Wednesday, November 10, 2010

The Passion Play at Oberammergau

By Msg. Tom Stack

THE PASSION Play is staged in the small Bavarian town of Oberammergau every 10 years. When I made it to Oberammergau just before this year’s production ended its run, I fulfilled a long-standing, though irresolute, ambition. Concluding on October 3rd, after 102 performances over its 4½-month run, it had been seen by some 500,000 fans, drawn from both Germany and the wider world.

Remarkably, the event is completely “home grown”. The 98-strong dramatis personae are all recruited locally. It is reckoned that from the small town population of roughly 5,000, approximately 2,400 – that is almost half the inhabitants – are involved in one way or another in the production – as performers, choir members, musicians or stage hands. The state-of-the-art, roofed auditorium seats almost 5,000.

The large stage area is, however, constructed in the open air, its dramatic backdrop furnished by the mountainous, tree-clad, alpine landscape.

This produces the unusual sensation of being somehow indoors and outdoors at the same time. The play itself provides a spectacular theatrical experience, calculated to appeal to both Christian believers and unbelievers alike. It embraces a variety of art forms: acting, sculptured tableaux, superbly drilled choreography, live orchestral music and period biblical costumes.

The entire German text of the play is printed in the programme and is supplemented by a full English-language version, with other translations also available. Next to me at the performance which I attended were two ladies from Osaka poring over their Japanese text.

The play is folk theatre in origin and still retains its strong traditional outline and flavour since its inauguration almost 400 years ago. It was first presented in 1634 and has continued almost without interruption at 10-year intervals ever since.

The circumstances of its origin are significant. During the Thirty Years War, widespread plague ravaged Bavaria. The Oberammergau community vowed to represent the suffering, death and resurrection of Jesus in theatrical form, as a Christian memorial. Providentially, from then on the townspeople were spared further deaths in their vicinity, which was construed by them as a special blessing.

Cumulative experience and contemporary visual and audio technology have enabled the Oberammergau Passion Play to evolve in terms of its staging and presentation. This has strengthened its emotional impact.

The modern text, too, though faithful to the Gospel narratives, is, I believe, racier than of yore. Interestingly the traditional Passion segment of the story is not confined to the events of Holy Week (Palm Sunday to Easter Sunday) but also skilfully interpolates earlier episodes in the public ministry of Jesus, such as his teaching on the Beatitudes in the Sermon on the Mount (Luke 6:20). The text also reveals the Jesus character interacting with women in a way undreamt of by orthodox religious figures of the day. His approach to female figures in the story is counter-cultural, such is the dignity and respect which he unfailingly accords them. I recall, above all, the poignancy of the scene in which Jesus lifts to her feet the cowering “woman taken in adultery” and as her accusers slink away, asks “Has no one condemned you? Neither do I condemn you . . .” (John 10:10). A timeless moment of forgiveness.

At Bethany there is the delicacy of the Nazarene’s encounter with the woman named Magdalena in the script who is admonished by two of the disciples as she makes an extravagant gesture of esteem towards Jesus which he, in contrast, graciously affirms (Matthew 26:10). There is the confrontation with the merchants whom he ousts from the temple (Matthew 21:12) and the drama of “truth speaking to power” as the prisoner appears before Pilate (Luke 6:2).

The play lasts something over five hours (with an intermission). The narrative, however, never flags. The artistic excellence of the production is sustained throughout and one is swept along by the momentum of the story which edges towards the heart of the Christian mystery.

What is in the end most special about the Oberammergau experience is that it delivers the pristine quality of the Gospel story in a singular way. And for me it was a day well spent.

Tom Stack

Published in the Irish Times (An Irishman's Diary) November 8th 2010