Faith Matters

Oberammergau Passion Play: A living tradition which transcends the generations

Every 10 years, the people of Oberammergau in the Bavarian Alps take part in one of Europe's most remarkable religious, cultural and artistic spectacles. Continuing a tradition that dates back to the 1630s when the village was beset by the Bubonic Plague, they perform an elaborate Passion Play. Martin O'Brien, among the select few at this month's premiere, shares his experiences of attending this once-in-a-decade experience

The Crucifixion: Frederik Mayet (Jesus) and cast. Picture by Passion Play Oberammergau 2022/Arno Declair. 

IT is hard to do justice to as awesome a phenomenon as Passion Play 2022 at Oberammergau.

It is where drama, music, song, technical brilliance, tradition, community resolve and, of course, what is numinous, all cohere to produce a tour de force destined to reside long in the memory of those of us privileged to witness it.

And where 1,800 villagers out of a population of 5,500 - from David Bender (19) playing the Angel to Walter Fischer (80) playing Annas - participate in a stunning and captivating portrayal of the last days of Jesus from His arrival on a donkey in Jerusalem on Palm Sunday through to His crucifixion and burial.

A couple of weeks ago I realised a life-long ambition to go independently and see it for myself and obtain the perspectives of those intimately involved in its organisation.

Plenty of police were drafted into the village from other parts of Germany with sniffer dogs. But on the whole security was discreet with checks causing little delay and pilgrims and tourists feeling relaxed with police very helpful to those seeking directions.

A view of Oberammergau from the Aufacker mountain. Picture by Florian Wagner. 

My arrival in Oberammergau, a southern German village nestling in the most picturesque of settings in the Bavarian Alps close to the Austrian border, to attend the premiere of what is regarded as the longest running and most prestigious enactment of faith-affirming theatre the world has seen, brought memories flooding back to my childhood.

I think I was still in primary school, back in the mid-1960s in St Mary's, Mullymesker in Cleenish Parish a few miles outside Enniskillen when I first heard from our redoubtable principal Bryan Gallagher – whose melodious voice still enriches BBC Radio Ulster's Thought for the Day – about this place with a funny name in what was then West Germany. Where, with the odd exception due to wars and so on, people have staged a Passion Play every 10 years since the 1630s and the time of the Bubonic Plague, aka the Black Death.

At the time the disease was ravaging much of Europe amid the Thirty Years War and in 1632 it is said that a man called Kaspar Schisler brought the plague to Oberammergau and within weeks more than 80 had died.

 Oberammergau is a pretty town in the Bavarian Alps. Picture by Thorsten Unseld.

At the time little was known about the nature and origins of diseases and they "could only be interpreted as God's wrath", says Christian Stückl (60), an Oberammergau native, who has been director of the Play since the 1990 production.

The Prelude to the Play today picks up the story: "In their sorrow over the suffering this terrible disease had brought to the community, the leaders of the community came together and made a vow to hold the Passion Tragedy every 10 years, and from that time on not a single person died."

Prior to this year the Play was last performed in 2010 when nearly half a million pilgrims and tourists came from all over the world.

Meticulous planning had gone into the 2020 production but then another plague struck, coronavirus, and the organisers were forced into rescheduling to 2022, keeping their fingers firmly crossed that a deadly new variant wouldn't prompt a further postponement.

 The descent from the Cross and Pietà: Rochus Rückel (Jesus), Andrea Hecht (Mary) and Christoph Stöger (John). Picture by Passion Play Oberammergau 2022/Birgit Gudjonsdottir.

Rehearsals began more than four months ago, on the Feast of the Epiphany, with actors having to take Covid lateral flow tests every time they showed up. The premiere took place on the very sunny afternoon of Saturday May 14 in the Passion Play Theatre before a capacity audience of 4,400, many of them villagers and relatives and friends of the cast plus accredited German and foreign journalists such as me.

A further 102 performances will take place on Sundays, Tuesdays, Thursdays, Fridays and Saturdays until the final performance on October 2.

The premiere was preceded by an ecumenical service presided over by Cardinal Reinhard Marx, the archbishop of Munich and Freising, and by local Protestant clerics. One didn't have to understand German (and I don't) to see that it was an act of solemn worship, an expression of thanksgiving for being able to proceed after an enforced wait and an expression of joyous community solidarity ahead of the big challenge of running the 42nd Passion Play (there have been some additional productions down the centuries) between now and October.

The vast majority of travellers will take in the Play as part of pilgrim package tours that include a chance to enjoy the magnificent scenery and other attractions in this region of Europe, including delights such as Vienna and Salzburg, thus giving a much-needed boost to the local and regional economy.

The Passion Play Theatre. Picture by Passion Play Oberammergau 2022/Sebastian Schulte. 

The Play runs for five hours and is in two acts, from 2.30pm until 5pm and from 8pm until 10.30pm.

A handy little book is supplied giving an English translation as well as the names of the cast and an illuminating foreword from Professor Ludwig Mödl, a Catholic German theologian who is theological advisor to the Passion Play on behalf of Cardinal Marx, in consultation with the Protestant Regional Bishop, Heinrich Bedford-Strohm.

Every one of the cast was either born in Oberammergau or has lived there for at least 20 years. Following age old tradition, the male actors began growing their beards and hair on Ash Wednesday the year before.

Christian Stückl said: "When the corona epidemic forced us to cancel the Passion Play in spring 2020, there were frequent references to the old Oberammergau plague story. Several people asked me if we were thinking about taking a new vow.

"I had to laugh: those of us who believe in God have long shared a completely different image of the deity. Today, none of us imagines an angry old man with a white beard sitting on his throne up in Heaven, dreaming up diseases, wars and famines as punishment for sinful mankind, which refuses to submit to His will.

"Today, we know that it is we who are responsible for the suffering and misery in our world. It is not God who thinks up wars, we do. God is not at fault for the hunger in the world, we are. Our image of God and the world has changed fundamentally."

He recalled (in words supplied in English by the Passion Play press office) that other Passion plays had disappeared a long time ago, but that Oberammergau had survived for nearly 400 years and continued to thrive "because it is a living tradition, maintained with an enthusiasm which transcends the generations".

The Crucifixion: Christian Mayr (Dismas), Frederik Mayet (Jesus), Benjamin Mayr (Gesmas) and cast. Picture by Passion Play Oberammergau 2022/Arno Declair. 

Mr Stückl clearly believes that the key is "re-examining the story" and changing with the times. Prior to the 1990s the cast had to come from one or other of the two major faiths, Catholic or Protestant, but now Muslim residents of the village participate.

Until 1984 married women and those aged over 35 were banned from taking part, the latter restriction only lifted after three women took a court case under equality legislation.

Anti-Semitic elements in the text - written by a local Catholic priest, Fr Joseph Joseph Daisenberger in 1850 - have also been removed over the years, the Vatican II document Nostra aetate no doubt contributing to a big and welcome change in attitudes. (From its inception in 1634 until 1850 the Oberammergau Passion Play is believed to have relied on a mix of texts of other 15th/16th century Passion plays since extinct).

The play's the thing of course - and what a play... This show is widely described as amateur in the sense that the participants - under the overall professional direction of Stückl - are unpaid but there is nothing amateur about the performance of this remarkably gifted army of actors, singers and musicians.

The Cleansing of the Temple: High council, Rochus Rückel (Jesus), Kilian Claus (Nathanael) and cast. Picture by Passion Play Oberammergau 2022/Birgit Gudjonsdottir. 

Those in the major roles tend to come from the professional and managerial sectors, the technical and creative industries, and crafts and trades such as woodcarving and carpentry long associated with Oberammergau, along with a good smattering of students.

The leading 20 roles are double-cast with "two performers of equal standing" taking turns in playing their parts for various periods throughout the run, and the actors who get to play at the premier are decided by the drawing of lots.

So, to give you a flavour, Frederick Mayet (42) an artistic director, and Rochus Rückel (26), an engineering student, play Jesus; Martin Schuster (32), a political scientist, and Cengiz Görür (22), a student actor and the first Muslim in the role, play Judas; and Andrea Hecht (60), a retail sales clerk and wood sculptor, and Eva-Maria Reiser (37), a flight attendant, play Mary.

The Last Supper: Martin Schuster (Judas), Martin Güntner (Peter), Rochus Rückel (Jesus), Anton Preisinger jr. (John) and Apostles. Picture by Passion Play Oberammergau 2022/Arno Declair.

Apart from the youngest performers virtually all have played lesser roles or appeared as extras in previous productions.

There are many particularly striking elements in this slick free-flowing drama that never ceases to hold the audience in rapt attention.

Right at the start you are mesmerised by the crowd scene depicting Jesus' entry into Jerusalem. Difficult to count, but I reckoned there were certainly over 200 persons on the stage - converted into the Temple of Jerusalem - amid an eruption of palms and Hosannas.

Similarly, the raucous crowd scenes at the expulsion of the merchants in the Temple and at the sentencing of Jesus will live in the memory. As will Christian Bierling (57), the managing director of the local culture centre, as Joseph of Arimathea, distinctive with his wild flowing white locks, running to and fro across the stage incessantly defending Jesus.

 The crowning with thorns: Ferdinand Meiler (Centurion Longinus), Frederik Mayet (Jesus) and cast. Picture by Passion Play Oberammergau 2022/Arno Declair.

There is the arrival of Herod (Benedikt Fischer, a 29-year-old restaurateur) on a large black horse with a camel in tow. And of course, the crucifixion scene, and the hoisting of actors playing Jesus and the two thieves on to three huge crosses and, subsequently, their painstaking removal from those crosses.

And then, very memorable are the colourful 12 tableaux vivants or Living Images of the Old Testament, including the worship of the Golden Calf and the expulsion from the Garden of Eden, that the organisers say have been an inseparable feature of the Oberammergau Passion Play since 1750.

The Last Supper and the cup: Martin Güntner (Peter), Frederik Mayet (Jesus), Anton Preisinger jr. (John) and apostles. Picture by Passion Play Oberammergau 2022/Birgit Gudjonsdottir. 

They pose an immense technical challenge, something not lost on the dozens of actors involved who must retain their designated pose in absolute stillness. Indeed, the Play's basic structure, action scenes, chorus and Living Images has not changed in 270 years.

It is difficult to convey the scale of the performance and its support team. The total number of participants from the villager is 1,800 of which (from my look at the programme book) there are more than 230 actors and 270 singers and musicians - including 60 choral singers in monochrome attire and four soloists. One can only imagine the work that went into the costumes alone.

The Way of the Cross: Frederik Mayet (Jesus) and cast. Picture by Passion Play Oberammergau 2022/Arno Declair. 

First and foremost, the Passion Play of Oberammergau is about keeping a vow to perform a play "of the suffering, death and Resurrection of our Lord Jesus Christ" and in so doing convey Jesus' core message of love, peace and mercy to the wider world.

Prof Mödl, the theological advisor, makes an important point in his foreword. Without spelling out the dramatic fall in Church attendance and the impact of secularisation and the scandals, I struggled to find much more than 70 in attendance at the Sunday 10am Mass in the beautifully ornate late Baroque church of SS Peter and Paul - he acknowledges that audiences today are different from 22 or even 12 years ago.

"Many people are no longer familiar with the theological details that were considered common knowledge in earlier times," he writes.

"The questions we have to ask have changed. Since the Passion Play seeks to convey the message of the Passion, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ to people as a reassuring and empowering event, it must take up the fears and hopes of people today.

"Thus, in the depiction of Christ's suffering and death, the questions regarding the meaning and future of human existence come into view in dramatic ways."

For that reason, Jesus does not immediately drive the money changers out of the Temple after his arrival in Jerusalem but as in 2010 he "first introduces himself as the Messiah who aims to renew the religious faith of his people and make the message of God its centrepiece".

The Crucifixion: Frederik Mayet (Jesus) and cast. Picture by Passion Play Oberammergau 2022/Arno Declair. 

In this 2022 presentation, with war raging in Ukraine and other largely unreported places, and Ireland and other countries welcoming large numbers of refugees, and Covid-19 still causing untold misery, Jesus, on the stage in Oberammergau cries out:

"Come! Come to me, all who labour and are heavy burdened! Come, all who are weakened by the burden of misfortune and sorrow! We are living in a time of fear in Israel. War cries echo through the land, poverty and disease ravage you, and you hunger and thirst for justice. The LORD hears your cries.”

To the poor He cries: “Arise, you innocent who are persecuted. God will bestow the land upon you! ! Arise, you who live in poverty, to you belongs the kingdom of God. Arise, you who weep now; for you shall laugh.”

He proclaims the Beatitudes. All surely music to the ears of Pope Francis, who has stressed the option for the poor since the inception of his papacy.  

The audience hears Jesus’ call to conversion. His words always fresh and life affirming. 

Thank you, Oberammergau.

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