THE PLAY IS THEIR LIFE
51 Performances Next Year
THE Oberammergau Passion Play is not an episode: it is the life of the village. Every aspect of life seems to turn upon it. Other events are arranged around it. Men will return from distant cities— sometimes give up lucrative jobs—to take their place in the Passion Play. Women will defer their marriages. for only unmarried women may take part. In short, to have a part in the Passion Play is not only an Oberammergau vocation, but also the privilege only of those who have lived there for at least 20 years—children excepted of course.
A year to go
IN just one year's time, on May 19, 1960, the first of 51 performances of the new season will take place. Before autumn comes many thousands of people will have travelled from distant parts of the earth to see the world's most impressive and famous presentation of the Passion and Death of Christ. At the time of the birth of Christ, Oberammergau, together with the whole of Southern Bavaria came into the hands of the Romans and was for cen
turies part of the Roman province of Rhaetia.
The origins of the Passion Play, however, go back to the Thirty Years' War. In 1632. when King Charles I was reigning in England—and some 30 years before the horrors of the plague were to reach this country—this dreaded disease spread rapidly through Germany.
The man who came back
MANY Alpine villages were affected by soldiers passing through them, but Oberammergau sealed itself off by strict control and by plague fires. Noone was allowed to leave. No outsider was admitted.
On the day of the consecration of the village church in the same year, a man who had been working at a nearby village became homesick. He succeeded in eluding the guards, joined his family—and brought the plague with him.
He died a few days later. Then 84 more villagers died in quick succession. This was an emergency. The town council went to the church and there, before the high altar, made a solemn vow to stage a play on the life and sufferings of Our Lord every 10 years if they were spared from the plague. From that moment no further deaths occurred although several people bore marks of the plague.
The first play
-"UST two years later the then 700 people of Oberammergau put on their first Passion Play with little idea that the play would continue for more than three centuries and become world famous — especially as other villages had made similar vows at the same time.
At first the play was performed in the church. Later it was moved to the cemetery in the front of the church.
But the continuance of a tradition is often beset with difficulties. By 1770 the Oberammergau play had become so wellknown that other villages which had long discarded their plays began to revive them.
the %comics' THE element of commercialism became displeasing. The religious authorities stepped in and all Passion plays were banned. Pleading persistently, Oberammergau was eventually allowed to continue although the play had later to be modified and a number of acquired crudities and episodes of "comic relief" removed, When Judas left the scene of the Last Supper. for example, the Devil used to escort him while an angel snatched the halo from his head. When Judas had' hanged himself, his body was cut down, "ripped open", and a swarm of Imps then pulled out the entrails and ate them! As the "entrails" were made of batter or sausages, the parts of the Imps were popular among the local small boys! Other deletions included tong speeches by allegorical figures representing virtues and vices.
A theatre is built
IN 1820, a wooden enclosure was built, with a stage, and this gradually developed into a theatre. In 1930 the present theatre, seating more than 5,000 people was built and further energetic arrangements were made to accommodate visitors. The number of performances given in any one year has varied considerably and on many occasions the play has for various reasons — anti-clerical governments, wars, etc., includedbeen abandoned, forbidden or postponed. But always the people of Oberamrnergau have tried again. In this century the play has been interrupted by both world wars. After performances in 1900 and 1910, diverse conditions following the 1914-1918 war caused the play to be abandoned in 1920 and transferred to 1922. That year, one of catastrophic currency inflation in Germany made it necessary to give 67 performances instead of the 31 planned but still the financial result was unsatisfactory.
60,000 were turned away
THE 1930 performance was followed by a tercentenary jubilee performance. Some 32 presentations were planned: 76 had to be given to meet the demand. Owing to the outbreak of war, the 1940 performance was cancelled, although those due to take part had already started to grow beards and learn parts. The 1950 Passion Play was the first great international event in Germany after the war. In addition to the 33 main performances for which visitors stayed three days, there were 54 repeat performances. Although every seat was soh' out for the entire 87 performances with up to 1,000 people over and above the capacity of the auditorium, no less than 60,000 applications for tickets had to be refused.
Music takes its part
WHEREAS the jubilee year with 76 performances attracted ap proximately 400,000 visitors, the 87 performances of 1950 brought in more than half a million of whom some 130,000 were foreigners: the majority from Great Britain and the U.S.A. It was not until 1810 that ,music began to take an important part in the play. The composer of the Passion Music, as it will probably be heard again next year, was a schoolmaster of Oberammergau, Rochas Dedler. Three times Dedler composed the music. First in 1811, then on the basis of a new libretto in 1815, and again in 1817, after a greater part of the music had been destroyed in a village fire.
Open air theatre
rr HE auditorium is completely covered in without destroying the character of an open-air theatre, for the stage itself is in the open with the audience looking towards the countryside—the blue sky above and the mountains in the distance. The stage scenery can be changed by means of an dectric installation in the basement of the theatre. There are no artificial lighting effects. The present stage was designed and painted by Johann Georg Lang, for many years the director of the play, and with the collaboration of Professor Diemen The Cross, which the person playing the part of Christ has to drag behind him, weighs more than 80 lbs. Back in the 18th century the players had their own individual costumes but the parish now has available more than L000 valuable costumes the majority of which are made from real and rare oriental materials and give a fine colourful effect.
GREASEP AIN T. wigs and similar stage accessories are banned. Players in major and a number of minor roles get paid for the loss of work entailed in taking part in the Passion, but it is practically unheard of for an ex-Passion Play "star" however outstanding. to accept offers in other theatrical concerns. The 1960 production will cost an immense sum to put on. It is estimated that clearing the site and preparing the stage and auditorium will cost about L215.000. In addition it is proposed to acquire premises for a permanent exhibition of the village's other world-famous art, that of woodcarving. M.C.