Stigma

by Linde Tuybens

As historians, we can’t claim the exclusive right to tell the story of stigmatics. Other cultural products – books, films, theatre plays – are also shining light on their extraordinary lives. Recently, news has spread that American filmmaker Abel Ferrara is preparing a film on the early life of Padre Pio, allegedly starring Shia LaBeouf (playing the Italian stigmatic) and Willem Dafoe. Ferrara, known as a provocateur, often challenges societal norms and values in his work, and this film might be no different. Yet, it will not be the first popular product on stigmatics to cause furore. A play by Austrian playwright Felix Mitterer, for example, roused strong emotions among the Tyrolean public in 1982.

Mitterer’s play Stigma: ein Passion is set in Tyrol in the 1830s – the heyday of Tyrolean stigmatics – and tells the tragic story of Moid, a farm maid who bears the wounds of Christ. As a maid, she represents the bottom of the social hierarchy. Since her position forbids her to marry and as the possibility of extramarital love is denied by the Catholic Church, Moid turns to the only man for whom her love is allowed: Jesus Christ. After offering her menstrual blood, she takes him as her groom and receives the stigmata to participate in his agony.

Throughout the play Moid’s sufferings parallel the stations of Christ’s Passion – as suggested by the title. Yet, her stigmata are not only outward signs of her own Passion, they also become armaments against the oppression and hardship she endures, giving her the voice she never had: at the behest of Christ, she pleads for more justice and reprimands the powerful of the world – secular and religious – for exploiting the have-nots. Consequently, she emerges as a political figure who questions the traditional balance of power and therefore poses a threat to the established authorities. Eventually, Moid, who is considered a saint by the poor, is chased away by her landlord, exorcized and excommunicated by the Church, accused of hysteria and fraud by medical authorities and finally shot dead by the police.[1]

The traditional Tyrolean society that is threatened by forces of change is a recurring theme in Mitterer’s work. The challenge of hanging on to tradition but at the same time accepting the changing world was, in a certain way, also emphasized by the controversy that arose in the weeks before Stigma’s premiere in 1982. The play, with its assumed blasphemous and anti-clerical, as well as anti-authoritarian position, met with a lot of opposition from the Tyrolean public. After reading it, the mayor of Hall, a town near Innsbruck, rejected the play as a “collection of filth and religious mockery” and was no longer willing to host the theatre festival where Stigma was to premiere.[2] Media coverage of the search for a new venue and the publication of some excerpts from the play resulted in a flood of protest letters, demonstrations, legal charges and even bomb threats against the author and others involved.

Stigma obviously touched some taboos. These fierce reactions show that many people felt offended by certain scenes and, in particular, saw their religious beliefs disparaged. It was, however, not Mitterer’s intent to mock the simple faith of the people. He knew how important religion was, and had been, in their everyday existence. The play does present a critical attitude towards the institutional Church, though, and exposes some conflicts between the dogmatism of the Catholic Church and plain religious beliefs. Others argued that the archaic living conditions as depicted in the play were no longer relevant and that the play did not provide any insight into contemporary issues. Mitterer, on the other hand, said only to write about the world he knew. Growing up in the Tyrolean countryside as the adopted son of two farm laborers was, as he recalls it, much like the nineteenth century: “The rural society, as I portray it in the play, I’ve experienced myself, it was as much so in the 1950s”.[3] Also, the inequality between men and women and the oppression and exploitation of the socially and economically disadvantaged seem to be issues of long-lasting relevance.

“Wallfahrer” by Franz Defregger (Wikimedia Commons)

While some bitterly fought against the play, others ridiculed these opponents as backward and narrow-minded. It is notable that Stigma was rated significantly more positively in German newspapers and magazines than in most Austrian ones. Some of the former expressed themselves slightly amused or even condescending about the feud that was raging in the Tyrolean region. Would such a controversy over a play have only been possible in Tyrol?

The complex relationship between tradition and modernity in Tyrol, as highlighted by the play and, supposedly, also by its reception, seems to be a fundamental part of its history and identity. In the nineteenth century, this region was known as the ‘Holy Land Tyrol’ because of its identification as a sacred place, untouched by modernity. This positive interpretation of the uniqueness of this region was accompanied by a negative connotation in which Tyrol was perceived as a beacon of traditionalism and conservatism, where ignorance and superstition reigned supreme. In 1850, for example, a liberal newspaper tried to convince local authorities to take action against Juliana Weiskircher, an Austrian stigmatic from Schleinbach, a small village near Vienna. According to the journalist, it was one thing such a phenomenon could occur in the remote mountains of ‘the Holy Land Tyrol’, but that this could also happen “at the gates of the residence of constitutional Austria” went beyond comprehension.[4]

Whereas in the nineteenth century these liberal voices considered stigmatics such as Juliana Weiskircher to be a symptom of a presumed cultural and social backwardness, more than a century later, Mitterer on his turn uses stigmata as a means to question traditional structures and morals. Yet, the suggestion by some journalists about the singularity of the controversy over such a play recalls the demeaning tone of the nineteenth-century liberal voices. Apparently, Tyrol hasn’t lost its stigma yet.


[1] Ursula Hassel, “„Ihr Frauen habts es nit leicht.” The Dramatization of Gender Issues in the Plays by Felix Mitterer”, in: Felix Mitterer. A Critical Introduction (1995), 178-181.

[2] Irmgard Plattner, “„Kulturkampf in Herrgottswinkel”. Stigma: eine Passion von Felix Mitterer”, in: Tirol: “Land im Gebirge” : zwischen Tradition und Moderne, 1999, 291.

[3] Herbert Hertzmann, “The Relevance of the Tradition: The “Volksstücke” of Felix Mitterer”, Modern Austrian Literature, 24 (1991), 175-178.

[4] Ostdeutschen Post, 12 July 1850.


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