For almost 400 years, the inhabitants of Oberammergau, in Bavaria, have enacted the Passion of Jesus every decade, in thanksgiving for deliverance from the black death.
The beginning of the legend:
The village of Oberammergau lies in the Ammer valley amongst the foot-hills of the Kofel mountains, part of the alps in Bavaria,Germany, 45 miles south-west of Munich. The current population is somewhere over 5,000. The village was once best known because of the nearby Ettal monastery, a once popular pilgrimage site.
In 1633, the small village lay, like much of the world, in the grip of bubonic plague. The disease was decimating the population, which had already been affected by the Thirty Years War. In desperation, the parish priest organized a mass to be held by the whole village, the sick included. They prayed for the cessation of the plague, and vowed to re-enact the "Play of the Suffering, Death and Resurrection of Our Lord Jesus Christ" every ten years in gratitude.
After the church service, it is said that not one more villager died of the plague. The first performance of the Passion was given during Pentecost in 1634, involving all the villagers. The text was probably written by the monks at Ettal, and the graveyard formed a stage.
Today, the Oberammergau Passion Play is a massive affair. Upward of a million requests for seats are received, over half are turned away. The theatre holds 4,780 people – with around 100 performances in a season. Report varies as to the number of people needed to perform the play – from 700 to 1,800. The play consists of 18 acts and a number of tableaux, and a performance lasts a full day.
Traditionally, the main parts are played by those of impeccable moral character. Years ago, a girl would happily delay her marriage for a year in order to be allowed to play one of the principal parts. Only in 1990 was the decision made to allow married women or women over 35 to be part of the play. To be barred from a place in the play was a matter for deep shame. Those participating must be natives of the village, or have lived there for 10 years.
Men of the village begin growing their hair and beards a year before to appear authentic, and actors with “bit parts” are often permitted to leave work to perform, then return. The play has never used artificial lighting or amplification. No wigs are used, and though the theatre has covered seating, the stage itself is in the open. The play is performed in German, though written translations are available.
Moneychangers in the temple: Oberammergau and commercialism
Oberammergau seems to be a village with one focus – the passion. The buildings are decorated with frescoes and murals depicting religious scenes, the woodcarvers of Oberammergau are famed for their nativities and other biblical representations. Potters, carpenters and other craftspeople churn out knick-knacks to sell to tourists – for without the tourist trade the village would not prosper.
Tickets for the passion do not come cheap. Certain travel agencies possess a monopoly on ticket sales, and with demand for seats outstripping supply by half a million, prices can be set fairly high. One has to ask how long the passion play would continue if the tourist trade were not so lucrative.
Criticism of the Passion: Hitler, anti-semitism and kitsch
Historically, the Oberammergau passion has been un-necessarily anti-semitic. The guilt for the death of Jesus was placed firmly on the Jews, with the line “His blood come upon us and our children”.
The Jewish characters were caricatured and menacing, and the fact that Jesus himself was a Jew was ignored. Pontius Pilate and the Romans were represented as being innocent of Jesus’ death, and the Jewish temple traders were shown as the masterminds – the latter with absolutely no biblical justification. Judas Iscariot was the only obviously Jewish member of the Disciples.
Adolf Hitler attended at least two presentations of the Passion at Oberammergau, once in 1934 before his election, and once as Chancellor of Germany. He stated “…never has the menace of Jewry been so convincingly portrayed as in this presentation …” Of the blood curse on the Jews he said “…maybe I’m the one who must execute this curse.... Maybe I render Christianity the best service ever!”.
After many protests from Jewish groups, the script of the Passion Play was finally rewritten in 2000, removing the worst of the anti-semitism.
Descriptions of the passion range greatly. Some describe it as an immensely moving experience, some as dreary amateurism
. Some viewers come away talking of the religious fervour
they felt, others complain of canvas sets and wooden acting.
I suspect that every viewer will bring something different away from any passion play. Several points of view are given here:
“What can it mean, after all, to see Jesus and the disciples wearing pastel gowns and gloomy looks, climbing over cardboard rocks beside painted two-dimensional trees in front of a blue canvas sky that trembles in the wind?” – Tom F. Driver, Drama Critic
“Sometimes, probably a good deal of kitsch, but in general full of the taste of the people…I went with great skepticism, but I am still happy that I have seen it.” – Josef Goebbels – Hitler’s minister for Propaganda
“To see Oberammergau's Passion play is to experience a strong sense of reality. To the Christian, it is not mere drama, it is a reenactment. And observing it thus, it is all but impossible to walk out of the huge hall unmoved.” – Carol R. Thiessen “Christianity Today”
Whether the Passion at Oberammergau is a quaint folk tradition, the fulfillment of a solemn religious obligation or a commercial venture, it has touched the hearts of millions of viewers, and for its historical foundations alone deserves recognition.
I have never seen the Passion Play at Oberammergau. If there are noders out there who have, I’d be interested to hear your impressions and opinions. Messages will go up here!