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History of the Oberammergau Passion Play Oberammergau Passion Play is a passion play performed since 1634 as a tradition, by the inhabitants of the village of Oberammergau in Bavaria (now in Germany). The most recent performance was in 2000.
The town vowed that if God were to spare them from the effects of the bubonic plague ravaging the region, they would perform a play every ten years depicting the life and death of Jesus. The death rate among adults rose from a single person in October 1632 to 20 individuals in the month of March, 1633. The adult death rate slowly subsided to one in the month of July 1633. They were spared after they kept their part of the vow when the play was first performed in 1634.
The play is now performed repeatedly over the course of five months during the first year of each decade. It involves over 2000 performers, all of whom are residents of the village. The Oberammergau play has a running time of approximately seven hours. There is an intermission at lunch time.
Audiences come from all over the world. Admission fees were first charged in 1790. The first tours associated with the play were instituted in 1870. Since 1930, the number of visitors has ranged from 420,000 to 530,000.
Through the Years
There were at least two years in which the scheduled performance did not take place. In 1770, Oberammergau was informed that all passion plays in Bavaria had been banned by order of the Ecclesiastical Council of the Elector, Maximillian Joseph at the behest of the Catholic Church. In 1780, the play was retitled The Old and New Testament. The new Elector, Karl Theodore, having been assured that the play was "purged of all objectionable and unseemly matter" approved the performance of the play. By 1830, the Catholic Church succeeded in halting the performance of all other passion plays in Bavaria. Only Oberammergau remained.
The Construction of the Play
The play comprises spoken dramatic text, musical and choral accompaniment and tableaux vivants. The tableaux vivants are scenes from the Old Testament depicted for the audience by motionless actors accompanied by verbal description. These scenes are the basis for the typology, the relationship between the Old and New Testaments, of the play. They include a scene of King Ahasuerus rejecting Vashti in favor of Esther, the brothers selling Joseph into slavery in Egypt, and Moses raising up the bronze serpent in the wilderness. Each scene precedes that section of the play that is considered to be prefigured by the scene. The three tableaux mentioned are presented to the audience as prefiguring Christianity superseding Judaism, Judas selling information on the location of Jesus, and the crucifixion.
It can be said that the evolution of the Passion Play was about the same as that of the Easter Play, originating in the ritual of the Latin Church, which prescribes, among other things, that the Gospel on Good Friday should be sung in parts divided among various persons.