Here and There – Bavaria

Do you believe that on some occasions we have a presentiment, a sense we have seen or experienced something that is a precursor of an event in the future?  Presentiment might not be a good word, because it implies that future event is likely to be unpleasant.  Let’s not quibble over words:  have you ever had an experience which suggested that this was the anticipation of something that would happen to you in the future?  Out of the blue, without warning, you just sense that within this moment you are experiencing a glimpse of what will take place one day.  It’s rather like that idea that time doesn’t travel like an arrow, forever moving forward, but its progress is more like a spiral and, just every now and then, we cross over a path we’ve traversed before (that déjà vu feeling) or one that will come again.

In 1960, I went on a school trip to Europe.  There were four groups of 8 students, and we travelled in a coach with at least two teachers.  It was fun, and although I wasn’t one of the oldest (I was 15 years old) I was the leader of one of the groups.  There were various adventures and odd moments as we traversed France, Belgium, Luxembourg, Germany, Austria, Italy, Switzerland and back to France – all in just over three weeks.  I may have written about my experiences in Italy:  even if I have, I am quite confident I will be telling stories from that trip again!

After about a week, our travels took us past Oberammagau, on our way to Mittenwald, where we were to cross over from Germany into Austria and on our next stop.  We would be passing through Innsbruck, before travelling down to Venice, and our next campsite at the Lido de Jesolo.  I knew nothing much about Oberammagau and the Passion Play, but it was the year of the play (it’s on every ten years) and when we stopped to have sandwiches our teacher pointed to a set of men, all with long hair, many with beards, eating on the veranda of an inn.  “There’s Jesus and the disciples!”  We must have regarded our teacher with more than our usual incredulity. because he went on to explain to us we were looking at some of the villagers who were taking part in the play.  Was that true?  Perhaps we were.

It was a fortuitous sighting.  Having had my first bout with Christianity when I was ten years old, an acolyte dutifully carrying a candle during the Sunday morning service for a year or so, now I was on the verge of a second round, the result of being encouraged to be confirmed in the Anglican Church and enjoying to and fro discussions with the local vicar.  Who had encouraged me?  I can’t remember, but I know it wasn’t something my mother approved of, as she made clear to me (you know, ‘it’s on your own head’!).  Anyway, hearing about Oberammagau caught my attention.  What was that about?

In case you have escaped learning about this German passion play, let me give you a little background.  The Oberammagau Passion Play dates from 1634.  The pay involves around 2,000 people, actors, musicians, stage technicians, carpenters, painters and others, all residents of the village.  It is a curious mixture of three elements;  a traditional play, with spoken text but little ‘acting’, covering the story of Jesus from Palm Sunday through to his resurrection; sections of music and choral interludes, often out of kilter with the main story; and several equally odd tableaux vivants.  The text of the play is a composite of four distinct manuscripts dating from the 15th and 16th centuries.  The music vaguely follows the text, but the tableau vivant serve a different purpose, comprising scenes from the Old Testament with motionless actors and an accompanying verbal description.  One preceded the moment (in Act 4) when Jesus is about to enter Jerusalem.  This has since been deleted as it deals with a controversial story about Esther becoming the second queen of a Persian King!  The other two major tableau cover Joseph being sold into slavery, and Moses in the wilderness, intended to show links between the Old and New Testaments.  The placement of all three in the play is hard to understand, especially if you’re not a biblical scholar.

The whole is a major exercise.  It becomes clear from visiting the Oberammagau museum that the running time has varied over the years, a function of various revisions.  In 2010 it took place over 5 hours, beginning at 2:30 pm and ending at 10:00 pm, with a meal break, and ran for 102 days from May to October 3 that year.  In 2022, it was still five hours long, but began at 1.30pm, and finished at 9.30 pm, with a three-hour meal break.   It had been much longer.  In  1930, the play had running time of approximately seven hours, from 8:00 am until  5:00 pm with a single meal break.  Most attendees stay outside Oberammagau; the day excursion requires booking both a two-night stay and travel in a larger nearby town.

In case you are wondering why there is a passion play, legend has it there was an outbreak of the bubonic plague in Bavaria during the Thirty Years War (1618–1648).  The village of Oberammagau remained plague-free until 25 September 1633, when a man named Kaspar Schisler returned home after working in the nearby village.   Over the next 33 days, 81 villagers would die, half the population. On 28 October that year, the remaining villagers vowed that if God spared them from the plague, they would perform a play every 10 years depicting the life and death of Jesus.  Nobody died of plague from that day onwards, and the villagers have kept their word by performing the passion play.

Great story.  Of course, recent research has rather discounted this.  There was an outbreak of plague in Oberammergau, but it took place from September 1632 to March 1633, and there was a total of 84 deaths from all causes.  Deaths didn’t end suddenly.  There was one death in September 1632, rising to 20 deaths in March 1633, and ending with one death in July 1633.  To be fair, many errors could have been introduced by the retelling of an oral history, as the events were not recorded until 1733.

Whatever the details, one thing is clear.  The Oberammergau Passion Play has been performed every 10 years, initially  from 1634 to 1674 and each decadal year (a year ending with a 0) since 1680 with a very few exceptions, and always by the inhabitants of the village.  One of the exceptions was in 2020, when Covid-19 led to the play being deferred to 2022.  The first permanent stage was built in 1815 and a new, purpose-built theatre was built in 1890.  Since then, there has been little, largely cosmetic change.  The theatre was enlarged in time for the 1930 season and following the 1990 production both the interior and façade of the theatre were renovated and the stage mechanics modernised. Today the theatre can seat an audience of over 4700.

It’s taken me a long time to get here, but I did go with my partner to the Passion Play in 2010.  It is not like going to see a play in your own city.  By that I am not referring to the location or the language.  Rather, it is clear from the outset that this is a cultural experience, a historical re-enactment, and you’re about to witness an event with a unique back story. Oberammagau is a small village.  Over the years, the number of places to eat, the number of souvenir shops, and the museum have grown.  Despite these changes and additions, an additional five thousand people in the village turn it in to a crowded place.  We didn’t need to ask when it was time to go to the theatre – the crowd simply swept us along.

The organisation is excellent.  Everyone was seated quickly, as we sat looking towards a surprisingly bare stage.  Each half of the play runs for around two and a half hours, but, the time moved quickly.  Since photography is banned, and I have mislaid the program (which included the full text of the play), my recollection is not very good, and what follows relies on Wikipedia’s summary.

I do remember the beginning included a couple of set scenes, with both characters and a chorus.  The opening is by way of a prologue.  First, we see Adam and Eve, dressed in sheepskins, being banished from the Garden of Eden, directed by an angel carrying a sword that looks like a flame.  This is followed by a second preliminary scene where a group of children surround a cross, a representation of the time in 1633 when villagers swore their vow to hold the passion play every decade before a huge crucifix bearing a twelve-foot-high Jesus.

Once these are over, the familiar story begins.  We see Jesus enter Jerusalem, go into the Temple, and throw out the money changers.  There are some scenes about some business going on among the Hebrews, mainly references back to Old Testament events, and then Jesus returns to Jerusalem for the last time.  There is a major scene covering the Last Supper, followed by Judas’ betrayal (and a reference back to Joseph being sold by his brothers).  Jesus is shown in the Garden of Gethsemane.  It was around this point we broke for dinner.  Testimony to efficiency of the organisation, we were quickly chaperoned to our restaurant where we enjoyed an excellent dinner.   Mysteriously (we were clearly being watched by timekeepers), we were all back in our seats in time for the second part.

You probably don’t need me to repeat the succeeding events.  We see Jesus being questioned by the High Council of the church, and then interrogated by Pilate, who washes his hands of what will happen (and literally washes them, too!).  From then on, we see the events leading to the crucifixion, where Pilate pops back up to offer the crowd the choice between saving the life of Jesus or Barabbas (who looked suitable joyous at getting off), and the final scenes at the tomb. Strangely enough, the time never seemed oppressive, and it was almost a surprise when the play finished, and we were all whisked off back to our hotels.

If I make it sound light-hearted, it wasn’t.  It was moving, the acting convincing, and the whole process quite compelling.  You don’t have to be a practicing Christian to appreciate the humanity and the humility in the story.  That it was so well done by the residents of Oberammagau rather than a group of professional actors is something you forget until the next day.  I have seen and heard various plays and oratorios concerning Jesus and the story of his crucifixion, much of it involving glorious music.  Nonetheless there is no double that this was something special.  Would I have thought have going if I hadn’t seen Jesus and his friends fifty years earlier?  Probably not.

I should also let you know the Passion Play has faced various controversies, especially in our more enlightened times.  A major source of concern has been the plays underlying thread of anti-Semitism.  After the Second World War the play came under increasing pressure from American Jews because of several anti-Semitic elements. Attempts were made to cancel or boycott the play in 1950s and 1960s.  In the 1970s, Oberammergau invited representatives from Jewish organizations to revise the play, and minor revisions were made for 1980 play.  A new, young director,  24-year-old Christian Stückl,  made considerable changes to the 1990 version to remove some elements of antisemitism from the text, and even more radical changes came in 2000, when the story was reinterpreted as an inter-Jewish conflict, with some Jews supporting and others opposing the crucifixion of Jesus.  Muslims were allowed to perform in the Passion Play for the first time in 2000.

Arguments about change continue.  More than one review has pointed out ‘it seems unfair’ to accuse the play of antisemitism when it recounts material in Christianity’s sacred texts.  It is “about a Crucifixion in which the Jews kill Christ, you can never clean it up enough” to avoid an antisemitic message.   For the 2022 play, the American Jewish Committee convened an Academic Advisory Group led by their Director of Interreligious and Relations, composed of experts in the play, Christian-Jewish relations, New Testament studies, and German-Jewish relations to recommend ways in which the play’s lingering anti-Jewish elements could be eliminated. AJC has described the collaborative process with the Oberammergau community as productive: “The Oberammergau leadership desire for ongoing improvement is genuine,” even as “there remain concerns about points within the play that do not properly reflect the range of first century Jewish opinion on Jesus’s leadership.  This reflects both the historic progress in Christian-Jewish relations in the past decades and also lingering tensions over the anti-Jewish implications of certain traditional Christian interpretations of Gospel narratives of Jesus’s conviction and execution”.

Changes over the last seventy years include:

  • the role of the Temple traders has been reduced;
  • a ‘Rabbi’ character has been eliminated and his lines given to another character;
  • Jewish priests no longer wear horn shaped hats;
  • Jesus has been addressed as Rabbi Yeshua;
  • Jesus and others speak fragments of Hebrew prayers in the play;
  • Jews are shown disputing with others about theological aspects of Judaism, not just about Jesus;
  • Pilate has been made to appear more tyrannical and threatens Caiaphas, the Jewish high priest, and it is made clear that Caiaphas does not speak for all the Jews;
  • Romans now stand guard at the gates when Jesus makes his entrance to Jerusalem;
  • Jesus’ supporters have been added to the screaming crowd outside Pilate’s palace;
  • Judas is portrayed as being duped into betraying Jesus;
  • the line ‘His blood is upon us and also upon our children’s children was removed
  • Peter, when questioned by Nathaniel regarding abandoning Judaism replies, “No! We don’t want that!  Far be it from us to abandon Moses and his law”; and
  • At the Last Supper Jesus recites the blessing over the wine in Hebrew.

[I have sourced these changes from Wikipedia].

If I am honest, I am glad I wasn’t aware of all this controversy, change and concern when I saw the Passion Play in Oberammagau.  I know this puts me in a bad light, but I liked the idea I was seeing what the people of Oberammergau had put together as a result of the depredations and eventual escape from the plague nearly 400 years earlier.  I wasn’t.  I know how much better we understand the world today, and how carefully we need to behave to avoid racist, unfair or insulting terminology.  I have come to accept that my understanding is limited, and that of many other people even less so.

It is the same problem we face in reading about the British colonisation of Australia.  I don’t believe we can rewrite the events of history, but the way we describe, interpret and explain them is an important and never-ending challenge.  We have a long way to go in offering an honest and open account of what the British did to the indigenous Australian people from 1788 onwards.  So too the relationships between Romans, Jews, and Arabs two thousand years ago need to be understood and explained.  In both cases, many were killed, many others harmed.  I can only applaud the effort being pursued in Oberammagau to offer an honest and appropriate play while still meeting the commitment of those villagers in 1533.