On a tour of Europe in 1973, I had my first accidental encounter with Oberammergau, a tiny town in the southern German Bavarian Alps. At once I was intrigued by the place, with its medieval cobblestoned side streets and picturesque houses with murals of fairy tales, Bible stories, myths and legends.
I was more fascinated when I learned about the famous Oberammergau Passion Play, the result of a 1633 vow by the whole village, a promise to God that if he would spare them any further deaths from the Black Plague, they would offer a passion play to him in thanks. The first play was performed in 1634 and, over the past four centuries, the passion play has been held every tenth year to fulfil the vow. Almost four hundred years!
So began my 50-year love affair with this place. It was an interest that led me to the publication of my fictional novel, Passion Play – the Oberammergau Tales, in which a group of travellers tell their personal stories during a trip to the 2010 passion play. The event has brought me back here eight times.
In May I spent a week in Oberammergau with my daughter Sam, an exciting time to be there as the small town and its 5000 residents made the final-week preparations for the current passion play which will, over a five-month season concluding in October, bring half a million visitors from all over the world to this famous event.
Many tour groups visit, and I know of a number of Australian Lutherans who this year have made or will make the three-day trip from Munich to Oberammergau and back again.
Final rehearsals and preliminary performances for surrounding villages, last-minute script changes and costume adjustments, finishing preparations for hotels, guest houses, shops, and restaurants – it was a great time to be there. More than 2,000 of the town’s residents are actively involved in the play’s five-time-a-week performances, with up to 1,500 people on stage in the crowd scenes. No-one in Oberammergau is outside the play; it’s a way of life.
This was my eighth visit to Oberammergau, and the fourth time I’d come for the play. I have been in the audience in 1990, 2000, 2010 and now the 2020 play, postponed until this year because of COVID. The town feels so familiar, and I return each time with a sense of coming home. This year was very special, as I’d been invited to the official opening day of the play on May 14 as the Australian press representative. So, I felt particular excitement – and anticipation.
The Oberammergau Passion Play has remained the same since its inception in 1634, in that it relates the story of Holy Week, from Christ’s processional entry to Jerusalem on Palm Sunday, through Jesus’ betrayal, trial and crucifixion, to the triumphant ‘Hallelujah’ of the resurrection. It is a deeply moving retelling of that week during six hours in the huge passion play theatre, as 4,500 people watch this story unfold at each performance.
The same story, and keeping close to the biblical account, but always a bit different. This year’s was a much more socially aware play, with a picture of Christ, himself more firmly than ever a Jew in the full traditions of Judaism, but also deeply concerned with the real truths of God’s message. His focus was on the need for love and compassion for one’s fellow man, with social justice and equality a keystone. His plea to the priests and the religious hierarchy was to move beyond empty formalism and law and show real care for the poor and the underprivileged.
It is, as the play’s four-time director Christian Stückl emphasised, a play for our age, a time of wars and massacres, famines and starvation, homelessness and fleeing refugees, an age in which the message of Christ has even greater relevance. This year’s Passion Play is less a theatrical spectacle than in the past, and more a play of ideas and debate. The theology is there as a firm underpinning, and the gospel story is unchanged but given a sharper relevance to a troubled world.
In keeping with this more sombre mood, the colouring is more muted. In crowd scenes, people are not – as in 2000 and 2010 – dressed in blue, but much more realistically in normal Jewish clothing of the period; even the traditional gorgeous and colourful robes of the chief priests are now more monochromatic. This play emphasises concepts and messages – it is not so much a ‘show’.
It is a Passion Play to make one think. The 500,000 visitors who will attend this year should take away memories of not just a spectacular event but of a moving experience of that last week in Christ’s earthly life and a renewed sense of the gospel message and its importance today.
Dr Valerie Volk is a Lutheran author, poet and educator who fell in love with the Oberammergau Passion Play in 1973. More information about her book Passion Play – the Oberammergau Tales is available at www.valerievolk.com.au
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