Resurrected by Thomas Cook

The Oberammergau Passion Play, put on once a decade, has been a community effort for over 400 years

Giles Macdonogh

An event in a Jewish world, rather than a Jewish-Christian conflict: The Last Supper in the 2010 Oberammergau Passion Play (©Passion Play Oberammergau 2020)

There used to be dozens of passion plays, gospel tales staged for the edification of Christians or in expiation of some real or imagined sin. Some of these have survived into our post-Christian era while others have been resurrected. I attended one in Switzerland once that was staged every 25 years. I found it slow and long-winded and I was scorched by the sun. Even a flock of blue-rinsed sheep were unable to lift my spirits, and I bunked off back to Lausanne in the interval. The most famous passion play of all is staged in Oberammergau in the Bavarian Alps. It is put on once a decade. The next performance is in 2020.

The Oberammergau Passion Play dates back to 1633. It was the middle of the Thirty Years War and soldiers arrived in the village covered with fleas that carried Black Death. Nearly a sixth of the population died. The villagers arranged to perform a Gospel play every decade to protect the population from further mishaps. The first edition of the play was produced the following year and so it has gone on. The next performance will be the forty-second.

Oberammergau’s significance was merely local until the second half of the 19th century. The first act of recognition came from King Ludwig II of Bavaria, who built the French-style château of Lindnerhof nearby, and his Moorish house later came to rest in the village. He also donated a vast crucifix to the community after a command performance for just four people in 1871. The villagers have celebrated his birthday ever since. The real popularisers of Oberammergau, however, appear to have been the British travel company Thomas Cook & Sons who chartered a special train that year. The Prince of Wales, the future Edward VII, went, and was at pains to remain anonymous. By 1890, Thomas Cook were taking 70 per cent of the bookings.

At the tercentenary in 1934, Oberammergau had a special guest in the person of Adolf Hitler, who quarreled with the scripture-based anti-Semitism of the play which conflicted with his own racial-biological theory. He heaped praise on Pontius Pilate, whom he said represented superior race and intelligence. The village was divided: the century’s most famous Christus, the potter Anton Lang, was a stout Catholic Bavarian People’s Party man, while the mayor, another Lang — the architect Raimund — was an out-and-out Nazi. The story is complicated by the fact that Christus in 1930 and 1934 was a third Lang — Alois — who was subjected to denazification proceedings after the war. Oberammergau’s one and only Jew was shipped off to Dachau in 1938 but Raimund Lang remained mayor until 1950 when the Passion Play was revived.  There had been no wartime performances. Since then productions have chiefly kept to the decades.

Oberammergau is close to Ludwig’s castles which assures it of a permanent position on the tourist itinerary. Besides the play, the other string to Oberammergau’s bow is woodcarving: religious figures, certainly, but other things besides. Both the current director, Christian Stückl and his chief of staff, Stefan Hagemeier were trained as woodcarvers. Oberammergau has been good to Stückl. The son of a village innkeeper, he was elected director by the Oberammergau citizens’ poll in 1986 and staged the play for the first time in 1990, when he was still in his twenties. This will be his fourth time. He has made numerous changes, not least toning down the more anti-Semitic aspects of the Passion which were beginning to irritate modern sensitivities.

He had cut his teeth on theatre by the time he took over and directed some of the classics like Molière and Ben Jonson. He has since spread his wings a lot, first with the Kammerspiele company in Munich and then with the annual Jedermann play in Salzburg — in origin a mystery play reinterpreted by Hugo von Hofmannsthal. In 2002 he took over as Intendant at the Volkstheater before branching out into opera with his first Fidelio in 2004. There have been successful productions of Pfitzner and Verdi. At the moment he has a production of the Enlightenment dramatist Gotthold Ephraim Lessing’s Nathan the Wise on the boil, with August Zirner playing Nathan. 

When I met Stückl last summer he explained that he liked having Zirner play Nathan because he was part-Jewish. Other actors in the drama set in Jerusalem are of Muslim origin. Before the last Passion Play Stückl took the leading members of the cast to the Holy Land so that they could imbibe something of its spirit. He wants the play to represent an event that took place in a Jewish world, rather than a conflict between Jews and Christians.

The old rule that women performers had to be unmarried and under 35 was scrapped in 1984; and members of the cast are no longer required to be Christian. Stückl continues to reshape the play, while his music director, Markus Zwink, has made polite revisions to Rochus Dedler’s pleasant Mozartian score of 1820.

The unique feature of Oberammergau is that the performance of the play is a community effort. You have to have been born in the village or lived there for 20 years before you can join the cast. As the play calls on forces of anything up to 2,000 people, more than a third of the population gets involved. Children grow up dreaming of the role they might play. If they can sing there are choral parts; if they can play an instrument they can serve in the orchestra. That naturally encourages families to provide musical education. The Passion Play can be a springboard to success in the wider world. Like Stückl, villagers who were chosen to play big roles have gone on to become nationally or even globally famous. Anton Lang became something of a celebrity when he visited the United States in 1923 and reassured the American public that he thought the Jews would go to heaven.

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