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Reflections on the Passion Play in Oberammergau

by Maureen Kalbus


For decades, separately and then together, Ralph and I have had Oberammergau’s renowned Passion Play on our bucket list of places to go and wonders to see. In June this year, we realized our ambition!


Oberammergau is a colorful village nestling in Germany’s Bavarian Alps. It is world famous for its fine wood carving, and its Passion Play. In the seventeenth century, its population was nearly wiped out because of the Thirty Years’ War [1618 – 1648], and the plague that was raging in Europe. Villagers surviving the plague, sought refuge in prayer, and vowed that, if the dying stopped, they would stage a play depicting “the passion, death and resurrection of our Lord Jesus Christ”. Miraculously, from that moment on, no one died from the plague. The first production was staged in 1634, and then annually until 1680, from when the villagers produced the Passion Play every ten years. There have been a few exceptions because of wars, and in 2020, because of the world-wide Covid 19 Pandemic. The villagers have stayed true to their pledge, with over two thousand involved as performers, musicians or stage technicians. All are residents of Oberammergau or have their roots there. The male actors may not trim their hair or facial hair from Easter, a year out!


Initially, the play was staged in the local cemetery. However, in the nineteenth century, in order to accommodate growing numbers of people coming from around the world, it was moved to the site where the Passion Theatre stands today. The theatre has been enlarged and renovated many times, and now seats over four thousand seven hundred. While a roof covers the audience, the stage is open, although a retractable glass roof was installed in 2010, to be used when it rains.


Produced five days a week, May – October, the Passion Play lasts five hours, with a dinner break in the middle, and comprises spoken text [in German], musical and choral accompaniment and tableaux. These are scenes from the Old Testament, performed by motionless actors, which illustrate the interrelationship between the Old and New Testaments. They are immensely effective.


The original text, written by Pastor Joseph Daisenberger, has been revised and rewritten many times over the centuries. Most recently by Christian Stickl, who has aimed to update the dramatic art of the play in a contemporary way. This was mainly because many in today’s audiences are no longer familiar with the theological details of the Bible. Additionally, questions we ask have changed. Since the Passion Play seeks to convey the message of Jesus Christ’s passion, death and resurrection, as a reassuring , empowering event, it must address the fears and hopes of people today. It is “theatre of the people for the people”, and the underlying message conveys hope.


Ralph and I found the entire production profound. The visual presentation, and standard of acting and singing were exceptional. The poignant music score by Rochus Dedler, with some additional pieces by Markus Zwink who musically directed the choir, soloists, and orchestra, added a wonderful dimension. Because of the authentic costuming and the live camels, donkeys, horses…we were transported into the pages of the Bible. It was a remarkable experience, ending with “Hallelujah. Praise, glory, worship, power and splendor to you from everlasting to everlasting.”



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