PASSION PLAY was written for St Laurence’s Church, Cambridge in 1995; a few years later I adapted it for broadcast in six episodes on BBC Radio Cambridgeshire and retitled it THE KING MUST DIE. It tells the familiar story of the Passion of Jesus, though I have updated the setting to modern times in an unspecified occupied country. However, there is one important difference between this version and most Passion Plays – Jesus never appears. The story is told through the experiences of those around him, those who saw him, but not through the man himself.
There are various reasons for this. The first is that any portrayal of Jesus inevitably disappoints someone. If “my” Jesus doesn’t correspond with “your” Jesus, immediately you feel dissatisfied and feel the play is somehow lacking. Secondly, though, and perhaps more importantly, the point of the play, as it is summarised at the end by Thomas (the doubter and a very important figure for me) is that it is all very well for those who happened to live at the right time and in the right place to see Jesus in the flesh, but what about the rest of us? Are we all supposed to believe in someone we don’t see and in events we haven’t witnessed? That is a big ask and I want to get that point across. So, the Passion happens and it is just as traumatic as in any other Passion Play, but we have the added trauma of being at one remove from it – yet touched directly by it.
CAIAPHAS: Sherry, everyone? (As he serves it, he continues:) Well, I said it would happen. I must confess, I wasn’t expecting it to start quite so soon.
ANNAS: What do we do?
NICODEMUS: Nothing. Leave him alone.
ANNAS: Oh for heaven’s sake.
NICODEMUS: Yes. Leave him alone – for heaven’s sake.
ANNAS: What? And ignore the damage he’s done?
NICODEMUS: Forget the damage. A few pompous stallholders belly-aching. A few pigeons lost and a couple of broken chairs. Forget it.
ANNAS: You would say that. They weren’t your chairs.
NICODEMUS: Half the stallholders in the Temple overcharge and pocket the difference, and it’s always the poor people who suffer. I’ve got no sympathy.
CAIAPHAS: We are not talking about the stallholders. We are talking about something far more important. Do you realise this is probably the most serious incident since we came out of Egypt?
NICODEMUS: Caiaphas, I thought I was prone to exaggeration, but really –
CAIAPHAS: Nicodemus, I don’t think you’ve quite grasped the point. I’ve been doing a lot of very serious thinking about this. Do you know what he said as he drove the stallholders out?
NICODEMUS: Yes. He called them a pack of thieves and told them to clear off. And so they are and they should. If I weren’t so stiff in my joints I’d have done it myself years ago.
CAIAPHAS: He told them to clear out of his father’s house. His father’s house.
NICODEMUS: So? He was talking in parables. He always does.
CAIAPHAS: He said “My father made this a house of prayer, but you have made it a den of thieves”.
NICODEMUS: Right. And his father was a carpenter or a builder or something. He was using a parallel.
CAIAPHAS: I don’t think this is anything to do with his father. I think he meant someone quite different.
CAIAPHAS: I think – no, I am convinced – that he was uttering blasphemy. I think he was referring to God.
NICODEMUS: Oh, that is ridiculous.
CAIAPHAS: It is not ridiculous.
NICODEMUS: Give me one good reason why he should. Just one.
CAIAPHAS: Who do people say he is?
NICODEMUS: I don’t know. Who do people say he is?
ANNAS: That’s easy. People assume he’s a prophet. They’re just not sure which one.
CAIAPHAS: But he: who does he say he is? Do you know?
NICODEMUS: He’s never claimed to be anyone.
CAIAPHAS: Hasn’t he just? Has he ever got up in front of a crowd and said, “I’m sorry, you’ve got the wrong man: I’m no-one special”? No. He cultivates this cult following that he has. And now he is claiming he is the son of God. And acting as if he were too. Well, can’t you see? Not only is he blaspheming – and in the Temple too – but all his half-witted followers are going to swallow it. We’ve got to do something.
ANNAS: Arrest him.
NICODEMUS: For heaven’s sake: this isn’t television, you know.
ANNAS: He’s spouting blasphemy. Or don’t you take that seriously?
CAIAPHAS: (Sighs) It won’t do. We are going to have to kill him. And we can’t.
NICODEMUS: I don’t find that very funny, Caiaphas.
CAIAPHAS: I don’t say that sort of thing lightly, Nicodemus. And I am not joking. I wish to God I were, but I’m not. What happens to us every time we go astray? Time and time again, our fathers abandoned God and always it brought disaster. Exile in Egypt, exile in Babylon, and all because we let ourselves be led astray by false gods or false prophets. Well, it’s not going to happen this time.
NICODEMUS: Who says it will?
CAIAPHAS: If we don’t stop Jesus, it will. How may false prophets have we seen? Hundreds. But this is different: this is really dangerous. We have to kill him.
ANNAS: Can’t we do something a bit less drastic?
CAIAPHAS: What do you suggest? If we lock him up, he becomes a martyr. Protests, vigils outside the prison and heaven knows what else. No, the stakes are too high. We can’t take risks: not with a false prophet.
NICODEMUS: If he’s a false prophet, he’ll prove a nine days’ wonder. It’ll pass over like any other fad. But if he comes from God, will you take responsibility for killing him?
CAIAPHAS: He’s not from God. And he certainly isn’t the son of God.
NICODEMUS: How do you know he isn’t? (Stunned silence for a moment.) I’m sorry. I don’t know what I’m saying. I just don’t like the idea of taking part in a plot on a man’s life.
CAIAPHAS: None of us likes it. I don’t like it. By heaven, I hope no-one here likes it. It is our duty.
ANNAS: Couldn’t he just – well, you know – meet with an accident? I wouldn’t want us to be associated with anything.
NICODEMUS: That is the most disgraceful proposal I have ever –
CAIAPHAS: Of course we can’t. For heaven’s sake think about this. It’s no good just killing him: we have to destroy his credibility. Really bring him down. If he has a great heroic death, then he becomes a martyr – and infinitely more dangerous. No, if we are going to disperse this cult following of his, we’ve got to discredit him. When people see that he doesn’t leap buildings at a single bound, that he isn’t going to drive the Romans into the sea, and that he can’t pull the Temple down – which I take it this morning’s rumpus was all about – they’ll turn away from him pretty quickly. You’ll see.
ANNAS: But we can’t put him to death. We haven’t the authority.
CAIAPHAS: I know. I don’t like it any more than the rest of you, but I’m afraid we will have to talk to Pilate.
ANNAS: He won’t help us. He hates us.
CAIAPHAS: We’ll just have to see what a few diplomatic approaches can do.
NICODEMUS: I’ve had enough. I’m going. I have had to put up with many things in this learned assembly, but never till now have I been asked to be party to murder.
CAIAPHAS: I’ll ask my secretary to arange us an appointment this afternoon.
THOMAS: We’ve had a whole play and we haven’t seen him. Oh, nice idea: a play about Jesus, no Jesus in it: very clever, very avant garde; but it doesn’t get us anywhere. How do we know who’s telling the truth? How do we know what he really was if you won’t show him to us? How can you expect us to believe in him if you won’t even let us see him? That’s some claim, that is. “Hello, I’ve just risen from the dead. No, I’m not stopping: just a few days then I must be off. Bye bye – see you in court on Judgement Day. Look after the next two thousand years’ worth of followers while I’m gone, will you? You’ll just have to tell them about me and hope for best.” Well, all right, we’ve been told. But we’ve never seen him. It’s all right for you lot: you have. You all saw him work his miracles. You were all born at the right time. You even saw him when he’d risen. Or so you say. But what about us? What are we supposed to do? Don’t we get to see him? Ever? Is that all we get? Because we came later? Is that it?