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The Passion Play at Oberammergau

The Passion Play at Oberammergau was first performed in 1634 when the citizens of this tiny Bavarian village found themselves in the middle of the 30 Years War. As if the horrors of that long war were not enough, they were facing another moment of mortal threat: news had come to the village, nestled high in Alps, that the bubonic plague was once again racing its way across Europe. The villagers first decided to isolate themselves from the dreaded disease by shutting themselves off from the outside world. The plan seemed to be working until a homesick young man sneaked into the village, bringing the disease with him. In three short weeks, 84 residents died.

In desperation, the town council sought God’s help. The residents of Oberammergau made a vow to God that if their village were spared obliteration by the plague, they would give thanks every 10 years by presenting a play that would depict the suffering, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ. They vowed, moreover, that they would present this play for so long as their village would exist. Miraculously, after the oath was sworn, the plague took no more lives in Oberammergau. True to their word, the villagers performed their “Tragedy of the Passion” in 1634, and have continued to do so to this day. In 1680 the play was rescheduled to be performed at the beginning of each decade.

I gained “textbook” knowledge of this dramatic production, and the legends surrounding its origin, while attending college, but it was not until 2010 when I traveled to Oberammergau that I actually saw the play. My brother had witnessed the 2000 performance, and he returned home with many photos of his visit; however, it was his enthusiasm and excitement when describing his trip and the play itself that sealed the deal for me. He spoke about his experience in such a way that I knew I would make the effort to attend 2010.

The performances this year will run from May through October. All of the roles are performed by the citizens of Oberammergau and not by professional actors. Each performer must have lived in Oberammergau for at least 20 years or have been born there. The play is presented in German. The printed program given to each attendee includes an English translation so it is easy enough to follow along.

During the 41st year that the play was presented (2010), tickets for the performance were available only by purchasing a tour package that included accommodations and meals. These packages were of two types: home stays or traditional hotels/guest houses. I chose the latter and was booked into a hotel in Garmisch, Germany. The package also includes transportation by bus to and from the theater site.

During 2010, the play had a running time of five hours, beginning at 2:30 p.m. and ending at around 10:00 p.m., with a meal break in between the two segments. My evening meal was served at the Ammergauer Haus, a community center that was set up to serve a full German meal. There were large tables with other playgoers and pleasantries were exchanged in a somewhat halting fashion due to so many different European languages being present. The menu offered soup and salad to start, entrees of roast beef, wild salmon, and Bavarian dumplings. For dessert, there was warm apple strudel served with custard and topped with whipped cream. While enjoying this meal I was treated to traditional Bavarian folk music and dances performed by entertainers dressed in traditional-style outfits.

The year I traveled to Oberammergau, the play was staged a total of 102 days and ran from May 15 until October 3. It is performed in a specially-built theater which features an “open-air” stage, while the seating for the audience is covered. This particular design turned out to be significant because on the day I attended it was cold and windy with intermittent rain. Yet, in spite of these less-than-perfect conditions, the play was both magnificent and compelling.

The present-day theater was first used for the performances in 1900, though it has been renovated and enlarged over the intervening years, most recently after the performance in 1990. During that decade both the interior and facade of the theater were renovated. The stage mechanics, such as lighting, audio, and scenery, were modernized. New and more comfortable seating was installed, along with under-floor heating. The common areas were enlarged, and the foyer was made accessible for wheelchairs. New exhibition areas were added and toilet facilities upgraded and improved. Today the theater seats more than 4,700 people, all of whom have a straight line-of-sight view of the stage.

The production involves over 2,000 performers, musicians, assistants, and technicians. There are 124 speaking roles, a 65-member orchestra, a 48 person chorus, and hundreds of people involved behind the scenes, including stage hands, seamstresses, firemen, auditorium attendants, ushers, etc. The males in leading roles grow out their hair and beards to make their appearance more authentic. All costumes are hand made by locals.

The play is comprised of spoken dramatic text, musical, and choral accompaniment and tableaux vivants (French for “living pictures”). These tableaux are static scenes requiring one or more actors who pose motionless (as in a picture). When they are seen by the audience, they remain silent, in costume, carefully posed, with props and scenery. These tableaux depict scenes from the Old Testament that are understood to prefigure the upcoming act to be performed. The tableaux are accompanied by verbal descriptions that define the basic interrelationship between the Old and New Testaments. Many Christians understand these texts to foreshadow the passion of Jesus.

The play is presented in 16 acts that recount the events that detail the short, final period of Jesus’s life. These events are often lumped together by Biblical scholars and referred to as the “Passion” (from the Greek “pathos” which means “suffering”). The “Passion” of Jesus has been portrayed over the centuries not only by re-enactments such as this but in many other forms of art as well. The passion has been portrayed in ancient frescoes, in stained glass windows, in countless devotional books and poems, in music and in films. The passion of Christ is taken from accounts recorded in the Gospels of Matthew (26:36–27:56), of Mark (14:32–15:41), of Luke (22:39–23:49), and of John (18:1–19:37). Collectively, it tells the story of Jesus’ arrest, trial, suffering, and death.

Act 1 depicts Jesus’s entry into Jerusalem on the back of a donkey (one of the symbols of “peace” in the ancient middle east). This day is observed by Christians around the world as Palm Sunday because those who greeted Jesus placed palm branches along the road. Jesus continued to the temple mount where he confronted the money changers and traders whom he drove from the Temple area.

Act 2 portrays the conspiracy of the High Council to entrap Jesus and arrest him in order to preserve their traditional interpretation of the Mosaic Law. In Act 3 Christ is anointed at Bethany by Mary Magdalene even as Judas is angered by the waste of  “valuable” oil. Jesus bids farewell to his mother and friends as he begins his last journey to Jerusalem.

And so the drama continues to unfold following the account of events found in the Gospels. Act after act, the audience is brought closer and closer to final events: the Last Supper, the betrayal in the Garden of Gethsemane, the arrest, the trail, the crucifixion and resurrection. 

The final act includes, for the first time, on-stage action that precedes the tableau. Roman guards see a light at the tomb. Mary Magdalene and the other women arrive. This moving scene is accompanied by a tableau that depicts Jesus resplendent in white accompanied by his apostles, angels, the Virgin Mary and Moses. The Passion ends with a resounding proclamation by the chorus.

The residents of Oberammergau have continued for almost four centuries to honor their commitment to present this play. They have forfeited their time by taking off from their jobs. They have given up vacations and holidays. About one-half of the total number of villagers are involved in the production, either on stage or behind the scenes, This leaves the other half to keep the village running.

With Holy Week just a few days away, it may instructive for us to make the effort to try and comprehend the fact that nearly 2,000 years after his crucifixion, the story of Jesus Christ continues to be re-enacted all across the Christian world. After his tragic, untimely death, the force of his life and teachings inspired four gospels to be written and these works, together with the writings of St. Paul, have defined most of Christianity’s central doctrines and teachings for two millennia. 

Next time: “Lake Titicaca and Sun Island”

Dr. Watson Mills writes, “The play is presented in German, but anyone can follow along the sequence of events because almost all who attend are very familiar with the story. The spectacular visuals, the beautifully painted sets, the colorful costumes, and powerful instrumental and choral music all combine to make this not only a theatrical masterpiece, but a unique cultural experience as well. Add to that the live animals and hundreds of people reenacting events as their ancestors have done for some 400 years, and it’s difficult not be deeply moved by the experience. Should you have the occasion, I would advise you to attend this play.”