Throughout the Middle Ages, Black Death, officially known as the bubonic plague, ravaged Europe. Spread primarily by rat fleas, sufferers could die (and still can) within a matter of days after infection. Aside from fever, muscle cramps, and lethargy, infected people experience seizures and gangrene of their extremities. It is certainly serious today, but given the lack of antibiotics and medical technology available at that time, outbreaks were of grave concern for residents of affected areas. In the mid-1300s, approximately one-third of all Europeans succumbed to the disease.
In 1633, during the Thirty Years’ War, an outbreak began in the Bavarian region of present-day Germany. While many people probably prayed for relief, the residents of the small village of Oberammergau made a vow to God to which they are still adhering today. They prayed that if God would spare them, they would produce a play every decade that celebrated the life and death of Jesus. By mid-year, the death toll had dwindled and the citizens determined that God had answered their prayer.
The next year, they performed their first Passion play, which is a performance detailing the final days of the life of Christ. The text and music were written by locals and was performed by 60-70 amateur actors. Word soon spread throughout the region. As the audience grew, so did the production.
In 2010, Oberammergau residents performed the Passion play for the 41st season. Over 2000 villagers participated in the play, performing for spectators from around the world. The play lasted five hours (not including the three-hour dinner intermission) and most amazingly, was performed from March 15-October 3 with a total of 102 performances. Rehearsals lasted for 10 months prior to opening night. Given that the performers all have lives outside of the play, it is a great time commitment for them. But the honor of being chosen is greater. In addition to the stage performers, all costume and set designers, directors, and other ancillary staff involved are from Oberammergau, as well.
Though the Oberammergau Passion play is admired around the world for its rich history and unique community culture, there have been outside attempts to suppress or control the performance. Before the 1770 performance, Passion plays were outlawed in Bavaria by the Maximilian Joseph and the Ecclesiastical Council of the Elector, an organization of the Roman Catholic Church. Oberammergau applied for special permission but was denied. In 1780, a new script was written, entitled “The Old and New Testament,” and did not refer to the Passion. In 1811, after the Passion ban was lifted, Oberammergau returned to their original story, but with a new script.
The 300th anniversary celebration in 1934 saw 440,000 people from around the world attend the performances. One of those was Adolf Hitler who attempted to use the popularity of the Passion play for propaganda purposes. Official posters proclaimed that “Germany is calling you!” and Hitler embraced the play as being in line with his anti-Semitic agenda. In the press, quotes such as “The three centuries of the passion play teach us that the loyalty between blood and ground is the hold strength of all folklore…” were used to inspire nationalism. There was even an attempt to modify the script to highlight the role of Jewish people in the death of Jesus, but it was eventually thwarted.
As many of us prepare for Easter this week, I thought this story of one small village’s dedication over the course of hundreds of years might be interesting to reflect on. The Oberammergau Passion play began as a vow between the villagers and God and despite attempts to intervene, has remained focused on the community and God. A few hundred fear-ridden people in a small Bavarian village in 1633 setting the course for an event that has touched millions of people around the world – what a beautiful thing.