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Interviewer: What's the theme of the album?
Ian Anderson:It's a piece I wrote about life and death, but it's not limited to that subject.
New Musical Express, 24 March 1973

As any listener knows, 'A Passion Play' is not an easy album. Even putting the elaborate musical arrangement to one side for a moment, the lyrics themselves are extremely complicated, the story is often unclear, and much is left to the individual's interpretation. Each person might find their own meaning, which might change on a repeated listening. However, a consensus is emerging, at least for the basic story, building on Ian's own statements about the subject matter (e.g. in the 2003 Remastered CD booklet: "Following the theme of post-death meanderings in another world..."). My own version of this narrative is presented here.

Self-evidently, it's not a standard Christian Passion Play, which would describe the events of Jesus' life, death and resurrection; as Stefan Dewachter says, the judgement in Act 2 has more in common with Revelations 20 than the Gospels. That's if there is a Biblical reference at all, which I find far from convincing. It's likely that Ian based the general structure of the piece around a generically Christian view of the afterlife, received from a typical British education - but no more than that. The Play is not a Christian work or even a particular comment on religion, in contrast to 'Aqualung'.

Others regard The Play as a reworking of certain literary works. I disagree.

This is the story of Rael. No, no, no; start again. Actually, there is a parallel between The Play and Genesis' 1974 album 'The Lamb Lies Down On Broadway'. Though far more surreal than Ronnie's, the hero of 'The Lamb', Rael, also embarks on a trip (a carefully chosen word) through what might be considered an afterlife or near-death experience.
The biggest difference between The Play and The Lamb, and indeed Pink Floyd's 'The Wall' (1979) is that while all three characters - Ronnie, Rael and Pink - go through an episode of self examination (Rael literally confronts himself face-to-face), Ronnie is the only one who doesn't seem to achieve any discernible enlightenment - he's seen the afterlife and doesn't like it, but there's no suggestion that it's going to change his lifestyle.
This is perhaps typical of Ian's observational style of writing, and his habit of watching from an ironic distance rather than describing the sensations of an experience - Ian leaves it to the audience to decide how it feels to be in the Play.

Andy Jackson compares Ronnie to a stereotypical British tourist, who surveys the surface of different cultures, complains about the food, and returns home with little more than sunburn and hardened preconceptions. We, as listeners, learn about Ronnie, but does Ronnie?

Other ideas.

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