Oberammergau and the Passion Play

Author: Kate Marcelin-Rice

Oberammergau and the Passion Play

Kate Marcelin-Rice

An event every 10 years in the Alps of Bavaria

The first Passion Play was performed in the Bavarian village of Oberammergau, Germany, in 1634, 376 years ago. It is said that the villagers vowed that if God spared them from the bubonic plague then sweeping across Europe they would perform a Passion Play every 10 years.

Religious dramas, Mystery and Easter or Passion Plays originated in Europe in the Middle Ages. Early Passion Plays consisted of readings from the Gospel in Latin on the events of Christ's Passion, Crucifixion and death and related subjects, such as the raising of Lazarus or the Last Supper; the innovative use of the vernacular in these "additions" led to the development of independent plays in the local language. Some of the earliest surviving examples are
in German.

The Oberammergau Chronicle, written in 1859, recounts that in 1633, with great fear of the terrible disease, the municipal authorities "met and the vow was made to hold the Passion tragedy every 10 years and from this time forth not one more person died, although some still suffered from the plague".

The people believed that God would spare them because of the play they performed and were
faithful to their vow. Today they say: "The Play is a part of us. It controls the rhythms of our life,whether we like it or not".

The first production in Oberammergau was entitled the "Play of the Suffering, Death and Resurrection of Our Lord Jesus Christ". Between 60 and 70 actors took part in it in 1634 on a stage erected over the fresh graves of recent Black Death victims.

The graveyard of the original parish church proved too small; the first permanent stage seems to have been built in 1815 to a design by the local parish priest of the time. In 1830 he was asked to help build a new and larger stage on the site of the present theatre but when it rained the spectators got wet. In 1890 a new purpose-built theatre with a six-arched hall that could seat 4,000 spectators was completed in time for the performances in 1900. It was enlarged for the 1930 and 1934 seasons. Following the 1990 production, both the interior and the facade of the theatre were renovated and the stage mechanics modernized. Today it has new, more comfortable seating and under-floor heating has been installed.

The financial impact of the Passion Play upon Oberammergau, expressed in the local saying: "Di Passion zahlt" (the Passion Play will pay) cannot be underestimated! And it has indeed financed a new community swimming pool, a community centre and other amenities.

It should be remembered that the town has charged for tickets for the Play since 1790 and has even sold package tours including room and board since 1870. Hence even then it was quite a profitable enterprise. In 1922 it attracted more than 300,000 spectators, about a third of whom came from abroad. Since 1930 the number of visitors who come to Oberammergau for the Passion Play has ranged from 420,000 to 530,000.

Although the Passion Play is usually performed every 10 years, there have been occasional interruptions in this pattern. In 1770, for example, Oberammergau was informed that the Ecclesiastical Council of the Elector Maximilian Joseph, at the behest of the Roman Catholic Church, had banned all Passion Plays in Bavaria. His successor, Elector Karl Theodor, having been assured that the Play had been "purged of all objectionable and unseemly matter", approved its performance in 1780.

In 1920 the difficulties and economic instability of the period following the First World War led to the postponement of the Passion Play until 1922, while the Second World War led to the cancellation of the Play in 1940. It was not performed again until 1950.

As for additional performances, a far more professional production was planned for the 300th anniversary in 1934, using modern theatrical techniques and a new, larger stage in an expanded theatre with a capacity of more than 5,000. Another extra performance marked the 350th anniversary of the Play in 1984.

"The most striking thing about Oberammergau is the involvement in the Passion Play of so many of the villagers", said Fr Fritz Kretz, SAC, a Pallottine Father from Baden-Württemberg who is based in Rome. This year more than half the population of about 5,000 is taking part in it or is in some way involved.

The Mayor in fact issued the hair-and-beard growing "decree" on Ash Wednesday this year so that for the first performance the actors might look more like Jesus' contemporaries, since no wigs or makeup are used. All the actors, musicians, costumers and stage technicians are amateurs and have to work during the day so they rehearse in the evenings for almost a year before the performance.

The year 2010 is the 41st year in which the Passion Play has been performed in Oberammergau. The first night was on 15 May and it will run until 3 October. The next Passion Play will be in 2020. Performances are in German but translations of the text are provided.

Oberammergau in the district of Garmisch-Partenkirchen is surrounded by mountains, meadows and forests. This farming village is also known for its houses, painted with traditional Bavarian and religious scenes, and for its wood-carving, for which it has a special school. In the 18th century travelling salesmen, the so-called "Kraxenträger" would sell the wooden objects from door to door and today there are still about 120 wood-carvers in Oberammergau. Since 1953 the village has also been the site of a NATO training school. It has become a tourist destination even between Passion Play years and has developed winter sports facilities.

Fr Fritz said that although it is the most famous, Oberammergau is not the only village in Germany that still stages a Passion Play and he mentioned two others, Otigheim and Waal.

Only those born in Oberammergau, those who have lived there for at least 20 years or who marry villagers are eligible to take part in it. They begin as children. For each speaking part there are two actors and the playing of various parts often runs in families with actors playing the same roles as their fathers and grandfathers. It is not uncommon for a person (or even for all the members of a family) to participate in the first 10 years of his or her life until the last 10, and in every decade between.

Citizens reaffirm their ancestral vow to stage the Play at a ceremony in September when veteran players are honoured for a life time of participation.

All this is a far cry from the time when King Ludwig of Bavaria would present all the villagers in the cast with a silver spoon, except for the man playing Judas, whose spoon was made of tin.

This year the Play starts with Jesus entering Jerusalem, continues with his death on the Cross and finishes with the Resurrection. It involves spoken texts, musical and choral accompaniments and tableaux vivants, scenes from the Old Testament in which actors pose motionless while texts are read. These scenes are intended to show the relationship between the Old and New Testaments and each scene precedes the section of the Play that it prefigures.

It is a new production, directed by Christian Stülckl, director of the Volkstheater in Munich. He is supported by the same artistic team that staged the Play in 2000, deputy director and dramatic adviser Otto Huber, set and costume designer Stefan Hageneier, music director, Marxus Zwink, and conductor Michael Bocklet: they all come from Oberammergau.

Taken from:
L'Osservatore Romano
Weekly Edition in English
8 September 2010, page 10

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