Theater as Tradition – The Passion Play in Oberammergau
Every ten years, the Passion Play Festival takes place in Oberammergau. Director Christian Stückl has freed the play from its anti-Semitic stance.
The people of Obergammergau have always been distinguished by their ability to defend their tradition and at the same time to recognize the signs of the times at the right moment and to allow changes. Therein lies the secret of the unique success of their passion play, which has its origin in a catastrophe. In 1633, the plague was raging in the Ammer Valley. In order to check the Black Death, the community leaders vowed “to hold a Passion tragedy every ten years”. After that, legend has it, no one in Oberammergau succumbed to the plague. The first passion play was performed in 1634. In 2010, nearly three centuries later, about half of the 5,000 citizens of Oberammergau stand on the stage of the Passion Theater. Anyone may join in who has been registered in the village since birth or has lived there for twenty years.
Preaching, spectacle and business
Vows such as that of Oberammergau were not unusual in the seventeenth century and were looked upon as a proven remedy against the plague. Passion plays therefore abounded. Initially it was quite in order with the Catholic Church, with its sense of theater, that the Bavarian peasant love of popular theater should be placed in the service of preaching the Gospel. But when more and more allegorical figures pressed onto the stage, and the passion play increasingly degenerated into a mere spectacle (in which, for instance, the dying Judas was hauled to Hell by a company of roaring devils), the authorities felt compelled to intervene: in the Enlightenment, passions plays were banned in Bavaria. Only Oberammergau succeeded in obtaining in 1780 an exception permit. That gave their passion play a singular status, word of which got abroad.
At the end of the nineteenth century, the tour operator Thomas Cook discovered Oberammergau. Passion play tourism began, developed rapidly and brought the village the bad name of profiteering under the guise of piety. In Lion Feuchtwanger’s novel Success (Erfolg), for example, there is no lack of barbs against the “apostle game”.
And in fact the passion play is good business for the village to this day. But the greed of its organizers alone cannot explain how the play has been able to maintain itself over the centuries. There has also always been dispute in the village about the substance of the thing, about the best possible representation of sacred history.
The struggle for renewal
In the 1970s the call for reform grew louder. In 1977, there was the so-called “Rosner rehearsal”: test performances based on recourse to a text from 1750 from the pen of the Et Valley priest Ferdinand Rosner, in which those allegorical figures appear that were banned from the stage by the Enlightenment. After a trial run of the Rosner version of the Passion, the Oberammergauers rejected it in a referendum. The present basis of the play is the texts by the Et Valley priest Othmar Weis and the local priest Alois Daisenberger from the nineteenth century. In the last twenty years, however, they have been more heavily revised than ever before.
In 1990, Christian Stückl (born in 1961 and since 2002 artistic director of the Munich Volkstheater) became the most recent head of the Oberammergau passion play and started a development that found its climax to date in 2010. Step by step, Stückl has banned those anti-Judaic elements from the play which previously all too obviously served the stereotype of the evil Jews who crucified Christ – a stereotype that was one reason, incidentally, that Hitler was so favorably impressed by the Oberammergau passion play of 1934. In 2000, the menorah, the seven-branched Jewish candelabrum stood for the first time on the Communion table.
More room for the message
In 2010, Jesus prayed the “Shema Israel”, the central creed of the Jews, and held high a Torah scroll after expelling the merchants from the temple. “Jesus was”, Stückl is convinced, “from head to foot a Jew”. Beyond this, he is fascinated by the consistency with which Jesus went his way. If in 1990 Stückl presented Jesus as a revolutionary, twenty years later he had him stand on the stage as a Redeemer who has been given a lot of room for his message. The idea is no longer to show Jesus only in his suffering. Passages from earlier gospels were incorporated into the 2010 Passion – for example, from the Sermon on the Mount. In this way, it became clearer what Jesus stands for. For brotherly love and charity, above all.
There were also some external changes. Designer Stefan Hageneier, for example, had completely new costumes tailored: dove-blue robes for the people of Israel, who press onto the stage in an impressive mass scene; frightening hats and gorgeous robes for the high priests. The material for them was purchased in part in India.
Resurrection in the night
The most striking change: for the first time, the play began not in the morning, but in the afternoon. It therefore ran into the evening. With dramatic effect, the crucifixion took place by torchlight. In the following resurrection scene, however, it became clear that, for Stückl, the changes are about more than mere effects. As in the liturgy of the Easter Vigil in the Catholic Church, the small light of one candle was passed from wick to wick until the fullness of flames illuminated the dark of the night, while Mary Magdalena brought the joyous news of the risen Christ. A symbolism that in its simplicity and urgency everyone understands. Also because Christian Stückl has here introduced an innovation that is based on ancient Jewish-Christian tradition.
The author is a radio writer and moderator for Bavarian Broadcasting / Bavaria2, with a focus on theater criticism; he is also a regular reviewer for Deutschlandradio Kultur und Theater der Zeit. He has followed the discussion about Oberammergau and its passion play for ten years.
Translation: Jonathan Uhlaner
Copyright: Goethe-Institut e. V., Online-Redaktion
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