In 1633, the citizens of Oberammergau, Germany made a pact with God: Salvation from the bubonic plague that was tearing through the Bavarian hamlet, in exchange for a theatrical ritual—a Passion Play to be performed once a decade in gratitude to a merciful deity. As legend has it, God happily accepted the offering and not a single other resident of Oberammergau was lost to the plague. And loyally sticking to its side of the bargain, every ten years, Oberammergau has pulled out the greasepaint and put on a show. The only forces that have ever managed to derail this nearly 400-year-old tradition have been wars, and now, the COVID-19 pandemic, which has pushed the 2020 production to 2022.
Historians, of course, dispute the facts of this lore. But, like any good piece of theater, suspension of disbelief is the price of admission for a tale as fantastical as this. And this tale—fused with the piece of epic theater that has been built around it—have made Oberammergau a place of pilgrimage for audiences from all over the globe.
The Passion Play Theatre, used for these shows since 1830, has a seating capacity of over 4,500. With a typically sold-out run that spans approximately 100 performances, the Oberammergau Passion Play performs to around a half a million patrons each time it is mounted. And to be clear, audiences are traveling far and wide not to see international stars of stage and screen. They are coming to see a production crafted exclusively by the amateur residents of Oberammergau. That, in fact, is one of the ritual's strictest stipulations: With the exception of the child performers, only those born in Oberammergau or who have lived there for 20 years can participate in the Passion Play (the residency rule was changed from 10 to 20 years when East German World War I refugees sent the population of Oberammergau soaring to 3,000).
Though born out of religious tradition, the sense of unity, identity, and community the play brings to Oberammergau seems to be even more central to the proceedings. With a population bordering on 5,500 and a cast traditionally hovering around 2,400, children grow up anticipating their first foray onstage. Boys and girls inherit roles from their fathers and mothers. The men around town share knowing glances as beards go ungroomed in the lead-up to showtime. It's a town and theater troupe in one—and within this living, breathing community of show folk, a living, breathing work of art has emerged.
Religion tends to cling to fossilized tradition, but theater thrives on evolution. The Oberammergau Passion Play has taken the road of the latter, reckoning with its role in both its local community and on the world stage with each passing generation. Director Christian Stückl, whose family can be traced back to the play's earliest days, has taken the reins of the play's modern era, helming his first Passion Play in 1990 and now preparing for his fourth. In an interview about his plans for the post-pandemic production, Stückl said, "We had a play for the Baroque times, we had a play for the Enlightenment, we had a play for the Nazi times, and now we need to look at how we tell the story in our own times." That process has involved, most significantly, engaging in a profound dialogue with the American Jewish Committee as well as many other experts on Christian-Jewish dialogue, New Testament studies, and German-Jewish relations. It has also involved stripping the play of its other vestigial prejudices. In 1990, Stückl broke the long-standing rules that excluded non-Catholics from lead roles and denied married women roles at all. In 2000, he extended these casting privileges to non-Christians, and the 2022 production will feature Muslim actors as Nicodemus and Judas.
Rehearsals for the 2022 production are set to begin in January, with plans to run from May to October of next year. If the fortune of the original divine pact holds, the Oberammergau Passion Play will be able to resume as normal with its full cast of thousands creating the epic spectacle that for most tourists is a once-in-a-lifetime experience. However, if COVID protocols force the production to change course, it will just be one more formative juncture in the life of play whose fabric holds the stories of generations. For nearly 400 years, it has unified the people of Oberammergau, and through its evolution, it is increasingly able to unify the disparate groups who come to witness it.
There is no better example of that than in Stückl's 2010 production, which emphasized Jesus's identity as a devout Jewish man. Frederik Mayet, who performed the role of Jesus in that production, noted exactly two moments during the performance where the audience went silent: When Jesus is put on the cross, and when Jesus leads the chorus in a recitation of the Jewish prayer, Shema Yisrael. Traditions may appear to be bending, but perhaps it's just divinity working wonders through art.
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