3: Oberammergau

Sacred Spaces 3: OBERAMMERGAU

We are justly proud of our medieval Mystery Plays in York, which tell the story of the Bible from Creation to the Last Judgement.


Oberammergau is a small village in Bavaria in South Eastern Germany, near the Austrian border and the fairytale castle of Neuschwanstein.  It is famous for its beautiful wood carvings.

But it is even more famous for its Passion Play, which has been performed throughout the summer every 10 years since 1634.  Unlike the Mystery Plays, the Passion Play here is based on Holy Week only, from Jesus riding into Jerusalem on a donkey on Palm Sunday, through the trials and crucifixion, and ending with the resurrection.


The play is the result of a promise made by the inhabitants that if God spared them from the bubonic plague, then they would perform a passion play every 10 years.  One man had died from the plague and it had begun to spread, but after the vow was made no one else died.


One unique feature is that everyone who is involved in the play - actors, musicians, technicians - are all residents of the village.  About half of the 5,000 residents are involved in the play, and many others are involved in hospitality, or selling local woodcrafts and other goods.


As it is now so well known internationally, visitors are only able to stay two nights at most; the day before and after the play.  As that is a short time for a long journey, tour operators often make the play part of a longer tour.


In 2010 I travelled with a group from St Thomas, Osbaldwick, and Middlesbrough.  We were based by Lake Garda, from where we visited Venice, Verona and the Dolomites, before travelling over the Brenner Pass to Innsbruck and on to Oberammergau.  Our group stayed in a delightful traditional Gasthaus a few miles outside Oberammergau.


In the past, performances lasted all day with a break for lunch.  But now the morning is free to explore the village and listen to an introduction by some of the cast, before a performance in the afternoon and evening, with a break for a meal.  We were taken to a delightful restaurant for lunch and dinner, overlooking the village and countryside.


Listening to the cast was fascinating and humbling.  There is still a spiritual feeling in the preparations and performances.  We were told that many families pass down their roles to the next generation.  We heard from one man that his grandfather asked for his centurion’s costume to be brought to him as he lay dying.


The excitement starts early in the season when, after auditions, the names of those to play the main parts, are posted up in the village.  Unlike the Mystery Plays, where we do engage a professional actor to play Jesus, in Oberammergau everyone is a local amateur.


The theatre is now very pleasant, comfortable and under cover for the audience, although not the stage.  The play is of course in German, but I think we all know the story.  And the script, with a translation in your own language, is available.


The play has a chorus, a choir, similar to that in a Greek tragedy, which fulfils the function of a narrator, commenting on the action.  We were impressed with their elegant and dignified presence.


One very unusual feature is the use of ‘tableaux vivants’. 

A scene from the Old Testament is linked to a scene in the Passion story, and is presented as a still tableau.

The first tableau is a picture of Adam and Eve being driven out of paradise by an angel with a sword with flames.  This is followed by the first scene of Jesus riding into Jerusalem on a donkey, and his going into the temple to turn over the tables of the money changers.


We were very impressed with the large crowd scenes, encompassing all ages and yet moving with great fluidity.  We were amazed by all the live animals involved; goats, sheep, horses, and even a well behaved camel!


During the very moving crucifixion scene there was a rumble of thunder amongst the mountains behind the stage, and which added to the atmosphere.


I found the whole experience very moving.  Apart from the subject of the play and the terrific organisation involved, it was so impressive to see the commitment of one village the size of Haxby or Wigginton.  I brought back with me a delicate carved cross with the nativity carved inside. 


Sadly it is my one casualty from my move to Haxby.  Maybe I need to return and buy another?

A marvellous experience if you have the opportunity to go . . . .


(Dianne Cox with help from Sue Pearson and her much more precise memory!)

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