About 2,100 out of 5,000 villagers will be directly involved in the play. No make-up, false beards or wigs are allowed. While the stage is open to the sky, the audience is safely under cover (above). During crowd scenes there may be 600 people on stage at the same time.
Oberammergau’s Passion play is so authentic that actors are not allowed to wear false beards, wigs or makeup, says Conal Gregory
NEXT YEAR MARKS a rare opportunity to see the world’s most famous Passion play, which will again be staged by the villagers of Oberammergau in southern Germany. Tickets are so highly sought after that travel operators have to bid for an allocation.
The tradition of the Oberammergau Passion play began with a vow made during the Thirty Years’ War. While the Swedes were invading, Bavaria was hit by a devastating plague. Owing to its relative isolation, Oberammergau managed to escape the epidemic until one day a villager who had been living away returned home and unwittingly brought the plague with him. Within a few months 84 people had died.
In July 1633 the whole village met in the church and prayed to God for deliverance from the plague. Members of the village council made a solemn vow that if the spread of the disease stopped, they would perform a play every decade representing the suffering, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. From that day no further deaths were recorded.
At the time Passion plays were widespread in Europe. Over 250 are documented between 1500 and 1800 in Bavaria and Austria. In 1634 the first performance was acted out at Pentecost at the graveyard with 60 to 70 actors. The play was re-enacted every 10 years until 1674 when it was decided to hold it at the beginning of each decade. From then until now, it has been performed virtually continuously. In over 370 years the Passion play has been stopped only twice: in 1770 when all plays were banned and 1940 owing to the Second World War.
To take part, only those born in the village or who have lived there for at least 20 years qualify. This applies not only to the actors but to the choristers, orchestra, fireman and front house staff. Over 2,400 applied for the next play, including 638 children – a greater number than ever before and 300 more than in the Jubilee Year 2000.
About 2,100 out of 5,000 villagers will be directly involved, whether acting, directing or making scenery, costumes or props. There are 130 speaking parts, although during crowd scenes there may be 600 people on stage at the same time. There are also animals, including the donkey on which Jesus rides into Jerusalem.
No make-up, false beards or wigs are allowed and so a fair proportion of the Oberammergau men sport long hair and beards for months.
The 41st Passion play next year is regarded as one of the most important religious and cultural events in Germany with over 500,000 spectators expected. It opens on May 15, followed by 102 further performances to Oct 3. While the stage is open to the sky, the audience is safely under cover. Anyone familiar with the Gospels will have no difficulty in following the action but an English translation is provided.
The text dates largely from 1860-70 and was written by Joseph Alois Daisenberger, but it has been thoroughly revised. The aim is to present the conflict leading to the arrest and sentencing of Jesus more clearly, including the political conditions of the era with a more detailed focus on the character of Pontius Pilate. The organisers hope this will help to counteract any anti-Judaistic conclusions.
More parts are to be given to younger actors. Two new female parts have been created: the wife of Pilate and a female sinner presented for stoning. In addition, the part of Veronica, who encounters Jesus on the way to the crucifixion is double-cast and thus elevated to the group of principal parts alongside Mary and Mary Magdalene. Interspersed with the Passion, a series of tableaux will be presented – almost as miniature operas with scenes from the Old Testament to deepen the spiritual message.
For the first time the play is to be performed in the evening. It will start at 2.30pm and, after a three-hour interval, end at 10.30pm. Performances are held five days a week with none on Mondays or Wednesdays. There are two actors for each of the principal parts which they play in alternate performances.
Most tickets are sold as part of a package with accommodation in local hotels and private houses.
There is much to see in the area. The magical castles of King Ludwig II are fascinating. Do not miss either Linderhof Palace, completed in 1878 with a rococo flourish, or the fairytale Neuschwanstein Castle, erected on a high rock, which is thought to have inspired Walt Disney.
Ettal’s Benedictine monastery, founded in 1330, today also houses a brewery museum and herb liqueur distillery. It’s also possible to visit a cheese dairy in the Ammergau Alps. Yet for many, the gem is the Bavarian rococo pilgrimage church of Wieskirche, which has been designated a World Heritage Site since 1933.