To many the Passion Play is not merely an experience but a pilgrimage.
Like many an eleven-year-old, Fritz Lang isn’t overly fond of school. Outside the windows the snowy crags of the Kofelberg call him to his skis, and his leather pants scratch at his legs. The March sun sends rivulets of water trickling down the gutters. He’s restless.
The Oberlehrerin up front draws an outline of the Holy Roman Empire on the blackboard, but that doesn’t exactly grab Fritz. He’s looking for excitement. He spots Gretl in the front row, with her yellow curls—a really choice target for a juicy paper wad.
He tears a corner from his notebook, soaks it well, and lets fly with a rubber band. Splat. A miss. And a wet spot on the blackboard.
The teacher turns and stares him down. “Fritz, was that you?”
“Go stand in the corner. At that rate you won’t even grow up to be Judas Iscariot.”
Fritz doesn’t mind standing in the corner. But to be publicly insulted about never getting a leading part in the Passion Play—that’s something that shouldn’t happen to any Oberammergauer, even an 11-year-old.
At some time in their lives, most Oberammergauers, if they want one, do get a part in the famous Passion Play. With only five thousand inhabitants in the town and the need for a thousand actors, the odds are good. Besides, another 500 work behind the scenes as stagehands, musicians, choristers, or ushers.
But snagging a leading role is another story. A play that’s presented only once every 10 years also cuts the odds. For the girls the leading roles are those of the Virgin Mary and Mary Magdalene. To be considered you have to be a native (Unterammergau, a mile down the road, is too far away), a good Catholic, unmarried, and have a respectable face and character.
The actor who plays the Christ needs both looks and physique. Dragging a hundred-pound cross over the stage and hanging from it by one’s fingers for 20 minutes—even with a hidden belt and a grommet that bears much of the weight—is a gruelling task.
Nine years out of ten, Oberammergau is like any other village in West Germany’s Bavarian Alps: skiing, woodcutting, skating, dairying, hiking, woodcarving, tourists.
Out in the fields there are shrines almost everywhere, and often as not, a barren cross perched atop a mountain peak. Meet someone on the path and the normal greeting is “Grüss di’ Gott.” This is the “God bless you” almost all the Germanic mountain folk use as a password, whether in Germany, Austria, or Switzerland.
What makes Oberammergau different is its Passion Play. Every 10 years the townsfolk have been keeping an old vow that goes back to the seventeenth century. Actually, the play has passed on from generation to generation, with text and acting and music not a great deal different from what they were a century ago.
The production is technically in the hands of a 24-man play committee, including the priest, the mayor, the school principal, and other leading citizens. Many of the older members once played lead roles.
The play dates back to the spring of 1634, when the village was plagued by the Black Death. A young farmer got homesick for his wife and baby, and despite all warnings crept back through the line of guards and watchfires. With him he brought the deadly germs. Shortly he and his whole family were wiped out, along with much of the village.
With the churchyard full of fresh graves the town fathers got desperate. If God would only spare the rest of them, they vowed, they’d put on a play every 10 years about the suffering and death of Christ. The plague stopped, and the play started. At first it was performed frequently, to be on the safe side. After a couple of decades, however, the townspeople settled down to their original vow: every 10 years, except for a war or two that got in the way.
The first playhouse was the churchyard, with the tombstones for benches. Then the action moved to the outskirts, to a meadow that for generations has borne the name of Passionsweide. There’s a theater there now that seats 4,700. The stage is open to the sun and sky, and has neither lighting nor microphones. But the audience does sit under a roof. In bad weather the leading actors sometimes change costumes two or three times a performance, to keep from tripping over their wet robes.
The play begins at 8:30 each morning and runs till 5:00 at night, with a two-hour break for a picnic and some Bavarian beer. One wag calls the half of the play before dinner “B.D.” and the half after, “A.D.” The show goes on every day except Tuesday and Thursday, from late May until the end of September.
That’s a killing pace for any actor, even for stand-ins. In total, there are 104 speaking parts and 42 changes of scenery. The action covers the last week of Christ’s ministry, from the entry into Jerusalem to the resurrection.
In a way, the play seems long, but if you watch it closely, the time goes quickly. The high point is probably the scene in the courtyard of Pilate, with five or six hundred people on stage, shouting, “Let him be crucified, let him be crucified.”
Many guests delight in the still-life scenes from the Old Testament. Before you see Judas betray his Master, for example, there’s a quick glimpse of the sons of Jacob selling their brother Joseph into slavery. Before you see Christ cleansing the temple, you see the angel of the Lord driving Adam and Eve out of Eden.
Obtaining tickets is always a problem, and in recent presentations there have been three or four times as many requests as there are seats. Visitors from England alone could fill all the seats, so popular is the play in the English-speaking world. Most years the business office doles out half the tickets outside Germany, and half to local travel agencies. Almost all the tickets are sold as part of a package, which includes two nights housing and three meals; costs range from $96 to $188, of which the performance itself represents $20–$30.
Even so, the townsfolk do a good job of not overcommercializing their play. It is cheaper than the music festivals at nearby Salzburg or Bayreuth. And since Oberammergau has no luxury hotels of a class like those in Paris or Rome or New Orleans, prices for lodging and food are reasonable. The great majority of visitors stay in guest houses and private homes. At play time, a town that normally has only five thousand people somehow manages to make room for five thousand more.
To many, Oberammergau’s Passion Play is not merely an experience but a pilgrimage. A Catholic mass and a Lutheran service are conducted at the two local churches before each performance. Townsfolk recommend another good preparation: reading the Bible. If you can’t read all four Gospel accounts of Holy Week, they say, at least read the one in John.
Somehow, as you sit in your seat during the long performance, even if you have only the English text to follow, you cannot help but meditate. The rolling hills behind the open stage even seem to take on the characteristics of the Mount of Olives.
The townsfolk take the play seriously. They want the visitor to do so as well. They don’t want it to be just another tourist trap. They don’t want to present it every year—even if they could make a pile of money by doing so.
They want the play to be a religious experience, because for them, it is. It is a living vow of their ancestors. It is a way to express their faith, a way to reflect on what God has done for them, and a way to tie together the world of their Maker with the world of Oberammergau.
Theodore J. Kleinhans is senior fraternal editor for the Aid Association for Lutherans in Appleton, Wisconsin.
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