Despite its monumental scale, its cast and crew of literally thousands and its ticket prices more in line with Broadway than Bavaria, the 40th edition of Germany’s Oberammergau passion play resembled its predecessors in being the biggest “little theatre” (i.e., community theatre) production in the world.
Before the July 15, 2000, performance began, a brown frond could be seen poking out from behind the stage-left wing. Eventually the poorly concealed prop-bearer, an extra for the big Palm Sunday number, gave up trying to signal with her leaf stepping right out onstage to wave at the audience. A few rows ahead of where I was stated, a dozen or so other hands shot up in instant response. The culprit was an 8- or 10-year-old girl, waving to her family fans, just as children in Sunday School plays, bless them, have always waved. As the sage of Weimar, J.W. von Goethe, once said of Oberammergau, “A certain amount of innocence is necessary for this kind of thing.”
The product of a plague-ridden Alpine community’s famous 1633 vow to stage Christ’s passion every 10 years, the Oberammergau extravaganza is not just community-driven; it’s almost incestuous. Out of the village’s roughly 5,000 residents, more than 2,000 perform in the spectacle, which tells the story of Jesus’ life, death and resurrection with passing reference to episodes from the Old Testament. The performers—who start rehearsing nearly a year before the grueling decennial summer performances—must have been born in Oberammergau or have lived there 20 years or been married to a native for 10 years. A cursory glance at the program reveals numerous recurring surnames. In the summer of 2000, Benedikt Stuckl was one of the two actors playing the high priest Annas—major roles are double-cast—while his son Peter was one of two playing the high priest Caiaphas. Meanwhile, Benedikt’s grandson (Peter’s son), Christian Stuckl, was the highest priest of all—the passion play’s director, repeating his role from 1990—and Christian’s mother, his sister and his one-year-old niece all milled onstage in the crowd scenes. Even the current prompter, Karl Daisenberger, shares a last name with the 19th-century writer Joseph Alois Daisenberger, who is still responsible for most of the oft-revised script.
At 366 years old, Oberammergau is not the world’s oldest passion play; other texts in Latin date back as early as the 12th century. Nor at six-plus hours is it history’s longest (according to scholars G.A. Runnals and Marcel Couturier, the Passion at Chateaudun, France, in 1510, took 18 days to perform and still left out the Resurrection).
But the passion play at Oberammergau is our century’s best attended and perhaps most often imitated passion play. It is also the most infamous survivor of the European passion tradition. As James Shapiro explains in his new book Oberammergau: The Troubling Story of the World’s Most Famous Passion Play, the village Oberammergau itself has become “notorious for staging a play—praised by Hitler himself and sharply attacked by Jewish organizations—that has long portrayed Jews as blood-thirsty and treacherous.”
In the past few decades, the villagers have worked to address some of this criticism, consulting scholars and the leaders of Jewish organizations, altering the script and even inviting detractors to make all-expense-paid visits to the town. By 1990, a good deal of the most egregious anti-Semitism had already been excised. There persisted, however, a sort of grudging “you people” attitude toward non-Christians, exemplified, for example, by a sentence from the Prologue that ran “Gegrusst seid auch ihr, Bruder and Schwestern des Volkesl aus dem der Erloser hervorging.” (“Greetings to you, too, brothers and sisters of the Folk from which the Savior sprang [i.e., the Jews].”) In the 2000 script, that line had been redacted to “Welcome to all who are united in the love of our God!” The infamous “Blutruf” (blood cry)—“His blood be on us and on our children!”—that the 1990 script had included but apologized for in an official afterword had been excised.
The preface to the 2000 text not only apologized for past insults to Jews, it bent over backwards with explanatory remarks such as: “The high priest and a few religious and political leaders—who were actually no villains—came to be convinced that Jesus must die.” The preface writer, theology professor Ludwig Modl, continued, “The high priest may well have been motivated by a sense of responsibility when he said, ‘It is better that one should die for the people than that the entire people should suffer.'” In another probably futile attempt to bleach out any remaining tinge of anti-Semitism, the number of Jesus’ supporters among the Jews was augmented in the crowd scenes. The magnificent Old Testament tableaux were also reworked to emphasize that Jesus came from a long line of Jewish hero/prophets including Isaac, Daniel, Moses and that other “dreamer,” Joseph.
The revised script was not the only reminder that time passes, even in Oberammergau. In the 2000 passion play production, Turkish-born Germans were allowed to take roles for the first time, several being cast as Roman soldiers. And while the little girl with the palm was illicitly waving to her admirers, patrons were being told, surely for the first time in 366 years, to kindly turn off their cell phones.
Other elements, however, have remained constant. The chorus was still singing the lovely music of Oberammergauer composer Rochus Dedler (1779-1822), albeit newly reworked and expanded by Markus Zwink. And the passion play’s declamatory acting style is still sometimes “as hammy as Herod in a passion play,” to borrow an expression from Chaucer’s “Miller’s Tale,” which predates Oberammergau by about three centuries. In the July 15 performance, Martin Norz played Jesus as a bit of a gadfly, very much the young rebel. When seized by soldiers, for instance, he even resisted a bit. On the downside, there was nothing terribly spiritual about Norz, who had the unenviable job of conveying a lifetime of Jesus’ teachings boiled down to a series of one-liners.
The German compilers/writers of this passion play chose to have both of Jesus’ parents on hand for his entry into Jerusalem, although Joseph (Gottfried Maderspacher) had little to do except to call his itinerant, unemployed son the equivalent of a modern-day “slacker.” Mary, who figures more prominently in other European and English passion plays, also had little to do here and was played without much flash by Andrea Hecht. Her greatest moment was visual—the “Pieta” created when her dead son was tenderly placed in her lap by his friends at the foot of the cross. Ursula Burkhart had more to work with as Mary Magdalene, clad in traditional red to indicate her former profession. She and Jesus shared a long, intimate moment in an early scene when she anointed him with costly oil, the momentary sexual charge in the air reminiscent of Martin Scorsese’s controversial film The Last Temptation of Christ. Carsten Luck (also the technical director for Passion Play 2000) lent the figure of Judas credible tragic stature as he tried, not once but twice, to save the master he had betrayed. When the high priests refused to hand back their prize, Judas’ suicide by hanging—with a rope he compares to Eden’s snake—was shockingly realistic.
The huge stone set—with an inner proscenium where periodic Old Testament tableaux vivants prefigure the passion—is both the boon and bane of the passion play endeavor. The 4,700-seat, 70-year-old theatre is covered where the audience sits, but opens to the Alpine scenery at a huge rainbow-shaped arch over the stage. The overall effect is appropriately neoclassical and timeless, but it also reminds one of the fascist aesthetic prevalent in Italy and Germany around the time the building was designed. There are huge distances to cover, so many exits and entrances are made on the run for the sake of saving time. The theatre’s inner proscenium, though, is relatively flexible, accommodating more intimate interiors, such as Lazarus’ house, as well as the tableaux.
The monumental size of the stage allows for huge crowd scenes, however, like the moments after Jesus’ arrest when the people turn on their former hero. In these climactic episodes, the thunderous and chilling shouts of “Er sterbe!” (“He must die!”) and “Kreuzige ihn!” (“Crucify him!”) reminded one of other portraits of mob hysteria: Shirley Jackson’s “The Lottery,” James Baldwin’s “Going to Meet the Man” or Friedrich Durrenmatt’s very pertinent drama, set in a village like Oberammergau, The Visit.
After the noise of the blood frenzy came the icy silence of the crucifixion scene itself. Nearly five thousand spectators, seated shoulder to shoulder, and crowds of actors on stage listened to the blows of the hammer as if frozen in time. The heavy wooden crosses were raised upright, with no visible hint as to how the actors endured their excruciating hanging positions. After Jesus’ last words on the cross, the two thieves screamed and convulsed as their legs were broken. But Jesus, by then, was already motionless. As a Roman officer on horseback—a real horse, needless to say—pierced Jesus’ side with a spear to make sure he was dead, birds flew freely in and out of the silent theatre, their cheeky chirping reminding one that, for believers, this very scene happened once in real time and space.
Oberammergau sits at the mysterious nexus between religion and drama. Its mythic essence seems to date much further back than even its god/hero, Christ, or its tragic hero, Judas. Whether one turns to Frazer’s The Golden Bough, to Carl Jung, to Joseph Campbell or to that other great popularizer of myth criticism, Northrop Frye, one is struck by the similarities between A.D. Oberammergau and B.C. Athens. There is a god—call him Dionysus or Jesus—who takes human form and experiences our human agon (conflict). He willingly sacrifices himself and is torn to pieces/crucified (sparagmos) by temporarily unappreciative worshippers. But the winter of our discontent and his death gives way to the spring of glorious resurrection and our re-membering of the sacrificial lamb who has died for our sins. It is a felicitous fact of etymology that our English word “scapegoat” is literally “scapegoat”—“sin-goat”—in German. A passion play is, then, a literal reenactment of the ritual sacrifice of Jesus—similar to the symbolic Eucharist celebrated every Sunday by millions—for the sake of the well-being of the very community that has killed him. It has a special poignancy in a land where six million of Jesus’ own people later suffered a similar fate.
To tell Jesus’ painful, joyful story entails the need to repeat Jesus’ story, just as He commanded and just as surely as the sun both rises and sets. The passion play genre is based on the premise that, like the Doubting Thomases we are, we forever need to see his wounds, to act and reenact his wounding/death/rebirth. Moreover, we need to “tell a friend” to spread the good Word. This is indeed ritual—endlessly didactic, entirely cyclical, intensely communal in both production and reception. The Oberammergau passion play tacitly assumes its audience to be co-participants—Christian co-participants—in the greatest story ever ritually retold. As a work of art, that is both its sin and its salvation.
The Passion in America
The Institute of Outdoor Drama at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill, counts among its members a dozen outdoor American passion plays. They are:
The Black Hills Passion Play (Spearfish, S.D.)
The Great Passion Play (Eureka Springs, Ark.)
The Living Word (Cambridge, Ohio)
Jesus of Nazareth (Puyallap, Wash.)
The Louisiana Passion Play (Ruston, La.)
The Witness (Hot Springs, Ark.)
Worthy Is the Lamb (Swansboro, N.C.)
The Promise (Glen Rose, Tex.)
The Life of Christ Passion Play (Townsend, Tenn.)
The Man Who Ran (Disney, Okla.)
Mid-Ohio Valley’s Outdoor Passion Drama (Parkersburg, W. Va.)
Two Thieves and a Savior (Fort Mill, S.C.)
For more information on the above, as well as on Mormon religious plays, see the Institute’s website: www.unc.edu/depts/outdoor. Charlene Faye Monk, writing about some of these plays in 1998, noted, “The outdoor passion plays today face some major questions regarding the lack of professionalism, poor dramatic quality and anti-Semitic scenes.”
The Enigma of Belief
The wonder is that they asked for it.
The notoriously conservative community of Oberammergau invited the radical American artist/director/actor/Gesamtkunstler Robert Wilson to create and install The 14 Stations of the Cross on a patch of grass just outside Oberammergau’s Festhaus theatre, within earshot of the passion players morning cries of “Hosianna” (“Hosanna”) and afternoon cries of “Kreuzige ihn!” (“Crucify him!”).
Not surprisingly, the creator of Einstein on the Beach (1976), the CIVILwarS (1983-84) and other hard-to-categorize theatrical works took the invitation and sprinted with it. He has, after all, shown a special penchant for artists Germanic, including Heiner Muller, Richard Strauss, Thomas Mann, Mozart, George Buchner, Wagner and the Brothers Grimm. With the help of local craftsmen, Wilson constructed a work of art that stands in direct dialogic relationship to the Oberammergau passion play. It is as abstract and connotative as the passion play is realistic and denotative. In fact, 14 Stations functions as a remarkably apt commentary on Christianity by the “Merlin of the avant-grade” (as Arthur Holmberg has dubbed Wilson).
14 Stations involves some of Wilson’s favorite concerns: ritual, death, sacrifice, the link between the violent and sacred. He has recorded these themes, plus a few biblical images, into a new reality, a production starring the individual viewer—and maybe, just maybe, Christ, invisibly walking towards His death and transcendence. The exhibit is, in short, a theatre of visual and aural stimulation where the art stands still and the audience itself must move.
14 Stations consists of a small pavilion, 12 huts and a wigwam, all surrounded by a blue picket fence and, beyond that, lush green Alpine firs and mountains. The site is laid out architectonically—like a church, accordingly to the catalogue text by Viet Loers. The huts are lined up like side chapets on either side of a central path, with the wigwam representing the altar area. The gray huts are likened, in the catalogue, to concentration camp barracks as well as to chapels, they are also reminiscent of American Shaker sheds and of the moveable carts or scaffolds on which medieval cycle plays were performed.
Some sample descriptions of Wilson’s “stations” follow:
Station One—Pilate Condemns Jesus to Death: In the center of the gravel-paved entrance pavilion, where permanently puzzled-looking German guards collect tickets, a well-like structure holds a continuous whirlpool of liquid—the Charybdis, perhaps, of human guile. Recorded voices whisper the name “Pilatus” and the words “hand” and “condemned.”
Station Three–He Falls for the First Time: A small hut window features a life-size, primitively carved, nearly featureless wooden lamb that seems to have been struck by the bits of rock that surround him. A yellow hand sticks out of the lamb’s side.
Station Four–He Meets His Mother: A metal bar seemingly driven through a rope suspended rock forms a roughly cruciform object. Two tiny white sculpted figures—stylized but recognizably male and female—look eyelessly at each other, seemingly unaware of the rock over their heads.
Station Seven–He Falls for the Second Time: A videotaped man, seemingly exposed by a trap door in the floor, crawls across a patch of grass. He is naked and face down. Reaching out in supplication, he crawls toward an oven. The videotape is made to loop and repeat.
Station Ten–He is Stripped of His Garments: Disembodied garments—blue and violet—float beneath another suspended boulder. Apparently illuminated by light from the hut’s round window, the robes are positioned almost flat to the floor as if invisible figures are climbing on one another’s backs.
Station Twelve–He Dies on the Cross: Five eyeless red wolves stand in front of walls painted with cloud-topped mountains. One wolf tips his head upward to bite or howl; his pack mates bare their white fangs. Wilson could be alluding here to Jesus’s warning to his disciples: “I send you out like sheep among wolves” (Matthew 10: 16).
Station Thirteen–He Is Taken Down from the Cross: Eleven black-and-white stuffed magpies (symbolizing the 12 disciples, minus Judas?) are suspended in front of a poster of Madonna (the modern, pop-singing version), who happens to be looking skywards wearing a black hat with a stylized widow’s veil. The floor of this hut is piled high with lab beakers, like a drift of glassy snow.
The ‘Distinguished Visitor’
In Passion Play, a new play that recently received a reading at the Sundance Theatre Lab and won the Fourth Freedom Forum Playwriting Award from the Kennedy Center American College Theater Festival, dramatist Sarah Ruhl uses the history of Oberammergau to explore the relation between performance and identity. Act 1 focuses on the staging of a passion play in Elizabethan England; Act 2 moves to Oberammergau in 1934, the year that Hitler visited the village. In the following excerpt, Ruhl segues from imagined dialogue to the actual speech Hitler gave after seeing, and admiring, the Oberammergau passion play. The verbatim quotation is contained in the paragraph beginning, “One of our most important tasks.”
Enter Hitler. Time stops. The lights go down. Hitler goes to the front of the stage in a spotlight and speaks directly to the audience.
HITLER: Do you know who I am? You will think, perhaps, years later, that you know me from black and white colors. But black and white are not colors, although they are useful things. I have a strong desire to tell you about the colors—I was once a painter, you see—how one of my eyes has flecks of gold swimming in the brown…the people, they fell in love with me for my voice, but the women, they fell in love with my eyes. The dark protects us. Our eyes are the same color in the dark. Well.
In my bedroom, as a child, I had a doll, given to me by a dear grandmother. But I did not like to play with toys, no. I liked to place them carefully where I could watch them from a distance. She was a very still doll in a gray silk suit with a slice of burgundy ribbon at the throat, the color burgundy and the color gray being important.
I do so love public speaking.
Let me tell you about this village. The old man who played Christ was in his sick bed; a new Christ has stepped forward. The old must make way for the young, see. Plants and animals know this—people, stupid and crass— they cling to the vine.
I have come to a chorus of glad cheers. The people are always very glad to see me.
Everyone cheers. He turns towards them. They fall silent. Hitler addresses them. He works himself up into a public rage.
HITLER: One of our most important tasks will be to save future generations and to remain forever watchful in the knowledge of the menace of the Jews. For this reason alone it is vital that the passion play be continued at Oberammergau; for never has the menace of the Jews been so convincingly portrayed as in this presentation of what happened in the times of the Romans. There one sees in Pontius Pilate a Roman racially and intellectually superior, there he stands out like a firm, clean rock in the middle of the whole muck and mire of the Jews.
Cheering from the actors and the director. The visiting Englishman snaps a picture.
HITLER: Now, continue with your holy play. How I love the theatre.
Page Laws is professor of English and honors program director at Norfolk State University in Virginia. She covered the Oberammergau passion play in 1990 for American Theatre.
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