We arrived a day early. The two streets comprising the small Bavarian village were almost completely abandoned, but by the early hours of the next morning, swarms of fanny-packed travelers trotted behind priests perspiring under white collars in the unbearable summer humidity. Brightly colored flags on little sticks bobbed above the sea of people, announcing various tour and pilgrimage companies. We were all here to witness the same once-a-decade spectacle.
The Passionsspiele Oberammergau, an all-day theatrical production of the passion put on by local residents, is thought to be the oldest continuous amateur theatre production in the world. Men who wish to participate are instructed to stop shaving after Ash Wednesday, so that by summer they sport bushy (and one can only imagine uncomfortable) beards for the production. A local donkey is prepared to carry this year’s Jesus. Elaborate tableaus of Biblical scenes are painstakingly constructed. A choir of over one hundred local participants diligently practices the five-hour passions setting by the composer Rochus Dedler (1779–1822), himself a local. Two thousand costumes are dusted off and tailored. The outdoor theatre is made ready. The shopkeepers prepare for an influx of tourists seeking a hand-carved Jesus or Mary as a memento of their trip.
It all began in 1633 when the plague tore through the small village, killing almost half its population. In desperation, the villagers vowed that if God would spare them from further devastation, they would stage a “play of the passion, death, and resurrection of our Lord Jesus Christ” every ten years. And so, with occasional interruptions (including the Napoleonic conflict, the Spanish flu, and World War II), they have faithfully done. Over the last two centuries, as travel became more accessible, the small village’s ten-yearly fulfilment of their vow has attracted hundreds of thousands of tourists, theatre goers, and even pilgrims. Audience members ranging from the Queen of England to the King of Thailand, the media tycoon William Hearst to the young existentialists Jean Paul Sartre and Simone de Beauvoir, to future popes and cardinals galore (Benedict and Pius XI) have come, drawn by their various motivations, cultural and religious.
Most notoriously, in 1934 Adolf Hitler attended the Passionsspiele, praising it for possessing a “parching strength of the home soil … of significance for the Reich.” The town seemed unrepentant about both Hitler’s endorsement of the play and its stereotyped and problematic portrayal of Jews as being responsible for the death of Christ. The play resumed with no significant revisions in 1950, earning the stern criticism of figures like Arthur Miller and Leonard Bernstein, and being described as “one of the most anti-Semitic presentations anywhere in the world” by Rabbi Marc Tanenbaum, interreligious officer of the American Jewish Committee in 1980.
Only in 1990 did the play undergo a substantial rewrite, under the guidance of Christian Stückl, first appointed as the director of the play at the tender age of twenty-seven. Stückl narrowly avoided being voted out of office by the largely conservative population of the town largely because he allowed Protestants and Muslims to join the production (previously the cast had been Catholic), and he dropped the restrictions against married women and women over thirty-five. Stückl oversaw the modernization of the script, taking onboard a Jewish advisory panel to help expunge what he describes as the anti-Semitic “overtones” of the script. However, for all these changes, the core of the Passionsspiele remains the same: a dramatic production of the final days of the life of Jesus, focusing on his suffering and death. And this is a tradition reaching much further back than 1633.
In the Middle Ages, reflecting the strong warrior culture of the time, Christ was primarily portrayed as a triumphant hero on the cross, stoic and detached. Even in death, he did not lose his serenity and sense of control, remaining a pillar of strength. But by the twelfth century there was an increasing emphasis on taking the humanity of Christ seriously. Believers were encouraged to meditate on the suffering of Christ, to stir up emotion and empathy in a way that led to sorrow, contrition, and conversion. By the year AD 1000, Christ began to be portrayed in art not as triumphantly standing on the cross, but suffering and dying, if not already dead. It was the beginning of something very important in the history of western Christendom, a whole devotional trend of portraying Christ more realistically on the cross, both in art and in imagination. This significant aesthetic shift is described as “one of the greatest revolutions in feeling that Europe has ever witnessed.”
Medieval spiritual masters taught that preparation for Easter involved an awareness that began with the Passion and culminated on Good Friday. Devotional practices like the Stations of the Cross, where one prayerfully follows in the footsteps of Christ in the walk to Golgotha, developed to help Christians imaginatively enter into the story of Christ and claim it as their own. Medieval thinkers like the Franciscan Minister General Bonaventure produced many artistic and literary works (including plays) which sought to teach people how to fruitfully meditate on the Passion. Bonaventure and his ilk considered meditation as key to healthful spiritual practice. He writes: “He who desires to go on advancing from virtue to virtue, from grace to grace, should meditate continually on the Passion of Jesus,” adding that “there is no practice more profitable for the entire sanctification of the soul than the frequent meditation of the sufferings of Jesus Christ.”
We were meant to experience sorrow and suffering fully because loss is real, and because the unjust death of Christ was not merely a prelude to victory, but a real desolation.
In various texts Bonaventure instructs his readers how to do this, namely by mentally placing ourselves in the passion story, imagining oneself watching the events unfold, remembering the innocent One who suffers for mankind, and allowing oneself to be moved to compassion, contrition, and ongoing conversion. His hope is that as readers inhabit the story, they will be transformed into Christ’s likeness; Christ shares in our suffering to redeem us, and we share in his to become like him. This type of meditation proved very fruitful for many Christians, but there was great liberty when it came to method. According to the spiritual writer Gertrude of Helfta (1256–c. 1302), even taking the time to gaze quietly with a loving heart upon a crucifix is a powerful way to remind ourselves of the true meaning of Good Friday. Particularly in the late Middle Ages and into the early modern period, some found spiritual elevation in meditating on the wounds and sufferings of Christ in all its gory details, using graphic images of the passion to do so.
In a fourteenth-century world marked by plague and endemic warfare, Brigitta of Sweden took great solace in thinking in detail about the extent of the wounds of Christ, from his scourging and crowning with thorns, to carrying the cross, to the crucifixion itself. The fourteenth-century Franciscan Angela of Foligno, who spoke often of resting in the Crucified Love, also counseled a detailed consideration of the wounds of the Passion as the way to spiritual elevation. There was a cathartic value to these spiritual practices; by living in the story of Christ’s passion, one’s own suffering was transfigured, made meaningful, understood in a new light. Christ identified with your suffering, but in that identification, redeemed you. To read Bonaventure’s Tree of Life, or to walk the Stations of the Cross, or, indeed, to watch (or better yet, participate in) a Passionsspiele was to live inside that story and be changed by it. It’s a dramatic entry into a world where death and injustice and transgression are experienced, confronted, and overcome.
It was this story that I was prepared to enter on that hot summer afternoon in Oberammergau. I expected to feel many things, but what I felt most surprised me: betrayal.
The play is astonishing. It opens with hundreds of chorus members dressed in simple, timeless, and yet plausibly medieval attire inviting the audience to enter into the story of Christ’s suffering. Seamlessly, the black clad chorus mingles and then disappears into the stage cast clad in first century garb, reminding the viewer of the ubiquity of crowds, bustle, anguish in all ages – Christ’s time not so different from the 1600s, nor the 1600s from our own. The opening sequence is a compelling invitation to inhabit the story of the passion as your own story.
This year Christ is played by Fredrik Mayet, a forty-one-year-old father of two. His portrayal is electric. A taut, angry energy surges across the stage as he rides in on a donkey, the chorus singing “hosanna.” I felt unbidden tears spring into my eyes, and a lump rise in my throat – my friend also wiped a tear away – and at this point we were not ten minutes into the play! The story begins in the middle of Christ’s ministry and the first thirty minutes are very text heavy, a recitation, in essence, of the Sermon on the Mount. There is something of Pasolini’s Jesus in Mayet’s portrayal: a Marxist young man, “political, more angry, someone looking for social justice,” as Mayet himself puts it. But Jesus does not disappear behind this political anger; Mayet brings Jesus’ words to life, making them dance across the stage like sparks from an untamed fire.
There is something very compelling, I realized, in seeing someone recite Jesus’ teachings as Jesus; not as a pastor expounding upon the Beatitudes for “practical applications” or a scholar debating the meaning of “blessed,” but the man himself, rebuking, appealing, demanding, consoling, taking children into his arms. I was moved, immersed, just as Bonaventure would want.
But things began to fall apart in the last supper. The second act of the Passionsspiele was plagued by a flaw which one would imagine almost impossible in the passion narrative: boredom. The very scenes which should be most charged with emotional impact and narrative tension fell flat. The last supper was awkwardly staged. No one sat down, but instead lingered around the table like they were about to leave. Jesus did not, as he does in the Gospel of John, remove his tunic and gird himself about with a towel, but instead walked up to each (standing) disciple and wiped the top of their feet in a somewhat menacing manner. The reason for the awkwardness began to become clear to me at the breaking of the bread. Jesus offered it to them saying, “Take, eat. Do this in remembrance of me”; the strange but essential “this is my body” was conspicuously omitted. Strange, I thought. Perhaps it was out of respect for the sacrament.
I began to realize that the script made small alterations to the original text of the Passionsspiele (and, indeed, to the gospels themselves) that irredeemably sapped key moments in the narrative of their emotional power. “What is truth,” asked Pilate, an actor with a gripping stage presence, only to then answer his own question forgettably (notably, the question is left unanswered in the gospels). Then there was the Garden of Gethsemane. There, Jesus addresses his prayers not to God, but to an unexplained angel in the garden. The very crux of the emotional anguish Jesus experiences in the garden is precisely that he is alone, abandoned by his closest friends and, seemingly (though impossibly) even by God the Father. The anticlimax continued during the crucifixion itself when, though distraught, his disciples and followers keep reminding themselves that he predicted this and everything will be OK, in utter contradiction to the gospels themselves, which portray Christ’s followers as confused, in denial, and desolated by his crucifixion.
The final scene opens when Mary of Magdalen and the other women go to the tomb to dress Jesus’ body. There, an angel comes to Mary and tells her that Christ is risen, and she goes back to tell the disciples. But this scene subtly omits a factor which makes all the difference; in the gospels it is not an angel who greets Mary of Magdalene at the tomb, but Jesus himself.
As the curtain fell across the enormous stage, the crowd rose to their feet. With a stubbornness and anger unfamiliar to me, I found myself resolutely planted in my seat, determined to neither clap nor stand. The strong implication of the final scene is that Jesus probably did not rise from the dead and Mary only felt that he was resurrected in her heart. It was a textbook liberal interpretation of the gospels (which, after all, the Germans did invent): Jesus was a good, loving, radical teacher who died, and stayed dead, but whose legacy lived on. I couldn’t help but see an irony in this “progressive” adaptation that seems to invalidate the testimony of a woman much in the same way her own culture would; she is only mad with grief, we are left to think.
But as I stepped into the stuffy summer night, I began to realize that it wasn’t just the secularization of the gospel story that had left me feeling betrayed; they hadn’t allowed me to feel desolate. At every moment that should have been crushing (the crucifixion, the agony in Gethsemane, the inquisition before Pilate), some fabricated assurance was inserted to alleviate any real anxiety on the part of the audience. This total lack of both stakes and payoff in the narrative left the play feeling limp, pointless – as though it was trying and failing to be vaguely inspirational.
It’s nothing very novel; a secular production team aiming to create a secular production, “relevant” for modern viewers, without all the difficult to understand and difficult to believe bits (like the resurrection), Jesus portrayed as one of the many good but persecuted teachers, like Martin Luther King Jr. or Gandhi. No doubt many of the changes were made to make sure that no antisemitism remained even in implication. This is good and just and necessary. What seemed strange to me was an unwillingness to call the story what it is: deeply depressing. It shields us from a brutal truth of history; these sorts of teachers usually die and stay dead, often at the hands of governments, for their dedication to making a better world. If you are going to secularize the story, why hide from this devastation?
And the irony is that such an avoidance of sorrow completely defeats the point of the art created in this era. Passion plays ended with the entombment; the Passion was the purview of Holy Week, while the resurrection was saved for Easter. Art surrounding the Passion was not meant to be inspiring and uplifting; it was meant to invite viewers to grieve, to suffer, to be moved by Christ’s death. As the overwhelming chorale in Bach’s Saint Matthew Passion, reminiscent of the opening choir in the Passionsspiele, cries, “Come, ye daughters, help me lament.” These works of art were meant to show us that Christ identifies with us in our suffering, allowing us to admit the full breadth of its terrifying dominion over our lives. We were meant to experience these emotions fully because loss is real, and because the unjust death of Christ was not merely a prelude to victory, but a real desolation. Surely, even those who do not share a belief in the Christian story can agree that the death of the good prophets of history, crushed under the wheels of bureaucracy and capital, is a real, deep loss. That to try to make some inspirational story out of their deaths is grotesque. There is nothing inspirational in the violent murders of inspirational people.
But, of course, it was not only the passion and death of Christ that the occupants of Oberammergau promised to portray; it was also the resurrection. And in robbing viewers of the experience of just sorrow, we were also robbed of the possibility of something else: the unexpected and complete victory over death that has made this story so thrilling. In this Passionsspiele, gone are the tears of Mary, who in affectionate grief weeps, “they’ve taken my Lord away and I do not know where they have put him.” But gone, too, is Jesus’ gentle utterance, “Mary,” which causes her sorrow to turn to sudden and complete relief, jubilation, and restitution.
We need to be able to grieve in this world, to call loss what it is. But I think, too, that we need to preserve the possibility of hope. For that reason, I hope that someday Oberammergau will learn to keep its vow again, to produce a “play of the passion, death, and resurrection of our Lord Jesus Christ,” a play that offers the same wisdom as those medieval devotional practices and aesthetic works devoted to the Passion sought to teach: that suffering is real and devastating, and that it is not final.
William P. Hyland contributed to this article with research and reporting on the history of Passion plays.