THERE is a special magic about the village of Oberammergau which never seems to wane. It is the atmosphere of its once-a-decade Passion Play. Because, even when you visit outside of the play season, you cannot escape its presence: the village lives and breathes the play, for the play is Oberammergau and Obererammergau is the play.
I first visited Oberammergau to experience its play in 1990, having previously thought it was not for me. I was bowled over by the way that this small village of little more than 5300 people, situated high up in the Bavarian Alps, could deliver a production of such high quality. I have been to every Passion Play since.
As I stroll around the village, dropping in to its theatre, reacquainting myself with some of the actors I met on previous visits, it is almost like coming home.
More than 2000 actors, musicians, and choir members are currently taking part in rehearsals for the 42nd performance of the Oberammergau Passion Play, set to take place from 16 May to 4 October this year. Behind the scenes, set-builders and costume-makers are engaged full-time in creating a renewed spectacle that seeks to progress the gospel story and project it to today’s audience.
The play in Oberammergau traces its roots to 1633. During the Thirty Years War (1618-48) that engulfed much of Europe, spreading famine and plague across the continent, villagers in Oberammergau made a solemn vow to perform a play “of the Saviour’s suffering and death until the end of time” every tenth year, if God would deliver them from the disease. Having previously recorded 84 deaths in a matter of months, it is said that no further deaths were recorded. The original signed document survives among the parish records.
The first Passion Play, given at Pentecost 1634 by some 60 or 70 performers, was performed on a stage erected over the graves of the plague victims. The decision was subsequently made to stage the play at the beginning of each decade, and only twice in its history (in 1920 and 1940, owing to war) has it been missed.
©Passion Play Oberammergau 2020 /Florian WagnerThe village of Oberammergau in the Bavarian mountains
To take part, all actors, musicians, or singers have to have been born in the village, or to have lived there for at least 20 years. In addition to those involved on stage or supporting it, many others are involved in catering for the 4500-odd visitors at every performance (split into two parts which total five and a half hours; with a three-hour interval for dinner).
The play features 120 major and minor speaking roles. Two players are cast for each of the 18 main parts: the 100 performances that take place between May and October are too onerous for one person to undertake. The chorus and orchestra for each performance has approximately 50 singers and 70 players. The result is dramatic, absorbing, emotional, and, in places, nothing short of epic: as many as 500 people are on stage for the opening scenes of Palm Sunday, for instance.
Inevitably, the play has changed since its first performance, albeit slowly and often reluctantly. The dictum of the current director, Christian Stückl, has been that “If the play is to survive, it must evolve.” He grew up in the village, and was appointed director for the 1990 play at just 27. Now, nearly 30 years later, he is a much-respected theatre director both in Munich and beyond.
For the 2000 play, he oversaw the rewriting of some 60 per cent of the original text, in conjunction with the then deputy director, Otto Huber — in part to respond to accusations from mainly American-based Jewish groups, radical Christians, and academics, of anti-Semitism within the script. This, in turn, resulted in the writing of new music, although in the style of the traditional compositions; there were also new stage sets, and an extensive renovation of the theatre.
In an effort to continue to make the story of Christ’s death, resurrection, and exaltation as meaningful as possible to 21st-century audiences, there was further rewriting in the 2010 version, and new music, costumes, and sets; the same will be true for this year’s play.
While the director will be rewriting scenes right up to the première (and refining further after the first performances), we know that, among the changes, there is likely to be a greater emphasis on Jesus’s message; further attempts to set the story in an accurate historical and political context; and, after more visits from US-based advisers, there may be further attempts to remove any lingering negative characterisations of Jews and Judaism.
©Passion Play Oberammergau 2020Jesus enters Jerusalem
Although an estimated 500,000 people will visit Oberammergau to watch the production, it is not the village’s only drawcard. The setting itself, in a high valley, with a mountain range in which the sugarloaf-shaped Kofel juts out (and whose summit overlooks the village), is perhaps reason enough to make a stop in Oberammergau at any time of the year. A cable car and a chairlift provide the authentic Alpine experience in summer, while skiing can occupy half a day in winter.
Then there is the spectacle of the village’s many frescoed houses, including the “Hansel and Gretel House” on the road out towards Ettal, with its fairytale scenes; and others with scenes from early Passion-play performances. Most are the work of a local 18th-century painter, Franz Seraph Zwink.
You can catch up on the history of the Passion Play in the village’s museum, and by taking a tour of the vast theatre: it has the largest permanent open-air stage in the world, a covered auditorium, and backstage studios and wardrobes. The village is also famous for its woodcarving, and, besides several carvers’ shops, there are live demonstrations inside the “Pilatushaus”: another of the impressive frescoed houses. Not to miss, too, is Ettal Abbey, in the neighbouring village, the Benedictine Baroque monastery noted for its marble statue of the Virgin, its great rotunda, and its produce, from cheese to beer to liqueurs.
The Ammergau-Alpen region, like some other parts of Germany, is a cure centre. At Bad Bayersoien — nine miles from Oberammergau — bathing in heated peat moor-mud, dug from around the circular Lake Soier, is renowned for healing skin and joints. All around is excellent hiking country, at most times of the year.
The tourism region has devised a “Meditation Trail” that links several pilgrimage sites, not least the church at Wies, the UNESCO-listed stuccoed masterpiece of Dominikus Zimmermann. There are several more of his works a little farther up the “Romantic Road” (a 350km route through the walled towns and mountains of Bavaria into Baden-Württemberg), including the façade of the town hall at Landsberg am Lech. And then there is the legacy of “mad” King Ludwig II, who built the most famous fairytale castles of Neuschwanstein, in south-west Bavaria, and the “mini Versailles” palace at Linderhof (the latter practically in Oberammergau).
istockOberammergau with the Kofel in the background
Ludwig was an aficionado of the Passion Play, and, in 1874, donated the “Kreuzigungsgruppe” a 12-metre-high stone representation of the crucifixion, with the crucified Christ accompanied by his mother and John, his closest disciple (it stands on a quiet hillside overlooking the village). On the eve of 24 August every year, Ludwig’s birthday is celebrated with bonfires lit all the way up the Kofel, which is topped with an illuminated crown. The torchbearers descend to the village to join the revelry, which lasts until the next morning.
For the Oberammergauers, the play is, of course, a source of revenue and a community play of the grandest order. But it is also an act of worship for many, a mission undertaken by the village in response to the vow, and a mission on behalf of those who come from all parts of the globe to be part of it. If, as I used to, you have your doubts about going, then maybe 2020 could be the year you visit the village of Oberammergau and experience the play and its message.
Ray Goodburn is the author of A Pilgrim’s Guide to Oberammergau and its Passion Play, published by Pilgrim Book Services at £11.95 (Church Times bookshop £10.75).
The Passion play runs from 16 May to 4 October, five times per week. For information about ticket availability and how to book, visit www.passionsspiele-oberammergau.de, or phone +49(0)8822 949 88 65 weekdays. Individual tickets are priced between €30-180 plus fees, depending on seating category. Arrangements, including overnight accommodation and dinner during the interval, can also be booked. Returned tickets may be available on the morning of each performance. The tourism region is Ammergauer-Alpen (www.ammergauer-alpen.de). For those travelling by bus and train, visit: www.flixbus.co.uk/coach/oberammergau and www.bahn.de. The nearest airports are at Munich, Memmingen, and Innsbruck.
At the time of going to press, UK tour operators still with availability on package holidays which include the Oberammergau Passion Play, include McCabe Pilgrimages, Tangney Tours, One Traveller, Brightwater Holidays, Andante Travel, Maranatha Tours, Great Rail, and Titan Travel.