townspeople, acting on stage
Anyhow the people of Oberammergau fulfilled their vow to perform the tragedy of the Passion of Christ every ten years, for the first time in 1634. As if to make it personal, they set up their stage over the fresh graves of the Black Death victims. But perhaps it was simply because the parish church could not handle the audience numbers. Just as well because, by the time the play had been put on over a few decades, visitors from the surrounding towns were pouring into tiny Oberammergau.
I assume the passion play became an important component of the town’s economy. Admission fees were charged from 1790 onwards, and the hotels and coffee shops were delighted to provide the thousands of outsiders with creature comforts during the 10-day period. Artists also did well. Already a home for woodcarving, Oberammergau’s local wood carvers were invited to design and create special passion-play-relevant objects eg religious subjects. Other artists designed frescoes, based on religious themes or fairy tales, and painted them on the external walls of the town’s homes and shops.
In time, the simple wooden stage structure was made more visually meaningful. The first permanent stage seems to have been built in 1815, later enlargened. Finally in 1890 a new, purpose-built theatre was built and, inside the arched hall capable of holding 4,700 spectators, people were comfortable, had good views of the stage and were mainly dry in case of rainy spells.
theatre, with covered seats and open air stage
The play is long for everyone. Performances begin in the early afternoon and end late in the evening (with a long dinner break). And since up to half a million people want to see a performance, they have to repeat the play 100 times during the May-October season.
The participants take their role very seriously, bringing the story of Jesus of Nazareth to life. The play begins at the point when Jesus is entering the holy city of Jerusalem, includes his crucifixion and ends up with the Resurrection. The spoken text has fantastic musical and HUGE choral accompaniments, and scenes have been carefully chosen to examine the interrelationship between the Old and New Testaments.
In 1934 Hitler apparently visited Oberammergau for the play, and was delighted with the vicious manner in which Jews were depicted. So since the extermination of Europe’s Jews by German soldiers and their allies, the German government and the Vatican have been very sensitive about real or potential anti-Semitism in passion plays. Therefore changes have been made to the text of the play since World War Two, to exclude the charge of Jewish deicide and to end the notion of collective guilt. It is made clear to the audience, for example, that Jesus was born, raised and died a wholehearted Jew.
If you have missed the 2010 season, the next cycle will start in May 2020.