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The Evolution of the Passion Play in Oberammergau

How Did the Passion Play in Oberammergau, Germany begin?

It all started with a pandemic

The village of Oberammergau. © Florian Wagner

Historically, it is said that the first Passion Play was held in Oberammergau in 1634. After suffering the Thirty Years War only to be confronted by the bubonic plague, the people of this small hamlet made a solemn promise to perform the “Play of Suffering, Death, and Resurrection of Our Lord Jesus Christ” every ten years if the village was spared. Miraculously, after this promise was made, the death rate declined and those that were sick quickly regained their health. True to their word, the first Passion Play was performed in a meadow in front of a church. The script was based on 15th-century medieval manuscripts for the first few years until it was edited for the first of many times in 1664. In the early years, the Passion Play was performed annually. It wasn’t until 1680 that it was decided that the Passion Play would be performed every ten years. In 1680, sixty actors took part in the passion play with the new script.  

Expulsion of the Temple of Merchants. © Passion Play Oberammergau 2022 (Photo: Birgit Gudjonsdottir)

Over the years the script of the passion play changed and evolved. The next big change that happened was in the 1800s. This massive change consisted of the transfer from verses to prose making the performance easier to understand and more realistic. By 1850, more than 45,000 people attended the performance. In September 1871, mad King Ludwig II of Bavaria attended the Passion Play and was so impressed that he gifted the community a large sculpture, the crucifixion group. Many celebrities of the day attended the Passion Play from composers  Franz Liszt and Wagner to Queen Sissi of Austria and King Edward VII of England. The number of visitors increased in the 1880s to over 100,000. The railroad increased visitation so much that in 1900 a new stage and auditorium had to be built with 4,200 seats.

The intimate Passion Play theatre. Every seat is a good seat! © Passion Play Oberammergau 2022

Passion Play Tips

On the eve of WWI luminaries from royalty and high society to industrialists from all over the world headed to Oberammergau to see the Passion Play. Just before the outbreak of WWI, the attendance swelled to more than 223,548 visitors. By 1930, the play was restaged and a new auditorium that could seat 5,200 people was built. The Passion Play was canceled in 1940 because of WWII. When the performance resumed in 1950, it was presented as being a “Play of Peace” as a sign of the reconciliation of the people of the world. 

In the 1960s and 1970s, the text was criticized for portraying Judaism in a negative way and proposed revisions were debated. By 1980, there was a movement to modernize the Passion Play and minor edits were made to the text. By 1990, a new era began with a fundamental reform of the Passion Play. The script was carefully reviewed and revised to avoid any anti-semantic references. At this time the music was also modernized. 

The modern day actors at the Passion Play press conference. © Passion Play Oberammergau 2020 / Andreas Stückl

In 2000, the most profound text reform took place since 1860 when the Passion Play was interpreted as an inner-Jewish conflict. New costumes, music, and sets were created. The right of participation was extended to include people of all religions living in Oberammergau. Prior to 2000, only Christian citizens living in Oberammergau were allowed to perform. Again, in 2010 the text and set design was edited creating a clearer and more visual language. It was at this time that brightly colored living images were introduced. In 2020, the Passion Play that was planned for May of that year was postponed to 2022 because of COVID - 19. This is the fourth time in its 388-year-old history that this historic event has been postponed. The play was postponed in 1770 because of a general ban, in 1940 due to the Second World War, and from 1920 to 1922 due to the First World War.

The 42nd Passion Play will premiere on May 14, 2022, and will run through October 2, 2022. In the past, more than 450,000 visitors from all over the world have attended this spectacular performance. Don’t miss your chance to be part of this theatrical event in 2022.

          Sounds of Bavaria         
Germany & Austria featuring the Passion Play

Announcing the cast is a huge tradition that continues to this day. © Passion Play Oberammergau 2022 / Gabriela Neeb