By Edward Grinnan
Some of the people I told this summer that I would be visiting Oberammergau thought I was choking on something rather than attempting to pronounce the name of a little village in the Bavarian Alps, and a few were ready to apply the Heimlich maneuver forthwith. Unnecessary as that was, I did find myself surprised at how few people knew why I was going.
Oberammergau is home to one of the oldest and certainly the most famous passion play, dramatizing Christ’s last mortal days on earth, from his entry into Jerusalem on Palm Sunday to his betrayal, crucifixion and resurrection. Passion plays date to medieval times and were not only integral to the religious lifecycle of a town or village, but instrumental in the evolution of modern western theater, which had more or less fallen into permanent disrepute after the Romans and various degenerate emperors such as Heliogabalus had debased the classical form into live sex shows and displays of violence. Nor was it unheard of for an emperor, bloated with drink, to improvisationally participate in the activities onstage himself.
Medieval Christians, then, had a collective memory of the theater as depraved, and only slowly did it re-emerge, and only then as a vehicle for religious teaching and the reinforcement of doctrine. But a powerful vehicle.
For the people of Oberammergau in 1634 the mounting of a passion play was fulfillment of a vow to God for sparing their town from the scourge of black plague the year before that followed in the devastating wake of the Thirty Years’ War. In gratitude for their deliverance, townspeople promised to faithfully perform the play every ten years, which they have done more or less uninterrupted these nearly four centuries. Today the play is an extravagant production that attracts half a million people from around the world during its six-month run but still draws its cast exclusively from the citizenry of the town. (The role of Jesus is played by a 30-year-old publicist and Mary Magdalene is a 25-year-old flight attendant on leave from Lufthansa. Half of Oberammergau’s population of roughly 5,000–just a few hundred more than the seating capacity of the splendid outdoor theater–is in some way involved in the play.) It is probably the most elaborate amateur theatrical production in history and brings in tens of million of euros. The identity of the town itself has become inextricable from the play.
I traveled there through Budapest, Vienna and Prague as part of an Inspiration Vacations tour that Guideposts magazine sponsored. Eighty readers came along for the trip, and even as the tour wound its way through the historically rich Imperial Cities of the old Hapsburg empire it was never in doubt that the passion play was the reason these folks signed on. For some it was the fulfillment of a life’s dream.
The experience did not disappoint, regardless of the fact that the play is performed in over five and a half hours completely in German, and despite the amateur limitations of the actors who, flamboyantly costumed, declaim their lines in a quasi-operatic manner. Shakespeare it’s not, or even Schiller. The stage teems with children and live animals, the inevitable bodily functions of the latter proving an occasional hindrance to scene blocking. Most impressive, though, were the thirteen tableaux vivants that anchor the ineluctable destiny of Jesus in the legitimacy of scriptural prophecy. These were beautiful living canvases that must have had a powerful impact on early audiences and still do so today. And as usual the villains have the most riveting roles–Judas, Caiaphas, Pilate.
At the end of the play the audience stood and applauded, many with tears coursing down their cheeks. There was no curtain call. The pit orchestra–again, all locals–did not take a bow. I thought that was a nice touch, and not just for the humility and dignity of it.
What we were left with was a story and its stark power to explain the inexplicable. In the end the potency of story to animate theology and explain human destiny accounts for the incredible endurance of the passion play. Popes and village priests could preach; Luther (and Gutenberg) could put the Bible in the hands of the masses; yet nothing could connect people to their faith and to one another in that faith, more elementally than storytelling, which is what theater is. If there is anything that distinguishes man from the rest of the animal kingdom it’s not tool-making or even language. It is storytelling, and our fundamental, inextinguishable need for both a human and divine narrative. That is why people flock to Oberammergau by the hundreds of thousands every tenth year.
On the plane back to New York I watched Avatar knowing that a comparison with what I’d just witnessed was unavoidable. Here too was a narrative of destiny and sacrifice and redemption. There is no comprehensible theology to James Cameron’s movie but in its own predictable way it attempts to illuminate truth through storytelling. So here we are, all these centuries later, still trying to understand ourselves and our relationship to the divine through the power of story.
Edward Grinnan is Guideposts Editor in Chief.