A Passion of our own

“The Passion” causes an uproar upon its theatrical opening. Some who see it fall into a religious ecstasy, while others blast the man behind the project for irresponsibly blending art, commerce and religion.

Mel Gibson and “The Passion of the Christ,” 2004? Try Salmi Morse and his ill-fated stage production of “The Passion” in 1879.

More than a century before Gibson’s movie sparked intense controversy, Morse, a London-born Ashkenazi Jew and con man supreme, came to San Francisco to stage his own version of “The Passion.”

That production proved a notable moment in local cultural history, and shows just how iconoclastic San Francisco has been through the ages.

Fred Rosenbaum, founding director of Berkeley’s Lehrhaus Judaica and a historian of Bay Area Jewry, has studied Morse’s “Passion” in depth (one of his principal sources is Alan Nielsen’s book “The Great Victorian Sacrilege,” an authoritative history of the incident). It didn’t take Rosenbaum long to distill the principal irony.

“Almost every place else,” he notes, “the Passion is put on by Christians and disturbs Jews. In this case, it was a group of Jews who put on the Passion, and it disturbed Christians. Only in San Francisco!”

The other Jew behind this “Passion” was theatrical pioneer David Belasco, the son of Orthodox/Sephardi parents and a San Francisco native who went on to become a legend on Broadway. “The Passion” was one of his early stage efforts, and even though it closed after only eight performances, the experience helped launch Belasco’s gilded career on the New York stage.

The story of the San Francisco “Passion” starts with its author, Morse, who had a taste for self-promotion and bald-faced lies.

“He was a charlatan,” says Rosenbaum. “He told everyone he was a New Testament scholar who had studied in Palestine for decades. Completely untrue.”

The truth wasn’t any less remarkable. Morse’s career included goldmining, managing a hotel in Australia, running an import-exporting business in Constantinople, and ranching in Mendocino.

Even as he approached his 50th birthday, Morse had lost none of his restive nature. In 1875 he moved to San Francisco, and within a few years started writing his “Passion.”

A convert to Christianity, Morse based his script on lines cribbed from the Christian Bible and other Passion plays. Unlike Gibson’s flick, which recounts only the last 12 hours of Jesus’ life, Morse’s “Passion” covers most of the life and ministry of Jesus, as well as his death.

Morse and Belasco planned to mount a spectacular production with gaudy sets, hundreds of extras (many of them Jews, to lend Middle Eastern authenticity) and even a flock of live sheep to safely graze on stage.

The only problem: The script stank. “It was really lacking in dramatic tension,” says Rosenbaum, who has read the Morse original.

Of course, a bad script never stopped any determined producer. The show opened at San Francisco’s 4,000-seat Grand Opera House on March 4, 1879. Playing Jesus was James O’Neill — father of playwright Eugene O’Neill — who apparently was very good.

“O’Neill was a rough character,” says Rosenbaum, “but when he got the role, he gave up swearing and using tobacco and alcohol. He gave a terrific performance. At the end of his career, Belasco said, O’Neill playing Jesus was unrivaled.”

Too bad the production didn’t go over with the city fathers. Though local Catholic clergy were neutral, Protestant ministers were outraged by the idea of a commercial staging of the Passion, and they used their influence to shut down Belasco’s show.

“The theater was considered a den of iniquity in those days,” says Rosenbaum. “The ministers felt the story was so sacred, it would be a desecration if performed in any theater.”

Accordingly, the San Francisco Board of Supervisors passed an ordinance that forbade any commercial theatrical production that depicted the life and death of Jesus (a statute that remained on the books until 1938).

But the controversy didn’t stop there. As with today’s “Passion” contretemps, charges of anti-Semitism were bandied about then, but Rosenbaum is certain it was all a ruse.

“One critic who despised the play claimed ‘ignorant Irish were so distempered, some … assaulted peaceable Jews on the street,'” notes Rosenbaum. “But there appears to be no evidence of this. It goes against everything we know about San Francisco, which was extremely tolerant toward Jews.”

Within a week or so, the play closed, even though every performance sold out. Reportedly, devout Christian women fainted at the sight of the crucified Jesus, and many in the audience were Jews. “Unquestionably, a lot of Jews came,” says Rosenbaum, “not so much to support the play, but to see what the fuss was about. Virtually everyone wanted to see it.”

Rosenbaum also reports that several leading local rabbis objected to the closing of the play on the grounds of censorship.

Morse and his backers tried to take the show to New York some months later, but couldn’t even make it to opening night, thanks to jittery theater owners.

It was Morse’s last hurrah. A few years later he was found dead in New York’s East River, most likely a suicide victim.

Rosenbaum sees some parallels between the local “Passion” story and the current one engulfing American culture.

“This ‘Passion’ should in no way be considered a farce,” he says. “It was taken with the utmost seriousness, and there’s a similarity with Gibson in that regard. It caused a great sensation.”

Dan Pine

Dan Pine is a contributing editor at J. He was a longtime staff writer at J. and retired as news editor in 2020.