Most people love a spectacle. The Olympic Games, Edinburgh Tattoo and World Cup all draw tens of thousands of eager spectators enthralled by the magic of these events. But who could imagine that a religious performance, presented 100 times over fourand- a-half months in a small German village would attract half a million viewers from around the world?
The Oberammergau story began in 1632 when the Black Plague, which had been raging through much of Europe, found its way into the Bavarian valley where Oberammergau is located. For quite some time, because of the vigilance of the villagers in keeping visitors away, the village had not been affected. However, when Kaspar Schisler, who had been working away from the village during the summer, returned home and fell sick and died, their splendid isolation ended. Soon, more villagers fell sick and died.
As the causes of disease were not understood in those days, most people believed it was God punishing people for their sins. The only hope the village had was to fall on God’s mercy; and so in 1633, the villagers pledged that as a sign of their repentance, they would perform a play every 10 years, portraying the suffering, death and resurrection of Jesus.
And, it is said, the plague was stayed, and from that time, no-one else in the village died of it.
Oberammergau is a village of about 5000 people in the Bavarian Alps of southern Germany. About an hour from Munich, it is noted for its wood carving industry, with dozens of wood carving shops lining its streets. It’s also noted for its use of frescoes depicting traditional Bavarian themes. Fairy tales and religious scenes decorate building facades. And it is a popular destination all year round for outdoor recreations including skiing, hiking and cycling.
About half of the residents rehearse for 10 months to become actors in the Passion play. Whether an actor or a musician, one has to have been a resident for 20 years in order to participate. The people spend a year creating the costumes and sets for the event. In the year 2000, 28 new sets were constructed and 2000 new costumes were made.
There are reports of Passion plays dating back to the 12th Century, usually staged in the larger cities of Europe. They had largely disappeared from the cities by the end of the 15th Century, but they became popular again from the 16th to the 18th Centuries, particularly in Austria and southern Germany. In this period, some 250 villages in Austria and Bavaria alone were staging plays.
As pledged, Oberammergau staged a play every decade from 1634 to 1674. Then it was decided to change the timing to the first year of every decade, starting in 1680. In 1760, it was performed twice to a total of 14,000 spectators, but then not again until 1780. In 1800, the audience was down to just 3000, largely as a consequence of the Napoleonic Wars. It was staged again in 1801 so that the village could recover its investment.
Since then, its reputation and attendance have increased every decade. By 1910, the audience had grown to more than 220,000. Political and religious infl uences infi ltrated the script and set designs. Because of World War I, it was presented two years late, in 1922, but with an audience of more than 300,000 during 67 performances.
A special season in 1934 celebrated the 300th anniversary of the fi rst performance, and with ticket price reductions and special train fares, some 440,000 visitors attended. During World War II, the play was not produced at all, resuming only in 1950. Since that time it has continued on schedule, with an extra season in 1984 celebrating its 350th birthday.
The story of the play is found in the Bible, but to see it translated to the live sets is much more impressive. It is performed in 11 acts, each commencing with a prologue. In these, some of the religious history of Israel is depicted, showing how hundreds of years before, various prophets had also experienced disaster in attempting to reveal God to an unreceptive world. The prologues show how the story of Christ’s passion relates to the past interaction between God and humankind.
The play begins with Jesus’ triumphal entry into Jerusalem on a donkey. It moves through His visit to Bethany where Mary Magdalene anoints His feet with priceless oil, then back to Jerusalem where the high priest Caiaphas calls for Jesus’ death and seals the deal with Judas to betray Jesus for 30 pieces of silver.
The Last Supper (immortalised by Leonardo da Vinci’s painting), Jesus’ arrest on the Mount of Olives, and His trial before Pontius Pilate, all prepare the audience for the drama of the procession to Golgotha for the Crucifi xion. This is staged with remarkable realism, leaving a person wondering how it is done! Jesus is finally taken down from the cross and placed in a tomb from which He miraculously reappears on Easter Sunday.
Throughout the play, the story is interspersed with beautiful choirs and solos singing works composed specifically for the play.
the Oberammergau experience
In late 1999, I realised that the Passion Play was coming the following year. I hadn’t been to Europe for fi ve years, so it seemed a good excuse to make another visit. I joined a two week tour from London to Germany, Italy, France and back to London that included a two-night stopover near Oberammergau with tickets to the play. With 4700 people attending each of the more than 100 performances over fi ve months, the logistics for a village of 5000 are daunting. But having to do it only every 10 years probably helps.
A performance begins at 9:30 am and concludes at 6:30 pm, which means one really needs to spend two nights within easy travelling distance. In fact, it is almost impossible to get tickets without an accommodation package. Ours was a “farm stay” in the nearby village of Unterammergau. The traditional style of house on a small dairy farm had four or five guest rooms and a large dining room where the family prepared and served the meals. The tour gave us four tickets that covered four meals at the house, the play and lunch at a restaurant on the day of the performance.
On the first morning, each tour member was given a blanket. We wondered why we would need a blanket so close to summer, especially since we would be sitting in an auditorium for the event. It didn’t take long to realise why! The wall at the stage end of the hall was missing; the stage and set were out in the open, backed by beautiful mountain scenery. Within an hour, we were freezing. At lunchtime we were bused to a restaurant, where we thawed out before returning at 3:00 pm for the second half of the show. An hour later the cold had again set in, but we were enthralled by the drama and the music in spite of this, until it all ended at 6:30 pm.
The play, naturally, is presented in German, so it is a help to know the story from the Bible. Otherwise you can follow it in an English text that is provided. A story which might take half an hour to read took more than six hours to portray on stage.
The year 1990 saw the youngest person ever direct the play. Christian Stuckl was appointed at the age of 27. He was also in charge in 2000 and he again directs the production in 2010. This year, performances will begin at 2:30 pm with a three-hour break for dinner, and will conclude at 10:30 pm. The play has also been edited down to five hours. This will enable visitors to arrive from a distance in the morning, thus freeing up the local accommodations.
The first of the 102 performances for 2010 will premiere on May 15. There are up to 23 performances a month until early October, and some 480,000 people are expected to attend.
The actors come from all walks of life: “Jesus” is a psychologist; “Herod,” a dentist; and “Mary Magdalene,” a flight attendant. And while the performers are mostly amateurs, their professionalism is admirable.
Although I won’t be attending this year’s play, I’ll never forget that oncein- a-lifetime experience. If you get a chance to go, by all means do so!