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A history of the Oberammergau Passion

by
08 May 2020

Performances of the Oberammergau Passion Play should have started on Wednesday. To mark their postponement, Terence Handley MacMath looks back more than a century

passionsspiele-oberammergau

A picture-postcard of the crucifixion tableau in 1890

A picture-postcard of the crucifixion tableau in 1890

THOSE planning to journey to Oberammergau, in Bavaria, this year as a pilgrim or seeker-out of culture will be experiencing disappointment after all performances of the Passion Play were postponed until 2022. The irony of such a cancellation, when the play was conceived as an act of gratitude for the town’s protection from contagion, has been remarked on by many.

Advertisement from the back pages of Friedrich Adolf Ackermann’s 1890 guide

Hearing others describe past performances offers little consolation — and, indeed, promises boredom. There are exceptions, however.

So come with me to a performance in 1890, in the company of three men, beginning with Frederick William Farrar, author of The Passion Play at Oberammergau 1890 (though better known for his cautionary tale Eric, or Little by Little), and the incomparable Jerome K. Jerome, who described his visit in the little-known Diary of A Pilgrimage, published the following year.

Farrar, although not a conservative priest or teacher (he had been a pallbearer at Darwin’s funeral), is none the less a companion clearly from the Victorian era: careful, reverent, and anxious to reassure his readership: the pious who are suspicious of cheap spectacle; the fastidiously cultured; and solid Anglicans who are anxious about respectability.

Farrar assures us that the main reason that the Passionspiele are attracting English tourists now is that our very own Deans of St Paul’s and Westminster — Deans Stanley and Milman — visited in 1860, and gave it their ecclesiastical blessing. Farrar himself will be staying in the rooms that the Duke and Duchess of Connaught took in 1880, lending the enterprise unimpeachable respectability.

 

Jerome, in contrast, would be perfectly home on a journey to Oberammergau today, a copy of Private Eye in his bag and a very 21st-century inability to be serious about very much. In his account, he flips between slapstick, social satire, self-deprecation, high seriousness, and the inevitable comic pricking of his own pretension.

After failing as an actor, teacher, and various other less congenial occupations, Jerome had found a little success as a writer. He married Georgina Marris (bravely: it was nine days after her divorce, and she had a little daughter) in 1888, and it was their honeymoon on the Thames, written up as Three Men in a Boat, which made his name.

The Diary is, he says, “a sensible book” to improve the mind, but presented in “a light and attractive form” to “secure the attention of the young and frivolous”. Or it may be in order to receive a percentage on the gross sales. The pilgrimage may have been undertaken as a favour to his friend “B”, to avoid a protracted visit from his “aunt Emma”; or, in a final confidence to the reader, to fulfil his cherished ambition to be a travel writer rather than to see the play itself.

Their journey and ours will be facilitated by the third man, the enterprising Friedrich Adolf Ackermann, who offers the English tourist a full description of the tableaux and scenes for that year’s production, and useful information for the traveller from Munich. And to take home there is William Allen Butler’s large, gold-tooled Oberammergau MDCCCXC, with its reverent illustrated description of the performance, to leave lying about to impress friends.

 

ACKERMANN tells the legend of the play. Things have come a very long way since the revival of the village’s medieval mystery play in 1633, when the “pest was most destructively raging in the country”. The story goes that a man flouted the quarantine rules and came back to the village to see his wife and child. He died on the spot, and 84 people died in the following month.

The German woman, illustration by George Gordon Fraser (1859-95) for Diary of a Pilgrimage

Although the village’s Mystery play had long been forgotten during the sober Reformation years, the remaining villagers “in their distress and anxiety, held a meeting, and, to assuage the wrath of God, vowed to perform the Passion tragedy every ten years, if He would put a stop to the epidemic.

“From that moment — so the record tells — the disease seems to have disappeared, for not a single person died of it thenceforth, though some still bore the unmistakeable signs of the plague upon them.

“The Passion Play at Ammergau, therefore, derives its origin from a vow made by the inhabitants to God for subduing the pest, and what the people of Ammergau in those days of dread and despair promised to God, their descendants have faithfully to this time.”

Perhaps there had been no break in the play’s production since the Middle Ages. Ackermann believed that such plays were never completely suppressed “among the inhabitants of retired valleys in mountainous countries, until the spirit of modern time, hostile to these expressions of simple religious life, did away with them”.

The text, music, and staging of the play was developed out of all recognition during the 19th century under a gifted village priest, Pastor Daisenberger, with several scores developed by Rochus Dedler over the decades, and ambitious staging by Karl Lautenschläger.

The text underwent changes, and the length of the play varied, but, on the previous occasion, in 1880, its running time was five hours, from 2.30 p.m. to 10 p.m., with a pause for supper.

Jerome found it too long, and — if it was heading towards its 1930 height: eight hours long, beginning with cannon fire, prefaced with processions and mass in the small hours, a prompt start at 8 a.m., and finishing at 5 p.m. with just one break for lunch — you might think him right.

 

THE description provided by Ackermann is businesslike. Admission was first charged for the play in 1790, and, by 1870, it is catering for the package tourist trade, although a seat in the covered section of the auditorium would only set you back six, eight, or ten Marks. Farrar is ambivalent about the crowds who come: he is anxious to defend the play against all charges of vulgarity, but is disturbed by the presence of so many tourists.

Although there are, thankfully, not more than 100 English and Americans there, he is clearly alarmed that “six hundred reporters from all countries!” are in attendance. But it is clearly good for Ackermann and the business life of Munich, whose advertisements for hotels, Kirschwasser, fancy leather goods, publications, photographs, “Female Costume Pictures”, and Neue Prachtwerke für christliche Familien fill the back pages of his guide.

passionsspiele-oberammergauThe Passion Play audience, photographed in 1880

The theatre has 4000 numbered folding seats. You can stay in the pension run by “the congenial and inimitable” Josef Mayr (playing Christ for the third time), or any of the 2500 beds that the tiny village can offer for the season. Or you can take one of the 16 new villas built after the 1880 production — one owned by Madam Withelmine Hillern, “writer of some good German novels” — and visit the excellent school for woodcarvers (the main village industry), and admire the large hospital. The little train from Munich to Oberau takes four hours, and then a carriage or omnibus will take you to Oberammergau in one hour and 45 minutes.

Jerome, travelling in the company of friend B., makes the journey by train from London to Munich and onwards. Ackermann offers details from Innsbruke and Basle; Farrar, however, drives over in a carriage from northern Italy, which gives him the opportunity to note the difference between the beautiful, feckless Italian mendicants and the Germans, “a quiet, devout, manly-looking race, actuated, as is evident, by deep religious feeling”.

Jerome enjoys the Germans in his own way: “The Germans are a big, square-shouldered race. They do not talk much, but look as though they thought. Like all big things, they are easy-going and good-tempered. . .

His reflections on German women, however, place him firmly as a man of his time: “The German women are not beautiful but they are loveable and sweet; and they are broad-breasted and broad-hipped, like the mothers of big sons should be. They do not seem to trouble themselves about their ‘rights’, but appear to be very contented and happy even without votes.”

For his part, Farrar’s view is clearly influenced by the beauty of the golden-haired singer who held him entranced on stage, metamorphosing into a deferential, smiling waitress in Mayr’s pension at lunchtime.

This, for him, for Jerome, and for many visitors, is the real, lasting wonder of the play. While Farrar, a Broad rather than High Churchman, will not permit himself to fall under the devotional influence of the play (as does Nora, heroine of Baroness Tautphoeus’s 1863 novel Quits, another reason for the Passionspiele’s growing European popularity), he is astonished by the reverence of the performance. The villagers — humble, smiling waiters, souvenir-carvers, Hausfrauen, and children — have produced something that can compete in quality with the greatest opera-houses. Their own passion for telling this story, as a way of living and proclaiming the gospel, means that there is not the slightest fault-line between the performance and life.

Advertisement from the back pages of Friedrich Adolf Ackermann’s 1890 guide

Jerome and B. sit up in bed after the play. It could be a scene from Morecambe and Wise. B. asks him what he thinks of the play. B. smokes. J. agonises. What should he say? What does he want to say? What would make good copy?

His decided response: the play is too long. But he stoutly defends the value of a Passion play per se, against all the reverent scruples that Farrar addresses. “Christ was a common man. He lived a common life, among common men and women. He died a common death. His own methods of teaching were what a Saturday reviewer . . . would undoubtedly term vulgar.”

It is also “a marvellous piece of workmanship”, made more wonderful when you realise that it is created by “peasants who have walked straight upon the stage from their carving benches and milking-stools”.

In fact, the only fault he finds is with the kindly-looking Judas, which he regrets. “I felt that there were little subtleties of rascaldom, little touches of criminality, that I could have put that man up to,” for which the poor actor, living in a village of such devout and serious people, had no living model.

 

FARRAR and Butler ponder one question unasked by Jerome. Can the phenomenon of Oberammergau survive? Will the “triumph of artless art” survive the critical gaze of cultured Europeans? Will the honest Teuton head not be turned by the publicity, despite Pastor Daisenberger’s exhortations to his thespian flock? “The eyes of many strangers will be fixed not only on our play, but on ourselves. Let us so live that we may have nothing to fear from the all-searching eye of God, and the scrutinising gaze of our fellow men.”

Can the loaves and fishes miracle be repeated in this village, so the gospel be proclaimed to as many as will come from all over the world?

By 2010, the answer was, yes: half a million people attended the performances running from May to October, and the atmosphere of devotion was very evident, despite 21st-century ways and means of doing things. You still have to belong to Oberammergau to take part in the play, and yet the standard of acting, singing, and production is still world-class.

Post-war poverty postponed the 1920 production, and Hitler’s activities cancelled the show in 1940; but the decision to postpone this year’s play to 2022 answers Farrar and Allen’s question with a continued “Yes”.

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29 September 2020
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19 October 2020
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