Around the World: Oberammergau’s Passion Play is Spectacular – and Timely
Few of our civilization’s regularly scheduled events can claim to have been ongoing since 1674! And, you can bet that any event that can accurately make that claim has got to be absolutely spectacular.
For one thing, all the generations of people who’ve been participating in it must be convinced that the event is worthwhile. For another, the complex accumulation of human history, knowledge and ritual reflected in the event is bound to be astonishing.
Well, welcome to the Oberammergau Passion Play, presented every ten years in Germany’s Bavaria region since 1674. Presenting the story of the life and death of Jesus of Nazareth, starting with Jesus entering Jerusalem, continuing with his death on the cross and finishing with the resurrection, the Passion play was first staged in Oberammergau as a plea for the town’s survival of the devastating plagues that had been sweeping through Europe.
The most recent Passion Play cycle was set to be staged in 2020, However, due to the Covid 19 pandemic, the event was postponed until 2022, when it will take place from May 14 through October 22. And what a wonderful way to celebrate closure of the pandemic that has disrupted our lives during 2020 and 2021.
The Passion Play is always a genuine spectacle with a rich array of elements that can put religious and secular viewers in awe. It has spoken dramatic text, musical and choral accompaniment of tableaux vivants (these are highlights from the Old Testament that depicted for the audience by motionless actors with verbal descriptions of the events they depict).
Interesting from both a philosophical and theatrical perspective, these tableaux vivants -- including a scene of King Ahasuerus rejecting Vashti in favor of Esther, the brothers selling Joseph into slavery in Egypt, and Moses raising up the bronze serpent in the wilderness -- are used to suggest the relationship between the Old and New Testaments. Each tableau vivant precedes a section of the play, suggesting that the scene prefigures the action. For example, the tableau depicting King Ahasuerus favoring Esther is suggestive of Christianity superseding Judaism.
The staging of the Passion Play is a unique and extraordinary community enterprise. How many generations of celebrants have participated? Roughly calculated stats show that there are five generations per century. So that means 18 generations, give or take one or two.
For the sake of historical accuracy, it should be mentioned that the Passion Play has been staged several times outside of the ten year interval with extra performances in 1922, and in 1984 (which marked the 350th anniversary of the original staging in 1634).
And, there were years when the Passion Play was not performed due to issues with the Roman Catholic Church. In 1770, performance of passion plays in Bavaria was banned by order of the Ecclesiastical Council of the Elector, Maximillian Joseph at the behest of the Roman Catholic Church. In 1780, the play was retitled “,” and the new Elector, Karl Theodor, having been assured that the play was "purged of all objectionable and unseemly matter," allowed performances to resume.
By 1830, the Catholic Church succeeded in halting the performance of all other passion plays in Bavaria. Only Oberammergau remained.
Any way you look at it, a lot of local history is reflected in the Passion Play, especially since almost every citizen of Oberammergau, a town with a currently population of roughly 4,000 people, participates in one way or another in the Passion Play itself, and other civic activities that support it.
And, they participate with fervor, not only during the performances of their Passion Play, but also in all of the preparations required -- maintaining the theater that’s reserved exclusively for the celebration, building and refurbishing sets, making costumes which are newly created for every performance cycle, considering how current world events and cross-cultural understandings impact the meaning or interpretation of the traditional drama and revising the ‘script’ accordingly, casting anew, rehearsing, and readying the small town for the influx of appreciative tourists who come to observe the spectacle because of their religious convictions or for more secular reasons of curiosity, respect for tradition or the pure pleasure of seeing such a monumental theatrical production so well done.
Participation in Passion Play preparations and performances is a privilege reserved for the citizens of Oberammergau. You must have been born there or have lived in the town full time for a minimum number of years before you’re allowed to be part of the creative community. It is considered a civic responsibility and an honor to support and participate in what has become one of Germany’s favorite, most popular and very lucrative tourist attractions.
Some 2,000 local people -- that’s about half the population of Oberammergau -- are involved in day-to-day preparations for the next Passion Play cycle, and will take part as actors, musicians, and stage technicians in the performances that will take place during the five month period from Saturday, May 14 through Sunday, October 22, 2022. Performances begin at 2:30 pm and last until 10:30 pm, with a three-hour dinner break.
The people of Oberammergau originally had the idea and committed themselves to perform the Passion Play every ten years as a plea to the Almighty to spare them from the devastating effects of bubonic plague which was ravaging the region.
Oberammergau’s historic records show that the death rate among adults rose from one in October, 1632 to twenty in March, 1633. Then, the adult death rate subsided to one in July, 1633.
The villagers believed they had indeed been spared, and kept their part of the vow with their first performance of the Passion Play in 1634, and subsequent performances every ten years ever since. The most recent performances in 2010 had a new production directed by Christian Stückl (known for his work at Munich's noted Volkstheater.
The Passion Play’s venue has an interesting history of its own. Oberammergau's parish church was too small for the spectacle, so performances were staged in the church’s graveyard, near the graves of the villagers who’d died in the plague. Records show that seats were provided for the audience who came from nearby towns as early as 1674, and during ensuing cycles, sets and stage mechanics were added to the simple wooden stage structure. By the mid-18th century, the graveyard was too small to hold the production and audience. The spectacle was moved to a nearby field, where a new stage was built every ten years. The first permanent stage, designed by the parish priest, was built in 1815. In 1830, the same priest helped to design a larger stage on the site where the play has been staged ever since. It was all outdoors -- when it rained, audiences who couldn’t use view-obstructing umbrellas, got drenched.
In 1890 construction began on a new theatre with a six-arched hall that seated about 4000 spectators. It was for Passion Play presentations only and was ready for the 1900 performances. The theater has been enlarged several times since. Following the 1990 production, the theater’s interior and façade were renovated, and the stage mechanics were updated. For the 2010 season, more comfortable seating and better heating have been installed, exhibition areas have been added and the theatre, which now seats over 4700, has been made wheelchair accessible.
Performances are always old out. Since 1930, the number Passion Play visitors to Oberammergau has ranged from 420,000 to 530,000. Most tickets are sold as part of a package with accommodation for one or two nights.
If you want to go, book now. For more information, visit the German National Tourist Board’s Website at https://www.germany.travel/en/home.html and/or at the Oberammergau Passion Play Website at