OBERAMMERGAU, GERMANY. The year was 1633. Europe was in the midst of the Thirty Years War and the devastating Black Plague that wiped out between a third to a half of the population of Europe. During this time, having already endured 80 deaths, citizens of the tiny village of Oberammergau, Germany made a sacred pledge that every ten years they would perform a “Play of the Suffering, Death and Resurrection of Our Lord Jesus Christ” if God would only protect them from further ravages of the plague. According to legend, following the vow, not a single person came down with the disease, and perhaps even more miraculously, everyone who was afflicted with the plague at the time of the oath survived. And so the now world famous Oberammergau Passion Play was born.
The tradition of the Oberammergau Passion Play
True to the villagers’ original promise to God, they performed the Oberammergau Passion Play for the first time during Pentecost in 1634. The village has fulfilled its agreement every ten years since, except in 1940 in the midst of World War II.
In the nearly 400 years since the promise was made, there have been a few times during which the play was performed other than during its traditional ten year span. Such events might include a Jubilee year in Rome, for example.
Today, the play occurs regularly once every decade during a year beginning in zero.
2020 is the next scheduled date for this famous play
Beginning in May 2020 and running until October, the latest edition of the Oberammergau Passion Play will renew once again its centuries-old pledge for pilgrims traveling to the small town from all around the world.
But why write about the Oberammergau Passion Play now, a more than a year before its first 2020 performance? The answer is simple. So popular has the passion play become over the centuries that tour operators and savvy travelers alike know that tickets for the five month run of the production come at a premium.
Furthermore, the citizens of Oberammergau, who must be residents of the town to participate, have already begun preparations for the elaborate production. This is, after all, an event that requires a bit more planning than merely showing up when the curtain is raised.
A cast of thousands
Known in German as Passionsspiele, the Oberammergau Passion Play requires a massive cast. Currently, cast members and participants number about half the 5,000 residents of the town. Their otherwise everyday lives consist of working in a range of normal occupations, such as doctors, shopkeepers, teachers and the like.
All the main speaking parts in the play are filled by actors who have lived in Oberammergau for at least 20 years, or by people who were born there.
Due to the physical stamina required for “Christ” to be on the cross for 20 minutes during the Crucifixion scene, three different actors rotate in the role of Jesus.
Lest one think this is a simply a small local production, consider that there are times when there are as many as 700 actors on stage. That’s a challenge indeed for any director.
Beyond method acting
As rehearsals get underway, at some point early on, the principle characters make a journey to the Holy Land to get a first-hand look at the places where Jesus live. They also gain a sense of the actual historical environment involved in the drama.
The actors undertake their roles with remarkable seriousness. One of traditional high points in the days leading up to the production comes when a series of important signs appear throughout town. This signage notifies male performers that it is time to begin growing their beards and letting their hair get longer. Clearly, authenticity is another hallmark of the Oberammergau Passion Play.
A real challenge for the script writers
Eight collaborating playwrights created the original script for the play, along with input from townspeople themselves. Since its very first production, the Oberammergau Passion Play has been performed on open-air stages in the village using texts evolved from a composite of four distinct manuscripts dating from the 15th and 16th centuries.
Between 1660 and 1860, the passion play underwent numerous revisions. Over the many years of its existence, the play, at times, attracted criticism for its alleged anti-Semitism, eventually leading to judicious revisions of the text. Since 1860, rewrites to the music and dialogue have been minor, save for the special season of 1934 honoring the play’s 300th anniversary, when Adolf Hitler was chancellor.
Performance history and traditions of the passion play
The first performance of the Oberammergau Passion Play took place in 1634. The initially set their play in the cemetery next to the parish church and performed it reverently on the fresh graves of recent victims of the plague. The original stage was little more than a simple wood construction.
Nearly two centuries later, in 1830, the townspeople relocated the stage to the northern edge of the village. They considerably enlarged the layout of the performance space, designing a plan that offered space for 5000 spectators. Today the passion play’s permanent venue, Passion Play Theatre, seats 4,700 people.
Over the centuries the play has ranged in length from five to eight hours with the first half performed in the morning and the second either sometime in the afternoon or beginning late afternoon and concluding in the evening. By tradition, the town has always planned for a three hour lunch or dinner break between the segments.
The players know how to evade traffic jams and arrive on time to play their parts
One interesting aspect of the production is that many shopkeepers realized they could not participate in the play. That might force them to close their shops during the months-long run of the play. Thus, many villagers chosen as cast members set their alarm clocks somewhat before the time they need to appear. (This is Germany, after all). When the countdown begins, they will then jump on a bicycle (to avoid traffic congestion) and get to the theater with enough time remaining to make their entrances on a timely basis. After playing their parts, those who are able simply cycle back to work.
Given this background, we find it easy to see why planning a year in advance is necessary for actors, stagehands and spectators alike. The passion of the villagers of Oberammergau still gives them the drive to precisely fulfill their 400-year old vow. Likewise, the passion of visitors over the years for both travel and spiritual enrichment drives their earnest desire to witness the world famous Passion Play of Oberammergau at least once in a lifetime.
— Headline image: The Oberammergau Passion Play has been a tradition for nearly 400 years.
(Courtesy: Oberammergau 2020)
About the Author:
Bob Taylor is a veteran writer who has traveled throughout the world. Taylor was an award winning television producer/reporter/anchor before focusing on writing about international events, people and cultures around the globe.
He is founder of The Magellan Travel Club (www.MagellanTravelClub.com)
His goal is to visit 100 countries or more during his lifetime.
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