The Oberammergau Passion Play, which just completed its 42nd run, is the longest running and most famous Passion Play in the world. I saw the 2022 play (delayed two years due to Covid, like our own) and in this article, I will discuss some of the elements of this epic theatrical retelling of Holy Week.
Oberammergau is a town of around 5,500 people, located in the Garmisch-Partenkirchen district of Bavaria, in the Alps and close to the border with Austria. It is accessible by the B23 highway, and a single-track railway branch built in 1900 that has the distinction of being the first line in Germany to have overhead wire electrification. It is an hour and a quarter from Munich by car and around two hours by train with a change at Murnau. Although in my case I ended up on a replacement coach due to engineering work, it is entirely feasible to do the whole journey from London by more environmentally friendly electric train, with multiple routes available.
The Passion Theatre is the centrepiece of the town and the main reason people come, but the area also offers mountain hiking and similar activities. Oberammergau is also known for high quality wood carving.
The 1630s were not exactly the best time in the history of Germany, then a diverse collection of small states under the overall auspices of the Holy Roman Empire. The Thirty Years War (1618-1648) that started as a Protestant vs. Catholic civil war then turned into a wider European conflict between the House of Bourbon (France) with Swedish backing and the Habsburgs (Spain and Austria) was devasting for the region to an extent that surpassed the two world wars combined. Up to eight million people died and, in some places, a 50%+ drop in population occurred. Oberammergau was not spared as Swedish forces got that far south and, like other armies, often ravaged localities to supply themselves.
The cause of most of this human loss was not armed violence directly, but the bubonic plague brought with the soldiers, a disease that even with modern treatment has a 10% mortality rate, compared with Covid-19’s 0.5 to 1%. Without treatment, 30% to 90% of the infected died.
In 1632-3, the plague reached the region and Oberammergau imposed a lockdown – posting guards and lighting plague fires to deter visitors. It was not enough. Legend has it that a local called Kaspar Schisler snuck back into the village during the church fair and brough the disease with him. The records are patchy – three pastors who were recording deaths died themselves – but at least eighty men along an untold number of women and children succumbed.
To stop the disease, the villagers made a vow – if the deaths stopped, they would perform a Passion Play every ten years. The first play was performed in 1634 in the local cemetery, over the graves of those who had died in the plague.
The vow has been kept with some exceptions due to external events:
The play itself has expanded in size, number of performances and fame over the centuries. Thomas Cook attended the play in 1880 and with “arrangements” made available for foreign visitors, people came from around the world to attend, including kings and US President William Taft.
The post-war era saw increasing opposition to antisemitism in the text, but fundamental reform did not come until Christian Stückl was elected director of the 1990 Play, with anti-Jewish content being removed in the face of considerable local opposition. A ban on women who were married and/or over 35 would be struck down by the Bavarian courts that same year. Stückl has directed the three plays since, making further changes to the text.
The 2022 play ran from May to October of that year, with a total of 104 performances.
The Play Itself
An official trailer for the play was released and gives you a good idea of the overall scale:
The Play is a long one by any objective standards, a total of five hours long. It is split into two halves of around two and a half hours each in the afternoon and evening; with a three-hour break for people to get dinner at their hotels. Indeed, some performers only do the second half because of work commitments, while children are kept out of the Outrage and Crucifixion scenes.
There are a total of twelve acts, covering the Holy Week period from the Entry into Jerusalem until the discovery of the empty tomb; Jesus does not appear after the crucifixion. This runtime allows for extensive coverage of a lot of areas, including Judas’ betrayal – which is depicted as an attempt to accelerate the coming of the Kingdom and ends with his suicide.
Except for the final performance, there are no curtain calls, to focus the glory onto God rather than the actors.
The acts are broken up with choral interludes that accompany “living images” which are representations of biblical scenes by a bunch of people standing very still for about a minute.
All this is done in German, but text books are provided in other languages for the audience to follow along; you may wish to bring a small torch to see the text as the play finishes after sunset.
Around 1,800 people participated in the 2022 play in all capacities.
To stop the play being taken over by outsiders, adult performers must have been born in or lived in the area for 20 years or more. No such rule applies for children, and they retain the right to perform as an adult after appearing.
However, there is no religious qualification for a play done by the local community instead of the Church; Muslims and non-religious people can take part. 2022 saw the first Muslim Judas, which caused a minor controversy.
The twenty-one most important roles, naturally including Jesus, have two actors playing them, dividing the role between them during the 104 performances. In 2022, Jesus was played by Frederik Mayet (who reprised his role from 2010 and did the pre-play talk the morning I attended, doing that night’s production too) and Rochus Rückel, the second youngest “Jesus” in the play’s history.
Female roles remain limited despite the lifting of the married woman ban (the Apostles’ families do not turn up in this); to be cast in a leading role twice is a rare event for a woman.
One thing of particular interest is the Hair and Beard Decree. From the Ash Wednesday the year before the play, male and female actors (except for those playing Romans) are prohibited from getting their cut or shaving in the former case. The latter part was slightly modified this time around because of the mask mandate in Bavaria, with that rule coming in six months ahead of the start. At time of writing, Germany still has a FFP2 mask mandate for public transport and healthcare settings.
As the trailer demonstrates, this is an entirely conventional play with no audience interaction. The theatre itself is outdoors but with roofs to protect from the elements; dress appropriately if attending. Over 4,500 spectators can be accommodated, entering from multiple doors in either side.
The scope of the play is epic compared to most plays – you can easily have over a hundred people on the stage at some points. The entry into Jerusalem sees Jesus actually ride a donkey, some camels turn up and doves are released during the expulsion of the money changers.
The costumes are all based on Biblical-era ones, except for the Roman soldiers, who possibly are inspired by Thirty Years War uniforms. I was unable to confirm this.
The Crucifixion itself involves the two thieves as well and the play’s production team is open about the technique here; it involves harnesses. The elevated height also allows for the white drape that sometimes appears in empty cross depictions to appear – it serves as a sling to support Jesus’ body as the disciples get him down.
MusicThe choir wear 1630s Bavarian outfits to evoke the origin of the play – i.e. mostly black and are accompanied by an out-of-sight orchestra as they do the songs, with four soloists also present. The audience do not sing along with this in any way. There is little other music in the play to my recollection.
The whole event is not only the centrepiece of the town of Oberammergau, but also the major source of its income – the surplus from the play have paid for the outdoor swimming pool among other things and “the Passion will fix it” is a local expression when times get tough. Profits for 2022 will be lower than in previous years as Covid hit pretty bad – there were 412,000 tickets sold, around 91% of those available. Usually there is an even split between visitors from German-speaking countries (Germany, Austria and Switzerland) and the rest of the world; this was 80-20% for 2022.
The Oberammergau Passion Play is an experience very much worth doing. It is not cheap; the ticket itself was 180 euros and all the hotel accommodation etc. came to a total of over seven hundred euros before the travel costs. But you will definitely came away inspired.
However, there remains a place for the smaller community plays like our own; we should not try to be Oberammergau – but find our own way to tell the story of Christ’s Passion that reflects what our community needs at this trying time.
Thank you for reading this article and may God’s blessings be upon you.
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