The generally accepted story is that it all started in 1634, in a time of plague and war: the plague was the bubonic plague which spread through Germany between 1632 and 1640, and the war was the thirty years war, a long and bloody series of conflicts on the European mainland, finishing with the Treaty of Westphalia in 1648. In Oberammergau, a small village in Bavaria sheltered by mountains, at first there had been no cases of plague, as they took precautions by not allowing anyone to leave or enter their village.
This ruling was broken in September 1632 by Kaspar Schisler, who longed to be with his family and sneaked home into Oberammergau. Unfortunately, he was already infected by the plague and three days later he and his family were all dead, the village was infected and more than eighty died.
The people of Oberammergau gathered together and resolved that if God spared them further loss of life, they would every ten years put on a “Play of the Suffering Death and Resurrection of our Lord Jesus Christ.” Providentially, thereafter the town was spared further deaths and the first Passion Play was performed in 1634 in the cemetery of the village church. Here it continued till the 19 th century when it moved to the place where the passion theatre stands today.
There are strict criteria about who can take part and the play is performed only by people who live in or were born in the village. The actors do not wear wigs: everyone has to grow their hair and grow a beard if they are playing a man’s part; between performances you can see them going about their daily business in the village. From a population of 5000, about 1200 take part in the performance, of which about 100 have speaking parts.
Nowadays almost half a million people come to the passion play, from all over the world.
I first read about the Passion Play in Oberammergau when I was in my teens. I had bought a first edition of Jerome K Jerome’s “Diary of Pilgrimage” where he described the journey to Oberammergau with wit and verve, echoing his most famous work “Three Men in a Boat” but struggled with his description of the Passion Play itself. He could not think what new he could say about a play which, in 1890 when he went, had already been performed for more than 250 years. It has now been performed for nearly four hundred years, and is performed at the turn of every decade, unless there is some disruption, as there was in 2020, with the Covid pandemic. Consequently, the play was postponed to 2022, its 42 nd season.
People come from all over the world, many come in parties, but there is a well organised Passion Play Office which offers local packages, booking patrons into local hotels for one or two nights, with all necessary meals and seats to attend the performance. We chose this option. We had planned to go in 2020, and were given priority in rebooking in 2022. This meant we could stay at our first-choice hotel (incidentally run by this season’s Pontius Pilate) and had great seats, in the 5000-seater theatre.
The whole village is geared for the play, with exhibitions, talks and a concert bookending the show. The play last 6 hours, in two three-hour sessions, with a long interval where the audience retreats to one of the many restaurants in the village, or in our case to our very well organised hotel.
The play itself has three intertwined staged elements, one is the narrative play, the second is a series of Old Testament tableaux and the third a sequence of chorales. The narrative play has evolved over the years, the story of course is the same: but its interpretation varies.
What moved me in the narrative play included the crowd scenes, the tensions amongst the council and the graphic and realist representation of the scourging and the crucifixion. The stage was huge, about 50 metres across, and crowds could be crowds, hundreds were on the stage, together with donkeys, sheep, goats, horses and camels. It seemed that all human life could be accommodated, amongst the actors was one woman in her nineties and a suckling babe in arms. One benefit of a partially open stage, was that pigeons when released as Jesus cleared the temple could fly harmlessly out to freedom.
There was clearly equivocation and division amongst the common people, and the council on their view of Jesus. On the council there were great supporters throughout, notably Joseph of Arimathea and Nicodemus, as well as those hostile to Jesus. I found the scourging, the suicide of Judas and the crucifixion chilling, and almost too realistic. Though reflecting afterwards, the play as a whole filled in gaps which the gospels, as succinct accounts have to leave out.
The tableaux, provided a welcome respite from the dramatic sequence of the narrative, and linked old testament incidents and prophesy to the depiction of the passion. The chorales were beautiful and added greatly to the atmosphere and aura of the performance. Like the actors, the soloists were remarkably good, considering that they all were residents of Oberamergau.
The dialogue is, of course in German. Though learning German, we were greatly helped by the verbatim translation in to English with which we were provided. All in all, it was a delightful and enriching experience. Like Jerome K Jerome, in his account, we had made a complex journey to reach the village, train, bike and foot, we came with good friends, we were very well looked after in our hotel and we even had (resolved) uncertainty on our homeward journey! I would wholeheartedly recommend it to everyone: there are still some free places this season, otherwise you will have to wait till 2030, or if that is not possible 2034, when it will celebrate its four hundredth anniversary.