Oberammergau Passion Play

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File:Oberammergau Passion Play.jpg
Jesus Christ and John, 1900 performance of the Oberammergau Passion Play.

Oberammergau Passion Play is a passion play performed since 1634<Ref>"A promise. Living history. An experience." oberammergau-passion.com. 2009. Retrieved November 19, 2011.</ref> as a tradition by the inhabitants of the village of Oberammergau, Bavaria, Germany. It was written by Othmar Weis, J A Daisenberger, Otto Huber, Christian Stuckl, Rochus Dedler, Eugen Papst, Marcus Zwink, Ingrid H Shafer, and the inhabitants of Oberammergau, with music by Dedler. Since its first production it has been performed on open-air stages in the village. The text of the play is a composite of four distinct manuscripts dating from the 15th and 16th centuries.<ref name=Friedman>Template:Cite book</ref>

The play is a staging of Jesus' passion, covering the short final period of his life from his visit to Jerusalem and leading to his execution by crucifixion. It has been criticized as being anti-semitic, but it is the earliest continuous survivor of the age of Christian drama.<ref name=Shapiro>Template:Cite book</ref>Template:Page?



In 1633, the residents of Oberammergau, Bavaria, Germany, vowed that if God spared them from the effects of the bubonic plague ravaging the region, they would produce a play thereafter for all time depicting the life and death of Jesus. The death rate among adults rose from one person per 1000 per year in October 1632 to twenty in the month of March 1633. The adult death rate slowly subsided to one in the month of July 1633. The villagers believed they were spared after they kept their part of the vow when the play was first performed in 1634. Word spread throughout the region about the play, and it became too expensive to perform every year, so the town decided that every 10 years would be sufficient.Template:Cn

The play is now performed repeatedly over the course of five months during every year ending in zero. 102 performances took place from 15 May until 3 October 2010 and is next scheduled for 2020.Template:Cn The production involves over 2,000 performers, musicians and stage technicians, all residents of the village.Template:Cn The play comprises spoken dramatic text, musical and choral accompaniment and tableaux vivants, which are scenes from the Old Testament depicted for the audience by motionless actors accompanied by verbal description. These scenes are the basis for the typology, the interrelationship between the Old and New Testaments, of the play. They include a scene of King Ahasuerus rejecting Vashti in favor of Esther, the brothers selling Joseph into slavery in Egypt, and Moses raising up the nehushtan (bronze serpent) in the wilderness. Each scene precedes that section of the play that is considered to be prefigured by the scene. The three tableaux mentioned are presented to the audience as prefiguring Christianity superseding Judaism, Judas selling information on the location of Jesus, and the crucifixion of Jesus.Template:Cn

The evolution of the Passion Play was about the same as that of the Easter Play, originating in the ritual of the Latin Church, which prescribes, among other things, that the Gospel on Good Friday should be sung in parts divided among various persons.Template:Cn

Plot Synopsis


The prologue and chorus greet the audience. Two tableaux are presented. In the first, Adam and Eve, wearing sheepskins are banished from the Garden of Eden by a winged angel who holds a sword in the form of a flame. Behind the angel stands a burst of gilded rays symbolizing the tree of forbidden fruit. The second living picture traditionally showed a number of girls and smaller children surrounding a cross at center stage. The adoration represents the time in 1633 when villagers swore their vow before a huge crucifix bearing a twelve-foot-high Jesus.

Act 1 Jesus and the Money Changers. Jesus enters Jerusalem atop a donkey to the shouts and exultation's of the people on Palm Sunday. He drives the money changers and traders from the Temple then returns to Bethany.

Act 2 Conspiracy of the High Council. In the past, this act began with a tableau showing the sons of the patriarch Jacob conspiring to kill Joseph in the Plain of Dothan; the freeze was deleted from the 1980 presentation. The act consists of discussions between the traders and Sanhedrin, who agree that Jesus must be arrested to preserve Mosaic law.

Act 3 Parting at Bethany. Two tableaux presage the action. In the first, the young Tobias departs from his parents while the angel Raphael, played by another boy, waits, crook in hand, stage left. In the second, the loving bridesmaid from the Song of Solomon laments the loss of her groom. In the play, Christ is anointed by Mary Magdalene, then takes leave of his mother and friends. Judas is angered by the waste of the spikenard oil.

Act 4 The Last Journey to Jerusalem. A controversial tableau (now deleted) showed Queen Vashti dishonored at the court of King Ahasuerus. The old queen (Judaism, explains the Prologue) has been displaced by Esther (Christianity). Jesus sends two disciples to secure a Paschal lamb. He enters Jerusalem for the last time and weeps over the fate of the city. Judas contemplates betraying his master and is tempted by Dathan and other merchants.

Act 5 The Last Supper. The Passover Seder or Last Supper is celebrated in a scene evocative of the famous Da Vinci painting. Jesus washes the feet of his disciples and institutes the mass with wine and thick, brown, leavened bread. Two tableaux show Moses with rays or horns protruding from his head, bringing manna and grapes to the people in the wilderness.

Act 6 The Betrayer. In a tableau, Joseph, a boy nude to the waist, is sold by his brothers to the Midianites for twenty pieces of silver. In accompanying action, Judas appears before the Sanhedrin and promises to deliver Jesus for thirty pieces of silver. After his departure, the Pharisees plan at great length the death of Jesus.

Act 7 Jesus at the Mount of Olives. Two more Old Testament scenes introduce the soliloquy of Jesus in the Garden of Gethsemane. The first, a non-sequitur, which we are told explains that man must earn his food by the sweat of his brow, shows Adam, in sheepskin and assisted by a brood of similarly attired children, drawing a plow across a field. The second freeze more appropriately offers a helmeted Joab, surrounded by soldiers stabbing an unsuspecting Amasa in the ribs. Christ agonizes over his fate while his apostles doze. Judas enters with an armed band and betrays Jesus with a kiss.

Act 8 Jesus before Annas. The Old Testament parallel has Micah slapped on the cheek by Zedekiah, priest of Baal, for daring to predict King Ahab would die in battle. In like manner, Jesus is taken before a waiting, eager Annas and is struck on the face for his insolence. Soldiers also deride Christ as he is led though the streets by a rope.

Act 9 Condemned by the High Council. Two more tableaux emphasize the humiliation of Christ. In one, the aged Naboth is condemned by false witnesses and is stoned to death by the sons of Jezebel. In the other, Job, sitting atop a dunghill is railed at by his friends, servants, even his wife and children. Meanwhile, Jesus is questioned by Caiaphas about his messiah-ship and is condemned. A tortured Judas tries to get the Sanhedrin to repeal its verdict. When his efforts prove unsuccessful, he tosses the money back at them and storms off.

Act 10 Despair of Judas. Judas and all who identify with him are linked with Cain in the opening tableau. The battered body of Abel appears at center stage. To the right is Cain, clad in a leopard skin and holding a club in one hand. His other hand is at his brow, attempting to conceal the brand of God. In this short act Judas offers a speech of remorse then hangs himself.

Act 11 Christ before Pilate. Originally there was a freeze which heralded Christ's first appearance before Pilate. The tableau of Daniel in the great pillared hall of Darius was deleted from later twentieth-century productions. Pilate's interrogation, coupled with news of his wife's dream, convinces the governor that Jesus should be prosecuted by Herod Antipas for lese majesty.

Act 12 Christ Before Herod. The scene stands without the original living picture which showed a blinded Samson mocked by the Philistines. Herod treats Christ with scorn, demanding a miracle, then sends him back to Pilate, cloaked in a red mantle of royalty. Responding to the urging of the Sanhedrin, Pilate reluctantly agrees to have Jesus scourged. Roman guards beat Jesus and press a crown of thorns into his scalp.

Act 13 Christ Sentenced to Death on the Cross. Two graphic pictures showing the presentation of Joseph's bloodied coat to Jacob, and Abraham about to stab Isaac on Mt. Moriah have been rejected from contemporary versions of the Passion. Retained, however, are tableaux which show Joseph riding a sedan chair as vizir of Egypt and another which supposedly represents the scapegoat offering of Yom Kippur. Following the tableaux, the stage is swarming with action as priests and Pharisees bring mobs from every direction. Pilate gives Jesus another hearing then offers the people a choice between Jesus and Barabbas. They demand and receive a final judgement on Christ.

Act 14 The Way of the Cross. The final segment of the Passion is introduced by a more sublime image of the Akedah, or binding of Isaac. In this tableau, the boy, like Jesus, carries wood on his back as he and Abraham climb Mt. Moriah. Another freeze, showing Moses and a bronze serpent intertwined about the cross has been deleted, When the chorus withdraws from the stage Christ bears his cross to Golgotha. As he passes through the streets he encounters his mother, Veronica, and Simon of Cyrene. The women of Jerusalem weep for him.

Act 15 Jesus on Calvary. For the first time the chorus appears in black traditional mourning garb. There is no tableau. He is mocked by members of the Sanhedrin and the soldiers and utters his last words. The legs of the criminals are broken. A soldier pierces the side of Christ with a lance and blood gushes forth. Jesus' followers slowly and reverently take down the body and lay it before his mother in a replica of the Pieta. the Sanhedrin insists that guards be posted before the tomb which is to hold Christ's body.

Act 16 Resurrection and Apotheosis. For the first time, action precedes a tableau. Roman guards see a light at the tomb. Mary Magdalene and the other women encounter an angel and recite the same lines as Quem Quaeritis. The final tableau shows Jesus resplendent in white with his apostles, angels, the Virgin Mary, and Moses. The Passion ends with a proclamation by the chorus.<ref name=Friedman/>

Length and frequency

Template:Refimprovesect The Oberammergau production takes place in one day,<ref name=Moses>Template:Cite book</ref>Template:Page? but the running time has varied due to the many revisions that have taken place through the years.Template:Citation needed In 2010 it had a running time of 5 hours, beginning at 2:30 pm and ending at 10:00 pm, with a meal break. It was staged a total of 102 days and ran from May 15 until October 3 that year. According to a record from 1930, the play then had running time of approximately seven hours. It started at 8:00 am and ended at 5:00 pm with a meal break.<ref name=Moses/>Template:Page? Audiences come from all over the world, often on package tours, the first instituted in 1870. Admission fees were first charged in 1790. Since 1930, the number of visitors has ranged from 420,000 to 530,000. Most tickets are sold as part of a package with one or two nights' accommodation.Template:Cn

The play continues to be staged every ten years, in the final year of each decade – that is, the year whose numeral ends with a zero; hence, the next performances will be in 2020. However, these regular performances at ten-year intervals have been punctuated with additional performances such as those of 1934 (over and above the regular 1930 schedule) to commemorate the 300-year anniversary of the original vow, and again in 1984 (over and above the regular performances of 1980 and 1990) in celebration of the 350th anniversary of the first performance.Template:Cn


There were at least two years in which the scheduled performance did not take place, and one that was postponed for two years:

  • In 1770, Oberammergau was informed that all passion plays in Bavaria had been banned by order of the Ecclesiastical Council of the Elector, Maximilian Joseph, at the behest of the Roman Catholic Church. In 1780, the play was retitled The Old and New Testament. The new Elector, Charles Theodore, having been assured that the play was "purged of all objectionable and unseemly matter" approved the performance of the play. By 1830, the Catholic Church succeeded in halting the performance of all other passion plays in Bavaria. Only Oberammergau remained.Template:Cn
  • In 1940, World War II forced the cancellation of the year's scheduled performance (after having to obtain permission from the American Occupation Authorities).Template:Cn
  • The performance scheduled for 1920 was postponed to 1922 due to the economic and political tumult following the First World War.Template:Cn

The Passion Play Theatre


The Passion festival theater
File:Oberammergau Passion Play stage.JPG
View of the stage during the 2000 production

Oberammergau's original parish church proved to be far too small for performances of the Passion Play, so it was decided to hold the Play in the graveyard of the church, before the graves of the villagers who had died in the plague.

The fame of the Play must have spread quickly to the surrounding towns and villages for as early as 1674, records show that seats were to be provided for the audience.

Over the following years sets and stage mechanics were added to the simple wooden stage structure. By the middle of the 18th century it was obvious that the graveyard was also too small and a new venue was found on a field close by; however, the stage had to be specially built every year of the Play.

The first permanent stage seems to have been built in 1815 to a design by the then-local parish priest. In 1830 he was asked to help build a new, larger stage on the site of the present theatre. When it rained the audience got wet: umbrellas would have obscured the view of people sitting behind them.

However, in 1890 a new, purpose-built theatre was built and, apart from some of the scenes on the side of the stage, it would have looked much as it does today. It was ready in time for the 1900 performance, with the six-arched hall capable of holding over 4000 spectators.

The theatre was enlarged in time for the 1930 and 1934 seasons and whilst it was considered ugly and uncomfortable it was praised for its superb acoustics and sight of the stage.

Following the 1990 production both the interior and façade of the theatre were renovated and the stage mechanics modernised.

It has now been transformed - new more comfortable seating has been installed along with under-floor heating; cloakrooms have been extended; the foyer made accessible for wheelchair users; exhibition areas added; safety and toilet facilities improved.

Today the theatre can seat an audience of over 4700.

The economic impact of the Passion Play upon Oberammergau cannot be underestimated, as witness the local expression "Die Passion zahlt" ("The Passion Play will pay for it") in explaining how the Oberammergau community financed construction of a new community swimming pool, community centre, and other civic improvements.


Previous versions of the play were anti-Semitic in character, blaming the Jews for the "murder" of Christ.<ref name=Shapiro/>Template:Page? Adolf Hitler indicated, according to Abe Foxman, approval of these anti-Semitic elements in the Oberammergau Passion Play.

A 2010 review in the Jewish newspaper "The Forward" stated: "It is undeniably true that the play was virulently antisemitic through most of its history, and that it gained an extra dose of notoriety after Hitler endorsed the 1934 production."<ref name=Goldmann>Goldmann, A. J. "New Kind of Passion in an ‘Alpine Jerusalem’, Letter From Oberammergau", The Forward, May 26, 2010, issue of June 4, 2010</ref> The review noted that the Anti-Defamation League (ADL) states that the play "continues to transmit negative stereotypes of Jews" and that even the Catholic Church demanded changes to the play, to bring it more in line with church policies expressed by the Second Vatican Council, 1962–1965, in the Apostolic Constitution, Nostra Aetate no. 4, October 28, 1965 ("[T]he Jews should not be presented as rejected or accursed by God as if this followed from Sacred Scripture"). In the 1970s, Oberammergau invited representatives from Jewish organizations to revise the play, and revisions were approved by a Christian theological advisor.<ref name=Goldmann/> 2000 and 2010 director Christian Stückl told "The Forward" that Jesus "lived as a Jew." Therefore, in the revised play, Jesus and his disciples pray in Hebrew. After viewing the play, the reviewer was sympathetic to its artistry and felt less offended by its message than by "Wagner’s antisemitic caricatures and religious mysticism".<ref name=Goldmann/> Nonetheless, the review quoted a report from the Council of Centers on Jewish-Christian Relations, which reviewed the 2010 script and objected that the play still makes use of "elements that are historically dubious" from the Gospels. The review stated that "It seems unfair" to accuse the play of anti-semitism when it recounts material in Christianity’s sacred texts and noted that the ADL's national director Abe Foxman had said that if the play is "about a Crucifixion in which the Jews kill Christ, you can never clean it up enough" to avoid an anti-semetic message.<ref name=Goldmann/>

The changes to the play since World War II have included the manner in which the play presents the charge of deicide, collective guilt, supersessionism and typology, as well as the following:

  • the role of the Temple traders has been reduced;
  • the character "Rabbi" 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 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;
  • removing the line "His blood is upon us and also upon our children's children" (from Matthew 27:25), and "Ecce homo" (Behold the man);
  • 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.<ref name=Shapiro/>Template:Page?<ref name=Goldmann/>

Nazi exploitation of the 1934 jubilee season

Template:Unreferencedsect The special jubilee season of the Oberammergau Passion Play in 1934, marking the 300-year anniversary of the original vow to reenact Jesus' Passion and Suffering every ten years thereafter, was the first (and, it turned out, only) performance after the Nazi regime's rise to power the year previous. Among other things, the Ministry of Public Enlightenment and Propaganda ordered the official poster for the jubilee season amended to include the message "Deutschland ruft dich!" ("Germany is calling you!"), and the Kraft durch Freude scheme's discount-travel programme offered special cut-rate packages to the Passion Play, including rail fare, tickets and accommodations.Template:Cn

Official propaganda described the Passion Play as "peasant drama ... inspired by the consecrating power of the soil", with Hitler attending a performance (and wound up endorsing it wholeheartedly as one with the Greater Anti-Semitic Agenda of the Nazi regime). An attempt to rewrite the Passion Play script to bring it into line with Nazi ideology was rejected, however, by the more conservative element.Template:Cn

Papal protective measures to ensure soundness of doctrine

Missio Canonical is a canonical certification necessary for preaching. In 19th-century Germany it was extended to teaching as well. In 1922 the Catholic Church gave the play a Missio Canonica. It is a certification that the beliefs of the Catholic Church are being taught or, in this case, being presented.Template:Cn

See also

  • Liturgical drama
  • Medieval theatre




External links

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