Pilgrimage to Oberammergau 2010
Article and pictures by John Patten, September 2010
Comments on the Passionspele, August 2010
The passion play at Oberammergau was an enlightening, rousing, gripping, horrifying, but also wonderful experience. I am very pleased I made the effort to see it, even though I had to travel half way round the world to be there.
The Passionspele, which originated as the result of a vow made by this small Bavarian town’s inhabitants in 1633 – to perform a passion play every 10 years in thanksgiving for being spared from the Plague epidemic sweeping Europe at the time – is still changing its form in subtle ways, but it remains a major drawcard for Christians from around the world.
The 2010 Passion play, for instance, was performed as an afternoon-evening event – instead of a morning-afternoon event – for the first time this year. Previous bans on married women taking part, and also women over the age of 35 – have been removed. Sensitivities that Jewish communities have previously expressed about the play being anti-Jewish were addressed through changes to the text made before the 2000 Passionspele.
The play is still performed, with backstage support, only by people who have lived at least 20 years in the town. The only exception to this rule is that some musicians in the orchestra and certain members of the 110-strong choir may be drawn from other areas. Almost half the total population of the town has some role in the production. Previous controversy over whether the Passionspele constituted a church service or a play has long since been resolved, and the version we see today is quite clearly a play.
Though some Western nations’ commitment to Christianity has been wavering in recent times, the passion play at Oberammergau continues as a huge attraction, attended by more than 500 000 people during the summer months of the passion play year. The huge auditorium, open to the skies at one end, seats nearly 5 000 people at a sitting.
I think the decision to move the play into an afternoon-evening slot was a happy one not only for the townspeople, who gain commercially but also for the visitors attending the play. The mornings can now be used by tourists to wander around the attractive town and view (and buy?) goods from the large assortment of carvings and other memorabilia on display while enjoying the ambience of a town with a distinctly old-world feel to it.
Handling the vast crowds attracted to the town is admirably efficient. Along with thousands of others, I was booked into accommodation in the category of my choice for two nights either side of the performance, with lunch and dinner vouchers provided as part of the ticket price. Tickets are issued, to those who have booked seats, only when they arrive at their accommodation. My hostess at the accommodation I chose went to special lengths to ensure a happy stay, even offering me an umbrella against the drizzle and a blanket against the cold night air. Her husband even gave me a free telephone call to be in touch with my daughter, Natasha, who stayed the night outside the town. He said the free call was “for South Africa”.
The play is, of course, performed entirely in German, but the full text is given to each ticketholder – in German and English – and it is possible to follow word by word in the booklet as the play develops. I preferred to read the text outside of the performance, but there were many who followed the script during the performance, even bringing torches to read the script during the night’s second act. I think ticketholders who did that missed quite a lot, because it isn’t easy to keep track of the text in English while it is spoken in German and at the same time watch the action.
The play is performed on a very wide stage, stretching across the width of the very large auditorium. The choir sang many of its choruses in a single-line formation stretching across the entire width of the stage, though there were also times when they formed two banks of singers on either side of the stage.
There were several entrances onto the stage, used for different purposes, with an inner stage set back and an even smaller stage inset into that. These entrances and the inset stages each had their particular roles, very suitable to the production.
The play covers the period from Palm Sunday to the crucifixion and resurrection of Christ, details of which are very well known to most Christians. Nevertheless seeing the re-enactment of these scenes before one’s very eyes makes it much starker and more alive than brief readings at church services can ever achieve.
At the start, the mood is uplifting, with followers of Jesus thronging onto the stage shouting “Hosanna” as Jesus arrives on the back of a donkey. As the play proceeds, however, the mood becomes ever more ominous. The music sung by the chorus adds greatly to the atmosphere. I was very impressed with the choir, and especially the soprano soloist. The music was specially composed for the passion play and at all times captures the mood intended. The play follows a pattern of tableaux running into each other, interspersed by choruses and solos from the choir.
I liked the scene of Jesus confounding his critics who confronted him with the question: “Is it just to pay taxes to the emperor?” He asked to see the tax coin and whose head was on the coin (the emperor’s) and then replied: “Then give to the emperor what is the emperor’s, and give to God what is God’s!”
Most poignant was his decisive intervention to prevent the stoning to death of a woman caught in adultery. Caiaphas said Moses ordered such a woman to be stoned. Should he show her mercy? With the crowd shouting “Stone her!”, Jesus wrested a huge stone from one of the demonstrators, and said: “He who is without sin among you, let him cast the first stone.” The crowd slowly turned away, leaving the woman humble at Jesus’s feet. It is an account that is well known, but was no less poignant for that.
More detail than we are used to in church service readings was provided in several places. The debate between Pontius Pilate and the head of the Jewish High Council, Caiaphas, over the significance or otherwise of the following Jesus was attracting was particularly interesting. Caiaphas, at that point, took the line that Jesus was an “<em>insignificant itinerant preacher</em>” while Pilate said “<em>it is always such insignificant itinerant preachers who instigate revolt and rioting under the guise of divine mission and bring people to religious fanaticism</em>”. Caiaphas assures Pilate that no one is plotting riots or revolt, but Pilate threatens to take back from the High Priest all the powers he has extended to him if there is trouble.
Later, before the High Council, Caiaphas (perhaps now made afraid of Roman intervention against him) has changed his tune and says “<em>Emboldened by his success, the Galilean will proclaim himself king of Israel. This frivolous dreamer will cause turmoil in our city. If we want to silence the Galilean, we must act immediately.</em>”
Caiaphas tells the High Council it would be too dangerous to try to arrest Jesus during the festival, because of the following surrounding him, and that they should try to capture him silently, with cunning.
Judas bursts on this scene asking what the council wants Jesus for. Caiaphas says Jesus is speaking harsh words against the council and doesn’t accept advice from the elders. To this answer, Judas challenges him by saying he has heard they want to kill Jesus.
Caiaphas replies; “Who talks such nonsense?” Judas says his friendship with Jesus has grown cold. Caiaphas says he would like to speak to Jesus, perturbed by what the Romans might think of the disturbances in Jerusalem. He says he thinks highly of Jesus and wants to speak to him for that reason. “I want to search for him the way a shepherd searches for his sheep if they have strayed from the flock.” He asks Judas to show where Jesus withdraws at night. And so Judas agrees to take Caiaphas’s men to find Jesus, accepting 30 pieces of silver as reward. As Judas leaves, Caiaphas says “Everything is set up perfectly. Soon the false prophet will be in our hands.” It is already apparent that he has tricked Judas.
What I have never heard from church readings was the indignation of Judas when he realised he had been tricked.
In the next scene, he challenges the high priests on their intentions. “You are taking him through the city like a criminal. Caiaphas demanded he be brought to him silently.”
Rather than getting satisfaction, he is thanked for his clever collaboration and told “You have done your duty. Now leave.” Judas accuses them of wanting to kill Jesus and is told “Not until he is dead will the storm in Caiaphas’s heart abate.”
Judas objects that this was not the purpose for which he delivered Jesus to them. He doesn’t want to be responsible for his death. The reply is that it isn’t necessary for him to take responsibility. Jesus is now in the power of the high priests.
Judas says he doesn’t want Jesus to die, but is told “Whether you approve or not, he still must die.”
Later Judas wanders aimlessly, blaming himself for leading Jesus to his death. “Oh, the agonies of hell are tormenting my heart and soul.” He goes before the council demanding Jesus’s release. “Woe to you, Caiaphas. You condemn and murder innocence.” He says there is no rest for him or for Jesus. The blood of innocence cries out to Heaven.
Questioned by Caiaphas, he says “You want to hand over to death him who is free of any guilt. I have betrayed the righteous one. Punish me, Caiaphas, but spare Jesus!” He accuses the high priest of making him a traitor and he throws the blood money back at them.
Making no impression, Judas castigates himself. “I have betrayed him: the best of human beings I have delivered into the hands of his enemies to be tortured and executed. I am a contemptible traitor!”
He goes on . . . “How kind he was always toward me! . . . And this is how I repaid him.”
He ends this outburst by putting a rope around his neck and over the branch of a tree while standing on a table. Then he kicks the table away and the audience sees him hanging by the neck. Immediately after this shocking act, the curtain is quickly drawn. It is a most realistic suicide scene.
I have never read an account of Judas’s recriminations with the high priests or his interventions to try to save Jesus after he had betrayed him, so found it particularly gripping, but maybe I haven’t read enough to know whether this was added for dramatic effect or is in the scriptures.
The other interesting thing to me was the interrogation of Jesus, especially in the light of some detractors of Christianity who claim that, if Jesus existed at all, he didn’t claim to be part of God. I don’t subscribe at all to that viewpoint.
In Bible readings in church, this argument is conclusively countered by Jesus himself. Answering questions from Pontius Pilate on whether he claims to be king, he replied: “You say it. Yes. I am a king, but my kingdom is not of this world.”
In the Oberammergau play, Jesus’s admission comes earlier, and in a slightly different form, in reply to Caiaphas, before covering the same ground again with Pilate.
Caiaphas: "Hear! I, the High Priest, implore you in the name of the living God! Speak! Are you the Messiah, the Son of God, who is highly praised?”
Jesus: You say it – I am he.
Caiaphas immediately claims Jesus has blasphemed God. “Why do we need more witnesses?” The High Council then votes for his death on a charge of blasphemy.
Later, when Pilate talks to Jesus alone, he says: So everything remains with me. I ask for the third time: They charge you with having proclaimed yourself King of the Jews. Talk! Are you their king?
Jesus: My kingdom is not of this world. If my kingdom were of this world, my servants would have defended me, so that I would not have fallen into the hands of my enemies.
A little later – Pilate: For the last time: Are you the king of the Jews?
Jesus: You say it.
Caiaphas: Now he has said it.
Another impression from the play is the absolute horror modern Western audiences must feel for the treatment of prisoners in those days. The trial of Jesus itself was a travesty of justice, virtually mob bloodlust regardless of the evidence.
And the punishment was horrendous. The way Jesus was mocked and scourged most brutally is hard to bear, even as a member of the audience. But we also have to realise that what happened to Jesus was common practice against many criminals at that time, and that these brutal practices continued hundreds of years after Jesus’s crucifixion. Burnings at the stake, flailings, beheadings in public etc were the normal treatment for people offending against rulers. Hours of agony were accompanied by merciless mocking from people who showed no sympathy, in fact regarded executions as a source of entertainment.
I remember when I went on a tour of England with the Philharmonia Choir in 2001, hearing from a tour guide in York that the open field we saw from our bus was previously used at one end as a racecourse and at the other as a gallows. Children of the day were told to look the other way while passing the racecourse, because betting on horses was evil, but they were encouraged to watch the executions, because there they saw what happened to wrongdoers.
The scourging of Jesus and the mockery were something very horrifying for a modern audience, and were very realistically portrayed. So too was the crucifixion itself. The two robbers and Jesus were laid flat on the crosses while the crosses were still horizontal on the ground. Great shouts of pain were heard as nails were driven into the three being crucified, and then the crosses were lifted vertical with the three men hanging there, a horrible sight.
The agony on the cross was not prolonged as a spectacle, but a dramatic moment came when, with Jesus proclaimed dead and being taken down from the cross, a mighty rumble of thunder filled the auditorium and the sounds of the temple being destroyed offstage made the scene vivid for the audience.
The final scene, when the body of Jesus was found to be missing from the tomb, would have been an anti-climax, I thought, if it were not for the uplifting music composed for the occasion, and sung with spirit by the large choir.
A friend in Cape Town, whom I met at Bayreuth, said he wasn’t interested in seeing the passion play at Oberammergau, because he couldn’t imagine words alone capturing the emotion of the occasion. “If it was set to music, I would have been interested,” he said. I didn’t then know how much music there is in the passion play, but I think my friend would have been impressed by the quality of the music and the way it added to the overall emotional effect.
The performers had been practising their parts for months before the passion play season began, and all performed most professionally. I was a little disappointed by the quality of the tenor soloist on the night, but he was the only one I had any gripe with. Male performers weren’t allowed to shave for several months before the passion play started, so all had bushy beards and long hair.
Pilate came across as a sneering, jeering ruler, utterly contemptuous of the High Council and the High Priest, and only too keen to be rid of the whole issue.