute of Outdoor Drama and played during the summer seasons of the research period from 1992-1996: The Black Hills Passion Play (1939, Spearfish, South Dakota), The Great Passion Play (1968, Eureka Springs, Arkansas), The Living Word (1974, Cambridge, Ohio), Jesus of Nazareth (1981, Puyallup, Washington), The Louisiana Passion Play (1984, Ruston, Louisiana), The Witness (1985, Hot Springs, Arkansas), Worthy Is the Lamb (1988, Swansboro, North Carolina), and The Promise (1989, Glen Rose, Texas). Based on an overview of medieval passion plays, the St. Gall play emerged as the model play for comparison, prompting observations concerning the opening scenes, primary content, character development, Roman Catholic influence, and concluding passages. Applying Horace's dictum that drama to be effective needs to teach and please allows for an examination of how these plays are maintaining that balance or are shifting more toward entertainment-oriented methods and strategies that appeal to modern American audiences. The outdoor passion plays today face some major questions regarding the lack of professionalism, poor dramatic quality, and anti-Semitic scenes. The plays also compete with adverse weather conditions, television, cinema, and an entertainment industry that thrives on complex technology. While The Black Hills Passion Play remains true to its medieval heritage, other plays are adapting their presentations to attract larger audiences and to stay solvent. As the plays move further into the area of entertainment, will the educational value be lost?