Experiencing the Passion Play

Oberammergau Travel Blog

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Oberammergau

Oberammergau, Germany, is the location of the famous Passion Play produced every ten years. The tradition began in 1634 in thanksgiving for the town having been spared during the Bubonic Plague. The play is cast and produced entirely by the residents of this Bavarian town. I was fortunate to be able to be there to see the 1970 production of this legendary, and often controversial, dramatic work.

In Oberammergau, the townsfolk open their homes to the throngs of visitors coming to see the play. We stayed with a family at their home right in the town. Our homestay family consisted of a mother, father, and teenage daughter, about 17. Dad and daugther were in the play, but not Mom. They kindly provided meals as well as a place to stay.

Decorated Woodcarver Shop

Cast members all had color photo postcards of themselves costumed for their roles. At breakfast, the daughter gave us the photos of herself and her dad. She was seated, holding a lyre, and he was in robes as a member of the ensemble chorus. The daughter knew English very well and so did all the talking and interpreting. She told us a bit about being in the play. She had also been in the 1960 production when she'd been a child. She knew the actor playing Jesus and most of the cast. The town really got caught up in the production, and townspeople called one another by their character's name once rehearsals were underway.

I said I'd be sure to watch for her appearance. Her dad was not going to be in show that day, as he had to go out of town on business.

Program Book
He came through, briefcase in hand, at breakfast to say farewell to everyone. I gathered he was in the military or the defense business. Like all the other men in the cast, he'd let his hair grow very long for his character. "I tell him he is a Hippie now!" the girl joked as she noted that was outside his usual appearance.

After breakfast, we looked around the town to see the decorated woodcarver shops and painted storefronts before heading for the Passionstheater. We arrived early to take our seats. The theatre was nearly empty and we watched as the other spectators came in. The seats were very good, near the center in the orchestra.

The program described the piece as "A religious festival play in three sections and 18 tableaux vivants.

Passion Play Chorus
" The performance was long, lasting nearly seven hours, ending in the early evening. As the New Testament story of Jesus unfolded, tableaux representing Old Testament stories were interspersed. There were musical interludes and introductions. Many parts were static. Yet, it held one's attention. I did indeed see our blond hostess, in several of the tableaux.

What to compare it with? Bach's St. Matthew Passion is nearly three hours in length. A performance of Wagner's Parsifal is about five hours and his Ring cycle, on German mythology, occupies some 18 hours spread over four days. Seeing the Passion Play demonstrated how those works clearly have roots in the German festival play tradition.

On the way our of the theatre, I heard a surprised "Andy!"  My high school principal from Los Angeles had attended the same performance! I had graduated the previous year, so we caught up. You never know who you'll meet when traveling.

spocklogic says:
I went hiking in the Alps at Oberammergau in 2007 with a German family. I didn't get to explore the town there, but it's a beautiful region in Germany. The views from the Alps there are spectacular.
Posted on: Jan 24, 2012
euphemy says:
I think I saw this play featured on Globetrekker. Thanks for describing it. :)
Posted on: Sep 13, 2007
sylviandavid says:
Andy, What a small world: running into your high school principal 1/2 across the world! We are from California & saw some people we knew in Florida but it pales next to yours.... Happy travels! Sylvia
Posted on: Sep 11, 2007
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Oberammergau
Oberammergau
Decorated Woodcarver Shop
Decorated Woodcarver Shop
Program Book
Program Book
Passion Play Chorus
Passion Play Chorus
Jesus brought before Herod
Jesus brought before Herod
The Ressurrection
The Ressurrection
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Oberammergau
photo by: spocklogic