Copublished with the Institute for Mesoamerican Studies, University at Albany
IMS Monograph Series
“Burkhart, a leader in the field on Nahuatl theater, adds Passion plays to her valuable corpus. Using the plays to address a variety of important, interdisciplinary themes like gender, evangelization, colonial life, and agency, she masterfully expands this work’s relevancy far beyond a report on colonial plays. A true pleasure to read.”
—Mark Christensen, Brigham Young University
“A rare and rich piece of scholarship—no previous study of Nahuatl theater has undertaken such an exceptional close comparative literary and philological analysis of this set of plays.”
—Lisa Sousa, Occidental College
Staging Christ’s Passion in Eighteenth-Century Nahua Mexico explores the Passion plays performed in Nahuatl (Aztec) by Indigenous Mexicans living under Spanish colonial occupation. Though sourced from European writings and devotional practices that emphasized the suffering of Christ and his mother, this Nahuatl theatrical tradition grounded the Passion story in the Indigenous corporate community. Passion plays had courted controversy in Europe since their twelfth-century origin, but in New Spain they faced Catholic authorities who questioned the spiritual and intellectual capacity of Indigenous people and, in the eighteenth century, sought to suppress these performances. Six surviving eighteenth-century scripts, variants of an original play possibly composed early in the seventeenth century, reveal how Nahuas passed along this model text while modifying it with new dialogue, characters, and stage techniques. Louise M. Burkhart explores the way Nahuas merged the Passion story with their language, cultural constructs, social norms, and religious practices while also responding to surveillance by Catholic churchmen. Analytical chapters trace significant themes through the six plays and key these to a composite play in English included in the volume.
A cast with over fifty distinct roles acted out events extending from Palm Sunday to Christ’s death on the cross. One actor became a localized embodiment of Jesus through a process of investiture and mimesis that carried aspects of pre-Columbian materialized divinity into the later colonial period. The play told a far richer version of the Passion story than what later colonial Nahuas typically learned from their priests or catechists. And by assimilating Jesus to an Indigenous, or macehualli, identity, the players enacted a protest against colonial rule.
The situation in eighteenth-century New Spain presents both a unique confrontation between Indigenous communities and Enlightenment era religious reformers and a new chapter in an age-old power game between popular practice and religious orthodoxy. By focusing on how Nahuas localized the universalizing narrative of Christ’s Passion, Staging Christ’s Passion in Eighteenth-Century Nahua Mexico offers an unusually in-depth view of religious life under colonial rule.
Burkhart’s accompanying website (https://passionplaysofeighteenthcenturymexico.omeka.net) also makes available transcriptions and translations of the six Nahuatl-language plays, four Spanish-language plays composed in response to the suppression of the Nahuatl practice, and related documentation, providing a valuable resource for anyone interested in consulting the original material.