I had the great privilege of going to Oberammergau in Bavaria this summer to see the Passion Play. Oberammergau is a beautiful place. The Hotel we stayed in was delightful. It was a larger version of the surrounding homes all of which are chalet type buildings with balconies, magnificent flower baskets, tubs and coloured shutters which no doubt shut out the severe winter weather. A stone’s throw away the Bavarian Alps were shrouded in mist as we approached the village an indication of a storm which soon arrived. From our balcony we watched the lightning and felt we could touch the mountains which surround the village with fir trees growing up and up. The trees provide much used wood for fires, buildings and woodcarving (advertised as wood that speaks). Each house had its tidy stock of cut wood for its open fire and either a wood painting or wooden plaque decorating part of the house.
One house called Pilate’s House which was a huge building, considering the size of most of the others, was completely covered with colourful murals from the Bible. It is now a Museum which houses a collection of paintings behind glass that inspired the ‘The Blue Horseman’ paintings. The village museum housed famous Nativity Cribs, Historical wooden Art and Modern Sculptures. The shops sold mostly wooden toys, sculptures, religious works and puppets besides the usual tourist paraphernalia. The wood carvings, the trees and houses took me back in time when wood mattered a lot; painting was for everyone and understood by all.
The Hotel we stayed in was in fact the home of the Deputy Director of the Passion Play. Four generations of his family have lived in this house. His name is Otto Huber. His family originally came from Spain in the Sixteenth Century and since they settled in Oberammergau have always had one or two members of the family in the Passion Play. This year at every performance Otto is the Director or the Narrator and his fifteen year old grandson is in the orchestra. To be in the Performance it is necessary to have been born in the village or have lived there for twenty years. The population of the village is 4000 and 2000 of the villagers are involved in the production either as actors, musicians, costume makers or the general running of the theatre.
Origin of the Play
The Play goes back to the Thirty Years War (1618—1649). It mostly involved Germany but spread to include Hapsburg and Bourbon rivalry and other countries. The war was very destructive of the environment and led to the spread of famine and disease. The Bavarians in Oberammergau looked on the plague as a punishment from God. Eighty of its inhabitants caught the plague and died. In 1633The people decided to make a vow to God to portray the ‘Passion, Death and Resurrection of Jesus’ every ten years to save them from the Plague. The epidemic ceased in 1634 with the enactment of the first Play. Wars and Church prohibitions at times prevented the Play from being performed but it is now fixed for once a decade.
First the Play was performed in the Parish Church and then in the cemetery, over the graves of those who had died in the Plague. People started to come from near and far to attend the Play, so a Theatre was built in the Nineteen Century. The theatre has undergone improvements over the years. Today it has comfortable seating (although our hotel offered us cushions and rugs to enhance our comfort) under floor heating and cloakrooms. It seats 4,700 people. The stage is in the open air, with wooded hills behind, while the congregation (I use the word congregation here as we were not an audience) is under cover. The centre of the stage looks like the facade of a church or temple while Pontius Pilate’s quarters were on the left and those of Caiaphas were on the right fanning out to form part of the main structure. The acoustics were perfect and every one had a clear view from the tiered seating.
The Company of Performers
The orchestra alone had 100 musicians. There were 140 roles in the Play with the main Characters duplicated. Auditions take place two years before the Play. Nowadays time to rehearse can be difficult as many people from the village need to travel long distances to work. The companies these people work for are expected to give a guarantee that they will release them to do their part in the Play when it occurs. Children also take part. Live animals, sheep, camels and horses are used in performances too.
The Play Itself
The Play was a whole day affair. Mass in the packed Parish Church with wonderful congregational music was at 9.30 a.m. At 11 a.m. we had an hour’s talk on the Play, the speaker emphasising repeatedly that we were to place ourselves in the Passion of Jesus and meditate on its meaning for us. After lunch i.e. from 2.30 p.m. until 5p.m. we experienced the first half of the Play. We returned after a meal and the Play continued from 8.p.m until 11p.m. It is a mystery play that shows the Passion and death of Jesus as a Drama and as an opportunity for Meditation. Each scene has a Prologue, a Tableau from the Old Testament, a Chorus Choir and the Enactment of an event from the Passion of Jesus.e.g. . . . . Jesus’ Meal with his disciples: The Narrator recalls the Paschal Meal when the Jews were liberated from the Egyptians; the Tableaux shows this scene while the Choir sings and the congregation meditates. The Last Supper is then enacted on the stage. The trial of Jesus before Annas, Caiaphas and Pilate (on his horse) is done in great detail while Peter’s remorse and Judas’ despair are very sharply contrasted and played out.
The Scourging of Jesus, the Crowning with thorns, the Way of the Cross and the Crucifixion leave nothing to the imagination. The sheer brutality of the Passion was certainly brought home to us. The Resurrection was portrayed very simply. The Angel who was with Jesus on the Mount of Olives came out from the back of the stage carrying a fire in a big brass bowl and laid it centre stage. The Choir then broke into Alleluia, Alleluia, Alleluia
As befitting for a Passion Play the performers did not come back onto the stage. A few people clapped but most just sat there in silence trying to grasp the enormity of what they had been through.
All the characters are mirrors of us. We are in the crowd somewhere. As the Deputy Director said “It’s a love story between Heaven and Earth.”