I recently had the good fortune to see a performance of the famous Oberammergau Passion Play—originating in 1633 when the inhabitants of a small village in southern Germany, ravaged by the plague, vowed to perform the story of Christ’s passion every ten years. From that time on no one died of the plague, and the play has continued to be performed at the end of each decade (except for 1770, when it was banned by the Catholic Church, and in 1940 because of the war.) Nowadays over 2000 inhabitants, including children—and even animals—take part. All must live in Oberammergau or the immediate area. Most actors perform on alternate days since they still have their usual jobs: this year one Jesus is a psychologist and Mary Magdalene works as a flight attendant. The play runs from May to October, five days a week. Because of necessary preparations and rehearsals in other years, the inhabitants count their lives from one performance year to the next.
It is indeed a remarkable event: an afternoon and evening performance lasting about seven hours, with a break for dinner. It is of course in German although someone with a knowledge of the gospel stories can follow it reasonably well. However, the text may be purchased with translation, so one can follow along provided one takes a small flashlight to read it after dark.
The script itself has been updated, particularly to modify the anti-semitic version praised by Hitler in the 1930s. Most interesting this year is the treatment of Judas, shown as not wanting Jesus’s death but only for him to be brought before the Sanhedrin for a fair hearing, when in fact he has already been condemned. (Interestingly, there have been several fictional attempts to reinterpret Judas over the years, including Morley Callaghan’s A Time for Judas, where he is shown as fulfilling Jesus’s request to betray him in order that the prophecy might be fulfilled.) There is a sung chorus, as in ancient Greek tragedy, to comment on the action. Another change is the inclusion of “Living Images,” motionless tableaux portraying various Old-Testament scenes so as to emphasize the comparison with Christ’s Passion. These were impressive, although I found the comparisons somewhat far-fetched.
So what effect did the Oberammergau Passion Play have on my views? As readers of my previous articles will know, I don’t believe in the church dogma of Christ’s being the only son of God and saviour of the world. Above all, the play made me realize the power of the actual story. Jesus as man—to the extent we can actually know the details of his life—was, I think, one of the most admirable to have ever lived, a model in his refusal to meet violence with violence. As a man, I find him even more remarkable than as God. Karen Armstrong in her The Case for God indeed points out that the gospels were not concerned with historical fact but with creating a story, a myth in its true sense of a deeply meaningful story. This is precisely what we have here.
Oberammergau itself provides an interesting comparison with what is presented in the play. It is now a tourist centre and the crass commercialism of the village stands in stark contrast to the message of Jesus when he drove the merchants and money-changers out of the Temple. But, like that story, it reflects a fundamental problem in life itself. The fact is that the village has nothing in the way of industry except for the wood-carvings that are very much a part of the tourist trade—which flourishes only once every ten years. How else are the people to survive, and was it not the same for the merchants in the Temple?
There is something else that intrigues me. Imagine the competition, the rivalry, the passions in those competing for the major roles—for indeed some of the actors have gone on to become celebrities elsewhere. Imagine the envy felt by those who are overlooked for the parts of Jesus, Judas, Pilate, Mary, Caiaphas and others, knowing they have an opportunity to audition only once in every ten years.
The village itself, it seems, represents the dilemmas of humanity that are treated in the Passion story. It was indeed a powerful production, such as I or any good writer of fiction would be proud to create.