The Passion Play was first performed in the village of Oberammergau in 1634, in thanks for the villagers' lives having been spared in the bubonic plague which killed many of the surrounding population. They vowed to continue performing the play regularly. Ever since then, the play has been performed roughly every 10 years, with the exception of 1940, when the Second World War intervened. Over half of the population of more than 5,000 men, women and children of Oberammergau take part in it, as cast members, singers, instrumentalists and technicians.
Martin and I were fortunate enough to be given two places on a trip to see the Passion Play in 2010. We would be travelling with stops en route in Baden-Baden and Kaufbeuren, and we had an amazing escape, as did all of the passengers on the coach, not an hour out of Calais, when a lorry driver, whose attention was briefly not on the road, wrote off our coach by driving into the back of us. The French emergency services were astonished that there was not one single casualty in our group, aside from a few drops of blood on my husband's face caused by the shower of safety glass that fell on him as he slept. Another coach came out from England, and we carried on with our journey, though delayed (as were thousands of other people on the motorway) for several hours. When we arrived in Kaufbeuren, staying in the Goldener Hirsch, a stunning 14th century inn, we were invited to visit the adjacent convent church, where the nuns sang the 23rd Psalm from the balcony above us, and blessed our onward journey.
On our arrival in Oberammergau we were met by the owner of our guest-house. She told us that she would normally greet guests in her dirndl, but that she was in the crowd scene at the opening of the play, and was dressed in jeans so that she could make the necessary quick change. The play is in two parts, with an evening meal in between. After lunch we made our way to the theatre, and en route were passed by a number of villagers pedalling along with small children on the back of their bicycles. Every family in the village has members taking part in this enormous production, and once the cast has been decided, men are required to let their hair and beards grow during the long rehearsal and playing period. One young man told us that he was pleased to be cast as a Roman character, as these are all clean-shaven. When you visit Oberammergau during this period, you will see bakers, builders, policemen etc looking like sixties hippies - quite a sight! Carsten Luck, one of two men playing Judas in 2010, played Jesus in the 2000 production, which must surely be a strange juxtaposition of roles for any actor.
I knew that I was in for a treat with the Passion Play, but even so, I was not fully prepared for the impact of its beauty, the obvious sincerity and devotion of its cast, the stunning Baroque music, and the performances. I am not a practising Christian, but I have a faith in a God of my own understanding, and as a product of my times and culture, the figure and teachings of Christ are a significant part of this.
The Play is spectacular. When Christ drives the traders out of the Temple, there are 1,000 people on stage, sheep and goats running around and doves, released by Jesus, fly up into the sky. The Crucifixion scene is harrowing. As a mother of a much-loved son, putting myself in Mary's shoes, I wept. The actor playing Christ (one of two) carries the cross onto stage, heavy, though made of hollow pine. Bracelets with welded nails slot around his hands and feet, but give no support, as they rest on tiny ledges, and he hangs, arms outstretched, for more than 20 minutes. Both actors, though keen sportsmen, needed to train for this physical ordeal.
But there were two other moments in the play when I felt deeply moved and tears sprang to my eyes. The first was the opening scene, when the stage is filled with a huge crowd of men, women and children, and Jesus rides in on a donkey, dismounting to sweep a child up into his arms, smiling: the humble Christ of my childhood Bible stories come to life. The second was in the scene where Jesus is invited to give his judgement of the woman, caught in adultery, surrounded by a crowd who are ready to put her to death by stoning. He says, with such natural authority, "Let he who is without sin cast the first stone," that the crowd just melts away. For me personally, this is one of the most profoundly beautiful sentences in human history, and to see it enacted in this way was a powerful experience.
There is a long social history of the Passion Play and Oberammergau, which is well-covered by James Shapiro's book Oberammergau, and there have been accusations of anti-semitism in the past, but the current director Christian Stuckl has striven to make changes. Jesus is portrayed as the Jewish Rabbi he was. He carries a scroll of the Torah into the Temple. The
villagers playing the main roles travelled with the director to Jerusalem before rehearsals started, visiting the holy sites.
Tickets to the play were sold in packages including accommodation, so we didn't know where we would be seated until our hotel gave us the tickets they'd been allocated. Our coach was split into two groups, and while we were delighted to find we had seats two rows back from the front, the other group found themselves so far back that they thought the living tableaux featured in the play were actually paintings. I understand that the ticketing system may be under consideration for change.
I was moved by the devotion of this community to their ancient promise. The rehearsals and length of the performance season are arduous, and there is no heating in the cast's dressing-rooms. Our young guide told us that the weather in 2010 had been uniformly cold since the play opened on 15 May, and it had snowed on the Monday before we saw it at the beginning of June. Most of the cast had suffered from chills, heavy colds and even flu, but had all soldiered on regardless. In days gone by, taking part in the play meant losing your job. Today, these are usually kept open, and alternating casting in the main roles makes this more possible.
If you have a chance to see the Passion Play in 2020, I can recommend it. For us it was the chance of a lifetime to see something truly extraordinary.
Click here for the official website