OBERAMMERGAU, GERMANY — Coronavirus fear continues to dominate the news this month as the world anxiously awaits the sound of the all-clear signal. From somewhere. Meanwhile, hundreds of thousands of small businesses have been affected. Likewise, major hospitality players such as hotels, airlines and cruise lines have suffered dramatically. And now, for the latest blow. The country of Germany recently announced the postponement of the Oberammergau Passion Play. Ironically, this spectacular 400-year tradition has its roots in a German town’s unusual response to Europe’s first epidemic, the Black Plague.
A delay of great historical and religious significance
In the great scheme of the multiple economic and medical outcomes resulting from the COVID-19 pandemic, perhaps the cancellation of the 2020 edition of the Oberammergau Passion Play seems a minor consequence. But from a cultural perspective, the announcement possesses great significance.
The Passion Play is only performed every ten years. Due to its rarity, pilgrims from around the world make long-range plans for their visits. Since the play’s first performance in 1634, the only other year the play did not go on as scheduled was 1940. That, of course, was a result of the ongoing Second World War.
According to legend, after 80 deaths in the tiny village of Oberammergau in 1633 due to the Bubonic Plague, the citizens of the town made a sacred pledge. They solemnly pledge that every ten years they would perform a “Play of the Suffering, Death and Resurrection of Our Lord Jesus Christ” if God would intervene to protect them from the further ravages of the plague.
In fact, the town’s initial promise was to perform the play on an annual basis. But the range and scope of the production proved so large tha tthe organizers deemed it impossible carry out the logistics on a yearly basis. As a result, they chose to adopt a ten year interval. This remains the traditon today.
A miraculous pledge and a miraculous result launches a tradition
Miraculously, following the town’s vow, not a single person came down with the plague from that day forward. Perhaps even more miraculously, everyone who was afflicted with the disease at the time of the oath survived.
True to their promise, the Passion Play was performed for the first time during Pentecost in 1634. The town as faithfully fulfilled its sacred pledge every ten years since that time.
The first performance of the Oberammergau Passion Play took place in the cemetery next to the parish church on the fresh graves of victims of the plague. The stage was little more than a simple, uncomplicated wood platform.
In 1830, the stage relocated to the northern edge of the village with a layout-plan which offered space for 5000 spectators. Today the permanent Passion Play Theatre seats 4,700 people.
The Oberammergau Passion Play today
To participate, actors must be residents of Oberammergau. The cast consists of about half the 5,000 residents whose otherwise everyday lives involve their normal careers as doctors, shopkeepers, teachers and the like. All the main speaking parts are filled by actors who have lived in Oberammergau for at least 20 years or by people who were born there.
One simple fact illustrates why the logistics of a yearly performance would have proved prohibitive. At times, as many as 700 actors appear on stage at the same time. But there remain other physical and logistical details to work out as well.
For example, 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.
Due to the uncertainty the coronavirus has created globally, causing constantly changing data and schedules, Germany and the Passion Play organizers announced the re-scheduling of this year’s production, postponing it to 2022:
“The municipality of Oberammergau and the directing team of the Passion Play around Christian Stückl had to make this decision to protect the health of participants and spectators. The premiere is rescheduled for May 21, 2022.“
A personal note
All of that said, in a world where speculation frequently becomes more newsworthy than actual events themselves, I am taking this opportunity for a bit of personal speculation regarding this and other temporary setbacks caused by the ongoing COVID-19 nemesis.
Prior to the pandemic, the US economy was rocking along at a record-breaking pace. Suddenly, almost overnight and with very little warning, Americans found themselves sequestered in there homes for largely precautionary reasons. And guess what? We don’t like it.
Americans are an active, busy society. We are forever on the move. We are doers.
Where people in other parts of the world take six weeks of vacation, Americans get two, maybe three, if we’re lucky. So the American attitide is “Don’t mess with our free time.”
True, the hospitality industry is reeling. Yet it’s a global phenomenon affecting us all. But when this is over, the bounceback is going to be of unprecedented proportions. I personally believe that springtime cabin fever will strike with tsunami-like results.
We’ll see what happens next
But what do I know? Nothing. It’s truly a mess right now. But I do believe we are in uncharted territory that feels very different from similar disruptions in the past. Never before have we experienced sustained weeks without sports. Never before have major cultural events been postponed or canceled at such an intense level.
No, this time it’s different. But when it’s over, look out. The wanderlusters of the world are still ready to get up and go.
(Below: Trailer for the 2020 Passion Play, via the official English language website.)
— Headline image: YouTube screen capture. Video still from new trailer for the 2020 Passion Play in Oberammergau, Germany.
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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