The Passion Play— in Oberammagau

The Passion Play— in Oberammagau August 20, 2022

If someone were to ask you what is the longest running play in human history, would you guess it is the Passion Play put on once a decade in Oberammagau? The story of course has been told many times, but it begins with a plague, perhaps the bubonic plague, directly after the end of the 30 Year’s War in 1632.  When the plague hit this little mountain village in Bavaria the town counsel met and promised God they would perform the Passion Play once a decade in perpetuity if he would just stop the deaths by plague.  And as the story goes, there were no more deaths after this promise was made.  Interestingly, it has been the recent Corona Virus plague that stopped the play from happening in 2020, and moved it to 2022.

Ann and I and many EO travelers were fortunate enough to see the latest iteration of this play earlier this month.  And it was well worth the wait.  There are not too many plays that last 5 and three quarters hours that keep 4,000 people in their seats for the whole show.  But actually there was a two hour intermission in the middle for a decent supper, and then the play which began at two in the afternoon went on until 10.45 p.m with that intermission. Of course, for those of us who know the Gospel story well there really isn’t any suspense as to where the story is going to go, but actually there was a surprise ending— while there was the announcement by angels that Jesus had risen after the women discovered the empty tomb, Jesus himself was a no show, and this despite the fact that Matthew, Luke and John, all make clear that the resurrection of Jesus involved an actual appearance of Jesus in the flesh to various persons at various times in both Judaea and later in Galilee.

And furthermore, this ending was certainly not omitted in this play for many centuries of its performance.   But then the script has undergone many revisions over the centuries, some of which needed to be made as there were anti-Semitic elements in the play that frankly are not in the Gospels.  Just to be clear— Jesus was not crucified by Jews, and there is no basis for calling Jews Christ killers. Only the Roman governor had the power of execution in that Roman province, and yet oddly, Jesus’ execution by Romans has not produced anti-Italianism or anti-Romanism.

Despite the omission of the proper ending of the Gospel story, there are many good elements in the play to commend.  Firstly, the performances are amazing.  Oberammagau is a village of a mere 8-10,000 people and it is simply the townsfolk themselves that are in the play. As it turns out they train for this from a very early age. It’s part of their education.  The tenor and soprano soloists were of professional class, and the music was simply fantastic. The orchestra was of a degree of excellence I’ve never encountered in a small town orchestra, and I used to play in one.  I bought the CD of the music.  Secondly, the drama is well presented, and the acting is not amateurish.  And they do not spare the horses— in fact horses, sheep, goats, doves, and even two camels show up on stage.  There something for all ages in this production. And the crowd scenes, especially the ‘give us Barabbas’ scene are huge, powerful, convincing.

Obviously, it is difficult to decide which stories and which portrayal of stories to pick in a blended presentation of Jesus’ passion.  This particular production favors Matthew and Luke with a bit of Mark and John thrown in for good measure.  So, we do not have the resurrection of Lazarus as a trigger event that leads to the attempt to do away with Jesus by Jewish authorities. For that matter we don’t really have any of Jesus’ miracles in the telling of this story, but then the actual miraculous elements in the Passion narrative are few, until Easter Sunday morning.  One question this portrayal does raise is ‘Was Jesus really the King of the Jews’ (a political claim), or was he just the Jewish anointed one called the Messiah (a religious claim)?  Inquiring minds want to know.  If he was the King of the Jews, then his execution was not a miscarriage of Roman views of justice.  Only the Roman governor was the ruler of the Jews in Judaea.  But on the other hand if he was just the Messiah, as Pilate himself says, there is no reason for a crucifixion.

The portrayal of Jesus was a bit too passive for me, and all of the intimate moments with the disciples from John 14-17 were omitted, though we did have Jesus performing a foot washing from John 13 (alone). As for the portrayal of Judas, there was a concerted effort to make Judas appear to be a zealot who was disappointed when Jesus did not come to kick the Romans out of  Jerusalem and take over and so in Judas’ view this turned Jesus into a a charlatan.  So when Judas discovered Jesus was heading for an execution and didn’t plan to respond with violence, Judas tried to stop the train before it reached that destination.  In other words, he had regrets and remorse for what he did and could not live with the shame and so he hung himself.  This attempt to make sense of Judas’ role in the story without turning him into the Devil incarnate, is probably historically mostly right.  Missing in action for the most part is the Beloved Disciple, and in a nod towards Catholic theology we do have Mary cradling the dead Jesus ala the Pieta, even though no Gospel says she did this.

All in all, I was glad to have finally seen this longest running of all plays.   There have been since the Middle Ages all kinds of ‘mystery’ plays in Europe involving not just the Gospels, but other parts of the Bible as well. I went to see one cycle of these in the late 70s in York in England.  Interestingly,  Jesus was played by Christopher Timothy fresh off his starring role as James Herriot in the popular British TV series All Creatures Great and Small.

Each performance in Oberammagau is sold out and has 4,000 people in the seats. We had good seats but we did not have the very best seats. Even so ours cost over 200 U.S. per ticket.  If you do the math from all the some 200 or so performances between the beginning of May and November we are talking a lot of money made for that little village, plus all the collateral income from lodging, food, souvenirs etc.  This town gives new meaning to a successful cottage industry.   Kudos to Educational Opportunities for make it possible for so many of us to go see the play this summer.  Well done.

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