In Bavaria, home of a world-famous sudsfest every September, preparations are well under way for another, less raucous event. In 2010, the Oberammergau Passion Play, first performed in 1634 in the small mountain town an hour’s drive south of Munich, will once more draw visitors from around the world to an unforgettable theatrical experience rooted in a southern German tradition of bringing the story of Christ’s crucifixion to the stage.
With next year’s performances scheduled between 15 May and 3 October, Oberammergau continues to honor a pledge its townspeople made almost four centuries ago. In the years before 1633, at least half of the town’s families had lost one or more members either to the Swedes sweeping through the region during the Thirty Years War or to the bubonic plague. Devastated by wars and disease, the villagers pledged to God that they would perform a play depicting the story of Christ’s crucifixion if they would be spared from further ravages. Oberammergau's plague-related death rate slowed and then declined completely. The following year on Pentecost, at the cemetery near graves of friends and family members who had recently perished from either plague or war, the townspeople fulfilled their promise.
The 2010 production will mark the 41st time the citizens of Oberammergau have worked together to honor the original promise. With an on-stage cast of 2000 and at least an equal number of people providing behind-the-scenes support, the Passion Play requires a massive effort and commitment on the part of town’s 5000 residents. In this age of commercialism, the play remains an authentic, local effort, a product of the town's history and tradition.
The town, not the local church or clergy, holds the responsibility for organizing the Passion Play. On the night of 18 April 2009, the town council and the Passion Play’s managing organization announced the cast. And with that announcement, all men in town who had roles in the play began growing beards—even the police and soldiers, who have special dispensation to look a bit scruffy. Walking down the streets of Oberammergau today, a visitor might think he had wandered into a haven for aging hippies rather than into the midst of a cherished religious tradition. The original requirement that performers must have been born in Oberammergau has become somewhat less restrictive and now anyone who has lived in the village for 20 years and is in good standing is eligible for a role. Women finally won the right to be in the cast in 1990, when a Bavarian court ruled that married women must be allowed stage roles.
Visitors watch performances in the 4700-seat open-air theater built in 1929, which has been outfitted with a roof to protect audiences during the frequent summer rains. In the years when the Passion Play is not performed, concerts and operas take over the stage during the summer months. Behind-the-scenes tours are also available—and the guides are often former or current participants in the performances who provide insider information on some of the intriguing details behind the performances, such as the artificial blood used in the crucifixion scene and the hollow wooden cross outfitted with mountain climbing equipment to help support the actor playing the role of Christ.
The performance of the 2010 version will last about seven hours. For the first time, the play will begin in the afternoon, break for a three-hour dinner intermission and then continue through the evening. Previously, performances began in the morning, broke for lunch and continued throughout the afternoon.
Right now is the time to firm up plans to attend a performance. Tickets are mandatory—and most visitors will need a package which includes hotel and meals. For further information, click here.