This is the reason that we came to Europe. I told Rob that I wanted to see the Passion Play that has been enacted since 1634 as a response to the deliverance from the Black Death.
The Passion Play in Oberammergau is like The Chosen, Mel Gibson’s Passion of the Christ, Jesus Christ Superstar, and Handel’s Messiah all rolled into one.
The director of the play Christian Strückl, gave a presentation in the morning about the history of the play. He normally doesn’t give the presentation but the regular English seeking guide was not available. However, what a treat for us. He was first tapped as director when he was just 24.
In 1632 a man named Kaspar Schisler arrived in Oberammergau and brought the plague to the town. Two days later he died. They don’t know anything more about him.
In the 1600’s they didn’t know about bacteria and viruses and considered plagues as a punishment by God so they asked him to take it away. (Prayers are still important.) If God would take this plague away, they would thank him by putting on a passion play every decade. After this pledge by the city council, there was not another death and those who were sick recovered.
About 400 places around Bavaria put on a passion plays in thanks for the end of a plague. It served as kind of a worship.
The records of Oberammergau indicate that 84 people died due to the plague. However only men were are listed so if women and children were included in those numbers, it might have been more than 200. (We’ve come a long way, baby!)
The first play was performed in 1634 and took place in the graveyard among the tombs of those who had succumbed to the plague.
In 1760 the emperor hated passion plays. Passion plays were viewed as more of a propaganda for the Catholic church. Most people couldn’t read let alone understand Latin. Bibles were not in the hands of the people. “Bring religion to the stupid people.”
Only the text from 1734 survives. In 1750 there was a new text and it raised the level of the performance. The play went on the road and became the mother of the passion plays. At this time, there were only 3 to 5 shows in that decade in Oberammergau.
The play was totally different then. Satan as Lucifer came on stage and even took people from the crowd. There was a big fight between heaven and hell. Judas hung himself on stage and his insides spilled out. The audience loved it. The monks begged for a new text and took out the violent parts.
In 1770 there was no play due to war. There were only two times that the play was not performed. The other time was 1940 during WWII.
Until 1820 the play was performed the church graveyard. However, a larger and dedicated facility was needed. The stage today looks fundamentally like the same stage that was built as 1820. The structure is the same, but there were colors and figures drawn on the old structure.
Until 1850 the spectators came from the local area. Then people came from Munich which took two days of travel. An actor from Berlin was quoted in the newspaper, “It is a crazy thing but you have to see it.” 60,000 came.
In 1860 they had the first international spectators. Thomas Cooke of the Anglican Church in England came to experience the passion play. The play used to be 10 hours long and was performed rain or shine.
As its popularity grew, they were encouraged to build a theater for the audience. This was a crazy idea to build a theater for 5,000 people when they had a population of 1800??? This was a CRAZY act of faith … reminds me of Noah.
From 1870 to 1970, they had the same text and same costumes. The stage design was from 1928. The older people wanted to hold on to tradition. Young people were demanding new text with the same story told in a new way.
In rehearsals of 1977 they tried a new text, but it wasn’t accepted. Young people were staying away and not being a part of this tradition. In fact, old people had to play young parts. In 1980 Peter was played by an 82-year-old actor.
Something needed to change. There was a lot of drama. The old director was forced out. There was a big fight. The Catholic priests were against modernizing. However by 2000 the text was changed to reflect the times.
Jesus entering Jerusalem used to be the first scene. Many people today aren’t familiar with the teachings of Jesus so the play needed to show more about Jesus and his life. Jesus was a revolutionary. The director was not trying to write a 5th gospel as he was often accused of doing.
In 2015 the director started to write how close Jesus was to the poor people. He was on the edge of society. In the past versions of the play He was quiet. He is louder now.
Also, Pilate became harder and more significant and not just a hand washer. It was more sympathetic to Judas. Judas Iscariot believed that Jesus was the Messiah, but things didn’t turn out the way he wanted. The passion play portrayed Judas as a betrayer, but also as someone who was despondent that Jesus was to be killed.
In 1930 Hitler came to see the passion play and enjoyed it very much. When it was performed in 1934 for its 300 year anniversary, he brought a lot of people to promote the Reich. Of course, he enjoyed it because it had a lot of antisemitic themes.
The people of Oberammergau decided to change the terms, colors (yellow), props (Menorah) and images from the text and Old Testament tableaux. They consulted rabbis to ensure that they were on the right track. Jesus was Jewish and would have said Passover prayers in Hebrew which are now included.
Between scenes, there are 14 tableaux or static scenes from the Old Testament comparing what is happening to Jesus to Old Testament characters. For example, the Sacrifice of Isaac by his father, Abraham. Photographs are not allowed.
Here are the qualifications for being in the Passion Play.
- Born in Oberammergau
- All children under 18 can participate.
- If over 18, must have lived in Oberammergau for 20 years.
- They used to have 1,300 participants. Now they have over 1,900.
- Women must be unmarried and under 35. Since 1990, this is no longer a requirement.
- Originally only Catholic. Then Protestants were allowed but not for main parts. This also changed in 1990.
- Must have freedom of religion. They even have Muslims in the play since 2000.
Rehearsals start in September two years before the performance. By Ash Wednesday, they start to grow out their hair. On Sept 9, one year before, the 80 main actors go to Israel for a week. Then eight months before the first performance, they practice every evening.
They have 500,000 spectators in a season of over 100 performances from May to October, and 40 percent are English speakers. The play is performed in German. We were given English copies of the script and were able to follow along. It is hard on the actors when they hear 4,000 people turn pages at the same time. They thought of having the English words digitally produced over the stage, but it lost its charm.
All actors are amateurs from Oberammergau. The instrumentalists are mainly from Oberammergau but they have to supplement with several from outside the village.
We were most impressed with the mob scenes. Two factions were yelling opposing words – Crucify Him and Free Jesus. A couple hundred people were on the stage then.
Animals were also used such as sheep and pigeons in the temple. It was impressive when Jesus knocked off the cages of pigeons, and they flew away. Also, they had camels and goats, and Pilate rode in on a horse.
The play started at 2:30pm. At 5:00pm, we went back to our hotel for dinner. Then we returned for the finale from 8:00-10:30. There were no curtain calls at the end. Their reward waits for them in heaven.
Between the scenes a choir of 64 singers walked onto the stage. They were all dressed in black. The women wore ankle length shifts over white blouses, and the men wore three piece black suits. They very much looked like the Amish.
WHO KILLED JESUS?
The Romans? aka Gentiles. Maybe … you could make a case for this because of Pilate’s decree and the soldiers who drove in the nails … but NO.
The Jews. Maybe … you could make a case for this because the high priests tried him unjustly and called false witnesses against him … but NO
You and Me Likely … you could make a case for this because of our sins (and we all sin and fall short of the glory of God). Our sins put him on the cross. He died to cancel out those sins … but NO, not even that.
In the Words of Jesus John 10:18 “No one takes My life from Me. I give My life freely.’ And to that I say, YES and thank You. Hallelujah! What a savior!!