Oberammergau Passion Play

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Christ entering Jerusalem, Oberammergau Passion Play in 1900

The word "passion" is derived from he Latin word “passus” which means “having suffered” or “having undergone.” The Passion of Christ is the story of Jesus Christ's arrest, trial and suffering. It ends with his execution by crucifixion. The main episodes of the Passion story are: 1)The Last Supper; 2) The agony in the Garden of Gethsemane; 3) The arrest of Jesus after his betrayal by Judas; 4) The examination and condemnation of Jesus by the Jews; 5) The trial before Pilate during which Jesus is sentenced to be whipped and crucified; and 6) The crucifixion of Jesus

Passion plays, mystery plays and miracle plays were introduced in the Middle Ages to Mass, celebrations and festivals to entertain and offer theological instruction to people who were mostly illiterate. Passion plays usually dealt with events dealing with the death and resurrection of Christ. Mystery plays dramatized events from the Old and New Testaments such as Adam and Eve, Noah, Abraham almost sacrificing of Isaac, and Jesus being tempted by the Devil. Miracle plays were usually centered on the lives of famous saints or events in their lives. Moral plays were stories with a moral messages.

These plays grew out living pictures (tableaux) of things like the Three Wise Men visiting Bethlehem. The earliest miracle plays are believed to date pack to the 10th century but the first one recorded by name, “ Play of St. Katherine” , was produced in England in the 12th century. Early plays were performed in Latin in churches. Later they were performed in local languages in open spaces such as public squares. Freed from the church, they incorporated non-religious elements such as comedy and satire and dealt with issues of the day and controversial subjects. Sometimes they made fun of the church and dealt with sexual themes and ended up being condemned by the church. .

According to the BBC: “'Passion plays' have been staged since the 12th century. The earliest play (so far) is one found at the Benedictine monastery of Monte Cassino in Italy. Two 13th century German passion plays are known, and Passion plays were more popular during that century and the one that followed. The Passion of Christ was also portrayed in the English 'cycle plays'. [Source: BBC, September 18, 2009 |::|]

“Passion plays often give a detailed portrayal of Christ's physical suffering and many of them include explicit dramatisations of the beating and execution of Christ. There were at least two reasons for this: since all Passion plays emphasise the humanity of Christ and identify this with his physical experiences, a realistic Crucifixion brought the point home to the audience. Secondly, making the action as realistic as possible demonstrated to the audience that the death of Christ was a real historical event. |::|

Oberammergau Passion Play

Christ Carrying the Cross by El Greco

The most famous Passion play is the one that has been staged at Oberammergau in Upper Bavaria in Germany since 1634. Oberammergau is a small town with around 6,000 residents at the foot of the Bavarian Alps and home of the world’s most famous Passion Play. The event takes places over two days. All the actors are amateurs and the pay they receive is exceptionally low. In 1960, for example, the highest paid actor—who had spent many months preparing for the job—received only $1,875. The people of Oberammergau consider the Passion Play to be a religious service and therefore they have forbidden it from being recorded, filmed, televised or from going on tour. [Source: People's Almanac]

In 1970, over a half a million people from all over the world came to witness the spectacle (more than a million were refused tickets which are usually sold in a package with two nights lodging). To cope with the sudden influx of 8,000 tour buses and 100,000 cars the town had to hire 40 traffic police. The visitors left behind $10 million. The profits were split four ways between the town's church, the performers, upkeep on the accommodation and the next performances.

According to the BBC: “The villagers of Oberammergau had promised God that if he saved them from a plague epidemic they would commemorate it by staging a dramatic representation of Christ's suffering, death and resurrection every ten years. The Oberammergau Passion play is particularly notable for involving the participation of the most of the villagers, with over 800 people in the cast. |::|

The Passion Play is produced every ten years, generally in years that end with zero. The last one was in 2010, the next is in 2020. In non-play years the people of Oberammergau make their living from farming, woodcarving, clothes making and tourism. According to bavaria.by, a Bavarian tour organization: “This small Bavarian community, with 5,100 inhabitants located within the Ammergau Alps, owes its world-famous reputation to the impressive Passion Plays that have been performed every 10 years in the town since 1634 - the next will take place in 2020, from 16 May to 4 October. Over the last few years the imposing 4,800 capacity Passion Play Theater has opened its doors for other famous cultural performances.”

History of Oberammergau Passion Play

The origin of the passion play religious service goes back to 1633 when Germany was ravaged by the Thirty Year War and the plague. The residents of Oberammergau had managed to protect their town from the plague by setting up barricades, but one villager with the plague managed to slip back in undetected and within a short time 100 villagers died a painful death. The survivors prayed to God and told him that if they were spared they would reenact Christ final days every ten years "from now until the end of time." [Source: People's Almanac]

Through the 17th and 18th century the Passion Play was performed privately by the people of Oberammergau. In 1800, Austrian commanders, who were in the town to fight Napoleon's troops, witnessed the performance and word began to spread around Europe. In 1840, princes, princesses and aristocrats from all over Europe, according to one report, arrived "on foot, often without shoes and stockings, in a long procession, praying loud and devoutly; in the eyes of the people the visit to this play serves a holy purpose, they look upon the way there as a pilgrimage undertaken to save their souls."

In 1860, after a railroad was built connecting Munich to Starnberg, large numbers of people began arriving. The repeat performance held in 1871 (few people showed up in 1870 due to the Franco-Prussian War) was attended by King Edward VII of England and crazy King Ludwig II of Bavaria. The 1880 performance was attended by Prussian Crown Prince Friedreich Wilhelm, the 1890 by Thomas Edison. In 1900 King Oskar II of Sweden, John D. Rockefeller, Alexander Eiffel and Count Zeppelin showed up. In 1930 Henry Ford presented the actor who played Christ with a motor car.

To mark the 300th anniversary of the Passion Play a special performance was held in 1934, attended by William Randolph Hearst and Adolph Hitler (traveling under an alias and escorted by a dozen cars). Hitler's favorite character was Pilate who he said "stands like a firm rock in the middle of the whole muck and mire of Jewry."

In 1934 the Passion Play was presided over by Hitler's appointed Bavarian State Minister and the High Commissioner for Tourist Traffic. When the villagers were ordered to change their costumes and makeup so they looked Aryan rather than Jewish they refused but they did agree to march in their costumes, regularly "heiling" Hitler. In 1943, Hitler ordered the theater where performances were held to be turned into a bomb factory.

Oberammergau Passion Play in 1900

The Passion Play used to be held every year. After World War I it was postponed from 1920 to 1922 because Germany was so desperately poor. In 1940, it was canceled by the Nazis on the grounds it was 'sentimental drivel" and took "manpower and energy from the struggle for world conquest."

Production of the Oberammergau Passion Play

In 1970 a new script was written by a Benedictine monk named Stephan Ettal after conferring with Jewish groups who considered elements of the play to be "anti-Semitic." But the 26-man Oberannaregau play committee rejected it as too boring. Before the 36th performance of the Passion Play in 1970 Jewish groups supported by seven Christian scholars demanded that Munich's Cardinal Julius Dopfner boycott the opening of the performance on the grounds it was anti-semitic. Dropfner did attend but in his opening mass he said: "We are all agreed that the text today needs a new version." [Source: People's Almanac]

Seamstresses usually begin working a year in advance on creating and altering the 1,000 or so new costumes that are needed for each Passion Play. About 1,700 Oberammergau are involved in the production of the play. A man who plays Christ must be on stage for about five hours and memorize about 7,000 words.

The Passion Play was originally produced in front of the town's church but after 1830 it was presented on the Passion Meadow in a covered 5,200-seat theater and an open satge. The Bavarian Alps rise up in back of the stage and it is not unusual for dramatic thunderstorms to strike between 4:00 and 4:30 during the climatic crucifixion scene. The performance ends at 5:15pm with a musical rendition of the Apostles' Creed. There is no applause.

Changes with the Oberammergau Passion Play

All the actors for the Oberammergau Passion Play let their hair grow — and the men letting beards grow — for over a year, as has been done for decades maybe centuries. Bus otherwise there have a lot of changes in the last few decades. According to Associated Press: The play — which for hundreds of years reflected a conservative, Catholic outlook — has received a careful makeover to become reflective of Germany’s more diverse society. It includes a leading Muslim actor for the first time and has been purged of the many notorious antisemitic plot lines which drew widespread criticism. [Source: Kirsten Grieshaber, Associated Press May 8, 2022]

Christ leaving the tomb, Oberammergau Passion Play in 1900

“The history of the Oberammergau Passion Play as being one which manifests these antisemitic tropes — Jews as villainous, Jews as deceptive, Jews as bloodthirsty, Jews as manipulative, Jews as Christ killers — was always part of the story,” Rabbi Noam Marans told The Associated Press in a recent interview in Oberammergau. Marans, the director for interreligious and intergroup relations for the American Jewish Committee in New York, has been advising Stueckl together with a team of Christian and Jewish American experts for several years on how to rid the play of antisemitic content.

It’s been a success story. The play no longer depicts the Jews as Christ's killers, and shows clearly that Jesus was a Jew himself. It places the story of Jesus’ last days in historical context, with all its intra-Jewish tensions and the Jews’ oppression by the Romans. The male performers wear yarmulkes, making them clearly recognizable as Jews. Of course, there are many Christian elements as well, such as the famous choir and orchestra whose musical compositions go back to the early 19th century. The mix of Christian and Jewish influences on the current performance is vividly illustrated during the depiction of the Last Supper, when a huge Menorah is lit on the table and the disciples of Jesus recite both Hebrew prayers and the Christian Lord’s Prayer.

Until the 1990s, when Stueckl took over as director, performers had to belong to one of the two major German churches, Roman Catholic or Lutheran. These days, people who have left the church, atheists, Muslims, and members of any other religious affiliation are welcome to participate as long as they are residents of Oberammergau. Judas is played by Muslim actor Cengiz Gorur. The deputy director, Abdullah Karaca, is the son of Turkish immigrants. And several children of refugees from Africa and elsewhere, who only recently arrived in Oberammergau after fleeing their home countries, were invited to perform. When it comes to women, there’s still some work to be done. Stueckl called the play “very male-dominated” — all leading roles are male, with the exception only of Jesus’ mother, Mary, and Mary Magdalene.

Oberammergau Passion Play and the Covid-19 Pandemic

Kirsten Grieshaber of Associated Press wrote: Legend has it that ever since 1634, when the villagers of Oberammergau first performed their passion play, no more residents died of that pestilence or any other plagues — until 2020, when the world was hit by a new plague, the coronavirus pandemic. Oberammergau, like so many places worldwide, suffered some COVID-19 deaths, though residents who confirmed that were unsure how many. Another consequence: The villagers could not fulfill their vow to stage the play after a 10-year interval. It was set to open in the spring of 2020, but was postponed due to the pandemic. [Source: Kirsten Grieshaber, Associated Press May 8, 2022]

In May 2022, after a two-year delay, the famous Oberammergau Passion Play finally opened — the 42nd staging since its long-ago debut. Almost half of the village’s residents — more than 1,800 people, including 400 children — participated in the play about the last five days before Christ's crucifixion. It's a production modernized to fit the times, stripped of antisemitic allusions and featuring a diverse cast that include refugee children and non-Christian actors.

Almost half a million visitors from Germany and the rest of the world were expected to show up. Director Christian Stueckl, who was born in Oberammergau and has been in charge of the play for more than 30 years said “Just a few weeks ago” before the opening “many could not believe that the Passion Play would premiere.“ All the actors tested themselves for the virus before every rehearsal and continued to do so for all 103 performances which ran for about five months through October.

Image Sources: Wikimedia, Commons

Text Sources: Associated Press, AFP, National Geographic, New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Smithsonian magazine, The New Yorker, Time, Reuters

Last updated February 2024

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