We arrived in Oberammergau about 10:30am, plenty of time to walk around the small village and look in the shops. We are staying the night here in the Hotel Bold, a chalet type structure of indeterminate age. It’s nicely appointed and appears to be well maintained. Lodging here in the city is very limited. Some people have to drive back to Innsbruck after the play ends. I’m glad Globus has found a place to stay here in town.
At about 2pm we started for the center for the first half of the passion play. The play is staged every 10 years on the last year of the decade. To perform or work in the play you have to be a resident of the village. I heard conflicting reports but most agree that you must live here 20 years to qualify to perform. Oberammergau only has about 3,500 residents and over 2,000 work in the play. The rest man the hotels, restaurants and shops.
The village’s residents vowed that if God were to spare them from the effects of the bubonic plague sweeping Europe, they would perform a play every ten years thereafter for all time depicting the life and death of Jesus. The death rate among adults was one in October 1632, twenty in the month of March 1633 and then one again in the month of July 1633. The villagers believed they were spared and they kept their part of the vow when the play was first performed in 1634. Over the centuries they have moved the performance to the 0 years and intermittently they perform it for special occasions. For example, they performed the play in 1934 to mark the 300th anniversary of the first play.
The first part of the play is 2.5 hours long, followed by a three-hour intermission for dinner and then back to the venue at 8pm for another 2.5 hours or so. Our seats were in the front row center, directly behind the orchestra pit. The actors are outdoors and since we are in the first row we are almost outside ourselves. The building is constructed like a huge Quonset hut or maybe like a blimp hangar. It’s closed at the back but open in the front. The capacity is just short of 5,000 and it was sold out!
The stage is about 150 feet across and is representative of a city’s main square. It has an entrance arch both on the left and right; in fact the entire stage set is symmetrical. Towards the center of the stage from the wing arches is a semicircular set of stairs leading up to a porch with two square pillars. Toward center stage again is another pair of arches and between these arches is a building with a single gable running directly away from the audience. The front of this building is almost entirely taken up with a huge opening that covered by elevator-like doors except that they open in the horizontal plane instead of the vertical. The doors are painted to look like a smaller column guarded doorway.�
The Passion Play
The play is entirely in German but Globus provided us with a libretto to follow. I know the story pretty well so I don’t think I’ll have any trouble catching the drift.
One interesting thing they do is that at the start of each act or new scene they put up a static tableau in the building at the center and then open the doors for the audience to see it. I think this procedure is called ‘tableaux vivant’. It’s a lot like what you see at the Laguna Beach Pageant of the Masters but these are original scenes, not copies of famous works of art. The tableaux are from the Old Testament and show the scene that was a foreshadowing of the New Testament event we will be seeing next.�
The villagers make all the costumes and there are no wigs or false beards used. Beginning on Ash Wednesday of the preceding year the mayor of the city issues a Hair Decree’ and from that day on the participants can’t shave or cut their hair.
The play begins with Jesus triumphal entry into Jerusalem and ends with His resurrection. In some scenes there are over 1,000 people on stage at the same time. I’m not sure which scene had the most participants, the triumphal entry or the scene where Barabbas is chosen to be released rather than Jesus. Both were huge! There are actors of all ages and a live horse, two camels and several sheep and goats.
We at dinner at the Bold and then returned at 8pm for the second half. The play was excellent!! I have been in 2-hour movies that seemed longer than this 5-hour production. The acting was fantastic, the costumes wonderful and the music and scoring were first-class. It would have been worth the whole trip over and back just to see the play. Everyone I talked to on our tour thought it was the definite highlight of our time together.
We walked back to the hotel and in just a few minutes were in bed resting comfortably while most of the attendees were taking a 1.5-hour drive to Innsbruck to their hotels. It was a great experience that I’ll remember for all time.
Rod & Diane Longenberger
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