The Oberammergau Passion Play

The passion of a small community
Wednesday, July 7th, 2010
Jesus on the cross
Many theatres, movie studios and communities have told us their version of the "Passion Play," the trial, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ under the Christian tradition. From Mel Gibson's movie, The Passion of the Christ, to Andrew Lloyd Webber and Tim Rice's rock-opera, Jesus Christ Superstar, each production takes the story set forth in the Bible, embellishes it with a bit of creative license, to tell this 2000 year old story.

During a recent trip to Germany, I was fortunate to be able to attend the 41st production of the Oberammergau Passion Play. Every 10 years, this small Bavarian community of between 8,000 and 9,000 inhabitants puts on the play five days a week, rain or shine, cold or heat, from April to October. More than 2,000 residents take part in the production as actors, musicians and crew members. Although spectators sit in a covered area, the stage is not covered. Around 4700 people pack into the auditorium each night to watch the 5-hour production. Half way through the production, there is a 3-hour dinner intermission. The entire play requires an 8 hour commitment.

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The Oberammergau theatre

This tradition started in 1634. After the Thirty Years War, the black plague reached Oberammergau in 1632, and by October 1633 over 80 deaths had been recorded. The village councils met and vowed that if God would spare the community of further deaths, the town would put on the play every ten years. No more deaths from the plague occurred after this vow. In 1634, the first 60-70 participants played out their parts in the local cemetery. After the production in 1674, the years were changed to those ending in "0" - the next year was then 1680. This tradition has held, with some exceptions and special performances due to wars and economic conditions. Over the years, new generations have taken over primary production jobs, costumes have changed and parts of the script and music have been re-written, but the basic story remains. Audiences totaled 500,000 in 2000.

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The Last Supper

There are several things that make this particular production special. All the people who work on the production must have either been born in the greater Oberammergau community or lived there at least 20 years. This includes the director, the orchestra and all the actors, none of whom are professionals. There are two performers for the main parts to allow a break for those actors. Non-Christians are allowed to participate. Performers are paid a little for their time, but all maintain their usual jobs during the year. Efforts have been made to display the Jewish traditions portrayed in the play as authentically as possible. Written in the play are still-life scenes, tying in Old Testament stories, such as the escape from Egypt by the Jews and the killing of Abel by Cain, to the action taking place on stage. The performance is in German, but a script translated into English is available. The music is as spectacular as the performances.

Admittedly, when I first got to Oberammergau, the town looked a bit touristy with Disney-like buildings and shops. But, this is a tourist town. Also, if you are lucky enough to get a chance to see this production, it helps to have a plan for dinner - either pack something or make a reservation. You may also have to walk a bit from the parking lot or to dinner, so be prepared with comfortable walking shoes. Some of the audience also brought cushions to sit on. Although the seats are not hard wood, the cushioning on the seats is slim and sitting for 5 hours is a long time. Using a tour company like the one we used made the organization and logistics very easy.

For more information, see the Oberammergau website www.oberammergau-passion.com.  For tour group information, go to www.eagles-nest-historical-tours.com (the tour company for my trip) or www.passionplay-oberammergau2010.com.

 

Comments

Just Attended

A friend and neighbor of mine just attended the play and loved it. She has gone two times; that's quite a commitment, ten years ago and again this summer. She highly recommends it as a destination during a Germany summer vacation.

The Oberammergau Passion Play

I couldn't tell from your story how much you liked the play. Was it a fantastic experience that everyone should try to do or was it just so-so?

Great Experience

HI, Thanks for the comment. I didn't realize I wasn't being clear, and now when I reread it, I see your point. I thought it was a great experience. The performances were amazing, and the story powerful. As an English only speaker, I feel I lost some of the action trying to follow-along with the script, and others in our group got confused and then bored. But I think if you prepare yourself for the language issue and just sit back and enjoy the production, it works better. It's like going to an opera in a language you don't know - still a great performance, even if you can't follow each line. Also, everyone knows the story, so missing a few lines here and there is not a big deal. One of the things I really enjoyed is comparing how Oberammergau focused on certain elements of the story, while other productions or movies I've seen focus on other things. It's interesting how the same story can get retold over and over again. And to think the talent pool used is only 9,000 people, with 1/4 of them involved in the production - simply amazing.

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