Posted by: Nazausgraben | September 6, 2010

PASSION PLAY


1633. There was war and pestilence sweeping throughout much of Bavaria and the Austrian Tirol.  When the plague (Pest) reached the small village of Oberammergau, its residents began to fervently pray…pray for a miracle that would spare its people of the ravages of sickness and death about which they had so often heard. They knew not what brought this curse upon them, yet they did know that they required divine intervention to survive the troubled times ahead. Thus, they prayed..prayed and promised God that if they were delivered from the Pest, they would thereafter and forever give thanks.

The Pest did indeed pass with only limited impacts on this village. Those living in Oberammergau had vowed to give thanks, and that they would. The village would perform a holy play in memory of the Passion of Christ…those days from the time he entered Jerusalem to his crucifixion and resurrection not long thereafter.

It was thus in the year of our Lord 1634 that the first Passionsspiele was performed in Oberammergau. Its players were all villagers, having been born and raised in Oberammergau; none from outside could participate. The Passionsspiele was to be held not as a grand production, but as a humble offering of pius thanks.

The staging of the Passion Play offered many challenges, the greatest of which being where was the play to be performed. In its earliest days, the Passionsspiele was held in the parish church of Oberammergau. Finding that it was too small to accommodate the many who wished to attend this very special event, the Passionsspiele was eventually moved outside into the church cemetery, actually held above the graves of those who died from the Pest.  Seating was provided for some. A small wooden frame stage was erected and the play became abit more elaborate. Still, the cemetery proved too small as many from the surrounding southern Allgau made the at times distant journey to Oberammergau. The production was eventually moved to a nearby farmer’s field and the stage apparatus built and taken down following each performance.

It wasn’t until the 19th century that the first fixed permanent open-air structure was erected upon which the Passion Play was staged. It was completely open to the elements. Finally, a single covered building was constructed to house the stage, performers and audience seating. It was in this structure that the Passionsspiele of 1900 was performed. This massive structure could seat 4,000 ! Over the course of the following years, the building was enlarge and modified. Today, it stands as a monument both to the meaning and purpose of the Passion Play as well as the zeal and tenacity with which the volk of Oberammergau have kept their promise. This and more information about the Passion Play theater can be found at the website http://www.oberammergau-passion.com/en-gb/the-passion-play/the-theatre/the-passion-play-theatre.html.

Except for a brief hiatus due to war, the Passion Play continues to be performed every 10 years; the actors, musicians, stagehands, all involved must have been born in Oberammergau or have lived there for at least 20 years.

We arrived in Oberammergau and immediately find the entire town to be incredibly organized for such a massive long-duration event. At the southern entrance to the town, we were directed by a very nice young lady to our free parking lot; the free shuttle bus was already there waiting. Now…you might notice that I am taking pains to stress FREE….for it is indeed a wonder that there are no extra charges for these items. Needless to say, we and our wallets were delighted.

Once in town, we walked about abit. Oberammergau is a jewel; a lovely village of slightly more than 5,000 inhabitants. It is nestled in the Ammer River Valley, surrounded by the craggy beautiful Ammergau peaks. It is known for its magnificently maintained and decorated homes and shops; the facades of which are covered in splendid paintings (Luftlmalerei). Many depict biblical scenes, saints, Christ and Mary. Others provide the appearance of elaborate pedestals or columnated window fixtures where none exist. In the outer walls of some homes, there are niche wherein statues of Mary or the Saints maintain patient watch.

Back on the shop-lined pedestrian zone, Passion Play-goers were milling about smartly…hitting the Cafes early, hauling away Passion Play cups, Passion Play illustrated books, Passion Play CDs, Passion Play t-shirts and jackets….anything as a symbol…future reminder that they had at one time attended this very special event in such a place.

We soon arrived at the Passionsspiele theater; a large attractive structure set to one side near the Oberammergau village center.  There are trees in a park-like square before the building where one also encounters a display of broken pottery in the ancient style, statuary and  a combination ticket center, bookshop and cafe, all built within a temporary modern structure.  There in that small but welcome patch of green, we sat in the shade of an ancient Tannenbaum, inhaling the sweet mid-Summer warmth…..and listening to the babel surrounding us. There were global voices to be heard; a cacophony of German, French, English (high and low), Slavic tongues of all sorts and a smattering of the Far East. Although the Passion Play is rumored to be primarily attended by American visitors (as it has been in the past), at least on that day, one had the impression that the entire world had descended upon Oberammergau.

I was suddenly aware of three young people standing about a nearby small raised table upon which tiny white porcelain cups of espresso, glasses of water and a small single vased red and yellow flower were neatly arranged.  They appeared to be engaged in a rather passionate discussion.  Arms flailed, heads shook and all eyes were wide. I moved abit closer…yes, very rude indeed, but I had to know what was making this small group so very animated. Like most conversations stirring controversy these days (see my earlier Chapter titled DISCUSSIONS), they had turned to politics and culture….the essence of which was this: The Passion Play was created in response to a plague sweeping Europe. Well, Europe, indeed, the entire western world is today being ravaged by plagues…only this time they are of our own doing.  Rather than biological in substance and form, they are cultural and very insidious.

One member of the group appeared to be absolutely livid, flinging questions at his two compatriots at Gatling speed. I came in at the tail end of his line of discourse…something about political correctness,  the intolerance of those preaching tolerance and I am not certain what else. His dialect and bullet-tempo utterances made it difficult for me to understand all that he was saying.  He paused, suddenly (and rather dramatically, I thought) and completed his line of queries with the most poignant rhetorical self-answering questions of all,”Is there not a cultural illness that is sweeping our civilization faster than any Pest of the past? Is not time for us to re-new our promises of the past….to pledge our own Passion Plays as thanks for being rid of the plagues that affict us today?” I realized that I had been joined by others from nearby benches who had likewise been drawn into the conversation. Several converged on the small table where the three stood, as if to continue the discourse.

I turned away from the increased verbal heat, heading slowly toward the main entrance of the theater where Susi stood reading a brochure about Oberammergau.  “A small, quiet town where friendly volk welcome visitors from around the world….a peaceful oasis in an otherwise tumultuous world” it read.

About 30-minutes prior to the start of the performance at 1430, the nine entrance doors located about the sides and front of the building swung open and attendees started filing in. Those whose seats were located in the mid to forward parts of the theater entered directly into the huge maw of a structure. Those seated in the aft end of the theater entered through the buildings  front doors. Being amongst the latter group, Susi, I and all those in the rear seats were treated to long entrance hall walls covered with a host of photographs and videos from Passion Play performances dating back many decades. There were also slides presented showing some of the prominents of years past as they attended a performance. It was fascinating to see these respectfully attired ladies and gentleman of a century or two past, dressed formally as if for a fancy afternoon tea. It is an interesting counterpoint to the attendees today who tend to be…shall I say…more casual in their appearance.

With an unheard cue, the felt rope barriers before the stairway were removed and we began our ascent into another world. Passing under a glass potral where our tickets were checked, we suddenly found ourselves ensconced amongst the more  than 4,000 ticketholders, all channeled up the entranceway ramp and bursting into the hall as if through a breached dam, all searching for the folding chairs into which they will shoehorn themselves for the rest of the day. 

It is as you sidle the entire length of the row to your 100+ Euro seat that you begin to sense the grand open size of the space you are entering. It would not be an exaggeration to compare the interior to a small but attractive hanger. However, rather than being occupied by a large Cessna or pair reconstructed Messerschmidts, the space is filled to capacity with seats. The rows are incredibly long, especially those built into the center portion of the theater. Metal beams crisscross above providing support for a massive curved roof such that there are no obstructing support poles blocking ones view. The floor of the theater arches back and upward from front to rear, also facilitating a better view from wherever one is seated.

You should be cautioned about the sardine-class seating. While an individual between the 5th and 95 percentile weight and girth can sit fairly comfortably, the seats were most certainly not designed for those above the objective design specifications.  Despite the complaints about the tight unbearable seating I had heard from others, once we were in-place, Susi and I found them fairly comfortable. We didn’t bring pillows and found that none were really necessary for comfort.

Now, many of you have been passengers onboard commercial aircraft flying long distances. Most spend their many hours plugged into an all-too-thin sardine-class seat toward the rear of said aircraft. The seats when retracted by uncaring occupants lean in your lap and you fight for elbow room on the painfully thin piece of upholstered metal that doubles for an armrest between you and the next seat. This pain is accentuated should you be seated between two others.  

Well, you know the feeling. You are in your seat comfortably strapped in and notice that the seat next to you is vacant. You start to pray…aloud..that the person holding that seat has missed this connection, decided to take a train or ship or suddenly won the lottery and was now sitting in Business Class. The other passengers are filing in. Quite suddenly, your fantasy of defaulted semi-luxury is eradicated as a rather large individual attempts to fit into a single sardine-class seat. You grimace and sigh inside, smile politely, and think of the coming very very slow flight that has not even as yet taken off.

It can’t happen in Oberammergau…at the Passionsspiele!  Susi was seated to my left…no problem at all. The person occupying the seat to my right arrived..a rather large pleasant talkative chap…. I found myself scrunched over to my left. Seven hours….

 The play began exactly at 1430….the quiet overture of Rochus Dedler set the stimmung (mood) of what was to follow. Quiet strings, soothing harmonies, romantic melancholy…the hanger was hushed still. Suddenly a gentleman seated directly behind me decided to have something to eat…something that was wrapped deeply and inextricably in cellophane plastic. He made an intolerable noise as he stuffed his gullet with whatever inhabited that crinkly crackly wrap. Even my not-so-subtle turn about and brief stare failed to dissuade the Dorftroedl from proclaiming his right to obliterate the mood for those within hearing. He kept this behavior up for the remainder of the Passion Play. Madness!

Still, I did manage to eventually block cellophane wrap noises out for most of the time, as I immersed myself into the unfolding drama on the beautifully built backdrop structure on the stage…the way far far away stage. Susi and I were gifted with the less expensive seats…dead center and close to the rear of the hall. We had a very fine view, but I am delighted that our lovely neighbors (who had all pitched in to get us the all-way-too-expensive tickets) had also supplied us with opera glasses. I can tell you that it was not easy for them to come up with the Euros for such a splendid birthday gift. Yet, an entire family chipped in and did so…and we shall always be grateful for their generosity. I am humbled.

Now, on to substance. The performance itself is a staged oratorio. The acting was wonderful; a mixture of delightful stage naïveté and splendid professionalism.

The parts of Jesus, Mary and the Apostles were nobly played by all involved . The actor in the role of Jesus did not show any of the melancholy that is often depicted as part of Jesus’ route to Calvary. However, his anguish in the Garden, wrath at the desecrators and acceptance throughout it all was brought forth with great sensitivity.

My favorite over-actor is he who played Judas. His 10-minutes prior to death were characterized by a remorse-driven flailing, wailing and proverbial gnashing of teeth. As he threw himself into the solid walls of the backdrop structure (many times), yelling out his terrible fate, I could not but help think of those old black and white silents one can still see on occasion…where wide-eyed over-acted movements took the place of the voice that one could not hear. That was the Oberammergau Judas; the duped Opfer (victim) rather than willing zealous perpetrator. I would like to believe that the applause that followed his hanging were in response to his acting skills and not his Biblical fate.

Pontius Pilatus was likewise very well played. Clad in a splendid uniform and possessing a loud (unmicrophoned) piercing voice that could belong to a very angry Slav, he strutted about the stage very ably…yelling as appropriate, opera laughing quite well, and obviously not very happy with the fate he had been dealt with by his gods and emperor.

In keeping with the tradition of the ancients, each changing scene in this story is introduced by ‘The Prolog’, a gentleman narrator, buttressed on either side by a large 4-part mixed chorus of splendid singers. The Prolog brings to life the change of scene, describing in prose what has been and what is now to become. It is a soliloquy of sorts to set or better, re-set the mood. The Prolog (also referred to as ‘The Chorus’ in earlier days) is not dissimilar to that employed by The Bard in his 16th century Midsummer Night’s Dream. He starts the work, reinforces the flow with insightful discourse along the way, and brings the evening to a close. Such was the Prolog our own Midsummers eve.

With his words at an end. the chorus began to sing and the entire troupe moved in perfect sweeping form in such a way as to reveal the stage-in-a stage built within the temple-like structure on the main stage. A curtain parted to reveal a tableaux of astonishing clarity and wonder. It was a painting, a fixed scene out of the Hebrew Testament. It was created in the iconic style of Cimabue….yet there was something abit odd. I raised my opera glasses and noted what it is. The tableaux was a mixture of painting and actors. The actors were all immobile, sculpted into the painting surrounding them. Except for a faint blink or two…they were perfectly still…even the children. There were many tableaux as the evening proceeded, with some of those within each painted scene situated in the seemingly most uncomfortable positions…arms and legs flayed at odd angles, backs arched…and perfectly still for the duration of the work being sung. Very impressive indeed! However, I cannot even today but help think that as the curtains closed and the chorus retraced their soft steps into a straight line fore the back-stage, that those fixed sculpts from within each frozen scene were silently muttering, “FINALLY…why can’t that choir sing any faster??!!”

Of course, the music was most important. I had heard the score by Dedler before, from a recording made during the 2000 Passion Play. There were certain pages of the score that were restored this year, some replaced and a few added anew by the local composer, Zink. Interestingly, Dedler was something of a prolific local composer in his day, completing a pair of High Masses and a Requiem in addition to several works for instrument. I know of only one recording of one of his Masses; it was recorded by the local Ammergauer Motettenchor (I suspect many of whom are in the Passion Play choir). It is a rare recording and I hope to purchase it during my next sojourn to Oberammergau.

All in the audience seemed very impressed at the end. With a flame burning at center forward stage, the players and musicians silently departed…never to return despite the enthusiastic applause from the 4,500 filled seats. It was the perfect way to end this tragic yet overwhelmingly hopeful piece of history and faith.

Susi and I slowly made our way into the chilling Oberammergau night, found our way up the hill to our particular shuttle bus, and after finding our car…a 45-minute drive back to our home in the splendid stillness of our valley.

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Responses

  1. Magnificent read

    • Many thanks for your kind words, Sanjiv!

  2. There is hope when a young person is so passionate about what is happening in the world today! And did you say SEVEN hours?

    Your descriptions, as always, place me right there beside you. Sounds like a wonderful experience, and you were blessed by such a generous gift.

    • Hi Fran! Hoping that you and Larry can someday also have the joy of attending. Perhaps in 2020? – Andy


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