Between May and October of the current year, half a million people will have traveled to the village of Oberammergau in the Bavarian Alps to attend performances of the best known of the world’s surviving Passion plays. Now in its fortieth season, the play originated during the Thirty Years’ War after an invasion by the plague caused eighty deaths, and the village elders made a solemn vow to commemorate the Passion of Jesus Christ in dramatic form in return for divine protection.
Since the first performance in 1634, the play has been repeated roughly every ten years, with exceptions in 1770 and 1940. During that time the plot has not changed essentially, although the answers to fundamental questions raised by it—such as the question of who killed Jesus—have been modified or changed with the passage of time. Almost half of Oberammergau’s population of 5,200 men, women, and children perform in the play, participation being restricted to natives, residents of twenty years’ duration, and spouses of townspeople. The original stipulation that only Catholics could have leading roles has been rescinded, and in 2000 for the first time one of the Roman soldiers will be played by a longtime resident of Turkish descent.
To appear in the play, particularly in a leading role such as Jesus, Mary, Caiaphas, or Pilate, is a matter of pride and prestige, making acceptable the months spent growing the beards and head hair required by the parts and the onerous schedule of rehearsals. Perhaps not unnaturally, the parts tend to subvert the real identity of the players, so that in the ten-year intervals between performances a passing bicyclist is apt to elicit the comment, “There goes Judas.” Some roles remain in the same families for generations, reinforcing the identification of the community and its inhabitants with the Passion play, which with the passing of the years has become all but complete.
James Shapiro, professor of English and comparative literature at Columbia University, has now written a history of the play that is both entertaining and attentive to its questionable aspects. In his careful reconstruction of the play’s origins, he makes clear that in the early productions the story of the suffering, crucifixion, and resurrection of Jesus tended to be compromised by its audience’s preference for lively theatrical effects. Drawing heavily on the conventions of earlier Passion plays, including the Augsburger Passionsspiel and a sixteenth-century play by the Meistersinger Sebastian Wild, the play concentrated almost as heavily on the machinations of Satan and Lucifer as it did on the mission of Jesus and his apostles. Roman soldiers and Jews fought noisily on the stage, which also swarmed with devils, who at appropriate moments dragged Judas off to hell and consumed his intestines (which were probably made of fried batter or sausages) and hauled away the bad thief who was crucified with Jesus while the good one was saved by angels. It was, Shapiro writes, “rough-and-tumble theater,” and vastly entertaining to the …