It is a once in a decade experience, and a promise kept for more than three centuries. For over 100 days of 2010 The Oberammergau Passion Play was performed before over half a million spectators, on an open air stage against a spectacular background of mountains and countryside.
On October 4th the village hair salon was full for the first time in months remaining open through the night as village players, and over a half of Oberammergau’s 5,000 villagers took part in the pageant either acting or backstage, rushed to have their long hair, and beards for male cast members, cut for the first time since Ash Wednesday 2009.
The Passion Play was over for another ten years.
It was 1633, the Bavarian village of Oberammergau was already suffering from the devastating effects of the Thirty Years War (1618-1648) when, despite having closed the mountain access and exit points to the village, the ‘Black Death’ which was wiping out entire villages across Europe was brought into the community, and within months 84 of the 600 villagers had died.
A large crucifix still hangs in Obermmergau’s village church in front of which a group of villagers made a pledge to God, a vow that if he stopped the plague causing the suffering and deaths of their people then every ten years they, and their descendants, would re-enact the last week of Jesus’ life.
There were no more fatalities from the plague in Oberammergau, the promise was kept and Whitsun 1634, "Play of the Suffering, Death and Resurrection of Our Lord Jesus Christ", the villagers' first passion play, was held in the church cemetery on a wooden platform alongside graves of plague victims.
Making this type of vow was considered a sure way of preventing any type of disaster and the Oberammergau play was just one among countless others, however many had deviated from the original message, becoming lurid spectacles featuring devils and demons, so in 1780 the authorities banned them allowing only the Oberammergau Passion Play to continue.
The villagers had voted to change the date of their performances to the beginning of each decade in 1680, but further changes from the original concept came slowly. An improved stage was built in a neighboring field followed by a permanent open structure, but despite the pageants popularity it was the end of the 19th century before there was a theater.
Until 1990 women who were married, widowed or over 35 were not allowed to perform, as it was considered the possibility of their playing Mary made it necessary that even off stage their lives must seem chaste.
Subsequently it was not unusual for Jesus to look several decades older than his mother.
Additionally as one of the objectives of a passion play in the Middle Ages was to blame the Jewish people for the death of Jesus, it was a theme in the Oberammergau version. This continued with the text written in the mid nineteenth century and had been criticized in the last years, however a fresh wind has blown through Oberammergau.
Many actors carry the names of original performers, and to be eligible for the play it is still necessary to be born in the village or have lived there for a minimum of 20 years, ten years if married to a villager, however married women now appear on stage, Protestants can take speaking parts formerly reserved for Catholics and in 2010 a Muslim villager had a role as a Roman soldier.
The play’s director since 1990 has been Christian Stueck, who was born in Oberammergau, and changes he has made, including that with the help of Jewish organizations and other religious authorities the 19th century text has been heavily revised, have upset some people.
The blood curse, "His blood be on us, and on our children" from St. Matthew’s gospel has gone, as have anti-Jewish statements. Hebrew is spoken, a menorah stands on the Communion table, Jesus is shown to be a reformist rabbi and he and the apostles wear yarmulkes. The emphasis has changed. Stueckl’s viewpoint is, "It is about a charismatic Jewish preacher politician who rose to prominence under Roman Rule. It is not a story about Christians against Jewish, it is a Jewish story, although he became the first Christian I think Jesus knew nothing about the Catholic Church".
Traditionally starting in the morning in 2010 the play began in the afternoon at 2.30, had a three hour interval and ended at 10.30, nightfall. The crucifixion took place by torchlight and the resurrection began in darkness, a single candle lighting one torch after another until symbolically the 70 meter wide tree lined stage was ablaze with light while Mary Magdalena, (an air hostess in real life), delivered the news that Christ had risen.
The beautiful alpine village of Oberammergau, its houses painted with Lueftlmalerei, typical Bavarian, religious or fairy tale murals, and its streets bearing names like Judasgasse and Magdalenengasse, will continue as a magnet for tourists summer and winter for the next ten years. Passion play actors return to their airlines, wood carving, dentistry, teaching and hundred other different lives, until it is time to start growing that hair again.
Oberammergau with the Passion Play stage, 1860, a colored wood cutting by C. E. Doepler - 1934 Poster for the 300th anniversary of the passion play, Source Erasmusdruck, Berlin, Author Jupp Wiertz - Painting of Red Riding Hood scene on Oberammergau home, photographer Elke Backert