I don’t recall too many conversations in my life beginning with the words: “When I was on the cross last night…”. But there was one the other week in Oberammergau, as the entire Bavarian village geared up for the opening of this year’s Passion Play. It was nigh impossible to walk into a bar or bakery without encountering a Judas, Pilate, Mary or, in this case, Jesus, anxious to discuss how things were going with their roles.
Playing a major role at Oberammergau is no small undertaking. It commands your life for maybe four months of rehearsals followed by performances that run five nights a week from May through to October, which involves considerable sacrifices – jobs and holidays on hold. And in the process, the divisions between who you play and who you are can wear thin. In those village bars and bakeries, they’ll tell you about someone who played Jesus three times in the early 20th century and took to blessing people in the street. It calls for strength of character to stay entirely grounded.
But then, Oberammergau is not a grounded business. Legendary, celebrated, it’s the grandest Passion Play of all time, running largely without interruption since the 17th century when it started in the aftermath of a pernicious 1633 plague. Gathering before a wooden crucifix that still hangs in the parish church, beleaguered villagers begged God to spare them, vowing to enact the Passion story every ten years as a mark of gratitude. By all accounts their prayers were answered, so in 1634 they built a churchyard stage and did as promised in a venture that was literally founded on the graves of those who had perished.
Through the course of the succeeding centuries the Passion Play became an institution, relocated from the churchyard into what is now a barn-like theatre with 4,000 seats. But for performers it remains a friends-and-family affair, enforced by strict rules. No one can be in the play unless they’re either born in Oberammergau or have been living there for 20 years. Which means that everyone involved is local, almost everyone is amateur (though being amateur here differs from the normal meaning of the word, because participation is akin to destiny); and with the actors, orchestra and singing chorus who appear onstage from time to time during the play’s five-hour duration, the participating head count comes to something like 2,000 – roughly half the village, most of whom will have been taking part since childhood.
“You first come onstage with your mother, holding her hand. Then as you get older you join the crowd, maybe audition for a small part, and then a larger one,” says Frederik Meyet, who understands the progression better than most, having risen through the ranks to the star role of Jesus. A theatre administrator in real life – it’s interesting how many Oberammergau residents end up working in the arts – he was also Jesus last time round in 2010, which is why he talks with some authority about the experience of being crucified.
“I was 52 times on the cross in 2010, hanging for 20 minutes night after night. And that can only affect you. It’s physically hard, if nothing else, and cold because the stage is open to the night air, though I don’t always notice because the whole process can be so intense I get into a sort of groove, so it barely registers.
“Sometimes it’s a truly spiritual experience, sometimes not. But it’s in the prayer at the Mount of Olives that I actually feel closest to Jesus, feeling the humanity, the unsureness about his mission. That I really connect with.”
Whether it has changed his life, as people like to think that playing Jesus might, is more equivocal.
“It hasn’t made me the more holy: those of us in the play are normal people, we go to the pub, we have another beer and wonder if we should. But playing Jesus, people look at you, see something in you. And it’s given me a different understanding about myself and about the Church. One thing I’ve learned is that the Catholic Church is too far removed from the words of Jesus. He’s an outsider. He’s radical. Sometimes the Church doesn’t want to know this.”
Sitting in on dress rehearsals as I did, it was immediately clear that hard contemporary rethinking has gone into Oberammergau’s portrayal of Our Lord. Peruse the fading photographs of Passion Plays long gone and you see Jesuses of plaster-saint-like piety, hands clasped in prayer. But the idea of Jesus now is more engaged, excitable and earthly. He’s a rabbi, self-possessed and with a certain swagger, caught between a sense of mission and a sense of doom.
He’s also noticeably Jewish, which is something that the Passion Plays of old were sometimes keen to overlook. There was historically an element of anti-semitism in the text, which had evolved over the years but was essentially the work of local clergy from the nearby monastery at Ettal. Efforts to revise it in a major way were stifled, not just by the Church but by the tourist industry which grew around the play and turned into big business thanks to Thomas Cook, who started sending package tours from Britain in the 1870s. There was an argument that people came, and came again, because they liked the way it was. Unchanged. And by the 1930s things had fossilised into what Hitler, who made much of Oberammergau, saw fit to hijack as a “national people’s pilgrimage”, with all the questionable implications that entailed.
For Hitler, Pilate was the hero of the story, standing “rock-like in the midst of Jewish vermin”. And not quite enough was done after the Third Reich ended to revise that idea, with the consequence that Oberammergau came under fire from leading Jewish intellectuals like Arthur Miller who demanded textual reform. It didn’t happen. But a sudden, seismic shift occurred in 1990 with the radical appointment of the stage director Christian Stückl to take charge.
In many ways the perfect candidate, Stückl was born in Oberammergau, into a family who had acted in the play for generations, and was now an eminent man of theatre with a high profile in Germany. But he wasn’t simply going to follow precedent. He wanted change, and got it – in the teeth of angry opposition – with a series of reforms that continued when he directed the play again in 2000, 2010 and through to now: the season that should have happened in 2020 but has been delayed for two years thanks to Covid.
“You know,” he says, “the joke two years ago was that we should have gone ahead with the play, to see if it could rid us of Covid as it did the plague in 1633. But I don’t think people have that kind of expectation of religious power these days, not even in Oberammergau. In any case, I’ve had some issues with the Church during my time here.
“There had been so many rules about how the Passion must be done and who could do it: my father in the 1950s was barred from playing Jesus because he was married to a Protestant. Absurd or what? Until 1990 women could only take part if they were unmarried and under 35 – don’t ask me why. We had to go to the high court in Munich to challenge that.
“And then there was the text, which people refused to alter because they thought it wasn’t so much theatre as Holy Mass. Well, sometimes Holy Mass can be boring. You have to find an energy, a life in what happens. This I try to do.”
Watching him in rehearsal, the energy of Christian Stückl is explosive. Even with reform there’s still a lot of text (in German), and it’s ponderous: the five hours take their toll. But he’s engaged: as the cast will tell you, he’s the most passionate of Passion Play directors. And he keeps it moving, though a large part of his task is traffic management, herding the crowds of people on the stage (along with a menagerie of well-groomed animals, including camels) into order.
Above all, he has a sense of purpose. His priority is making theatre, but he’s not unmindful of the spiritual responsibilities he bears.
“I want to show the life of Jesus rather than the death: this is my focus. And I tell the priests in Oberammergau, with whom I have interesting exchanges: this is your big chance. For a whole year people will talk of nothing but your story. Make it understandable, meaningful, human, so the audience can really feel who Jesus was. This is an opportunity. So seize it.”
The 2022 Oberammergau Passion Play runs until October 2. For more information, visit passionplay-oberammergau.com
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