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From the Black Plague to Coronavirus: One Town’s 400-Year Bargain With God to Stay Disease-Free

Not even the coronavirus outbreak can keep one tiny Bavarian village from performing their play—once social distancing becomes history.

Nearly 400 years ago, a famous bargain with God was made: spare the villagers of the German town of Oberammergau from the plague and their Passion Play, depicting the life and death of Jesus Christ, would always be performed. In 2020, another deadly illness has put the brakes on the internationally-known performance.

Re-enacting the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ has become a tradition so ingrained in the town that locals in Oberammergau cannot imagine life without it. Performed once a decade since 1634, the play has kept the tiny village in the foothills of the Alps going.

“We live this tradition,” says Fredrik Mayet, who played the role of Jesus Christ in the 2010 performances. “It’s something you are born into. The rituals are passed along among the families here.”

The Show Must Go On

That tradition, now played out in a five-and-a-half hour performance, has been put on hold until 2022. Although organizers had originally planned to carry on with the standard decadal timeline, with performances scheduled nearly every day from May to October of this year, quarantine and lockdown restrictions in Germany due to the COVID-19 virus left them with no choice but to delay the Passion Play.

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“Continuing the tradition would never be put into question,” Mayet said. But the social distancing restrictions made rehearsals impossible. The play sees around 600 to 700 actors take part in rehearsals. The performance itself involves nearly 2,000 people—nearly half the town’s residents, including 600 local children.

Pushing the performances back will not only ensure adequate preparation but accommodate the thousands of tourists from around the world who would normally attend a performance.

“We’re very proud to be able to share this experience with thousands of people,” Mayet said.

A Modern Take on an Ancient Story

The idea of the Passion Play itself isn’t unique to Oberammergau. Catholic villages around the world hold their own versions of the biblical story, often around the Easter holidays. What’s unusual about the tradition in Oberammergau is how it combines both the town’s traditions and contemporary theology, with a script adapted to reflect modern-day issues.

Although the script for 2022 may yet be revised, the rewrite overseen by director Christian Stückl for the 2020 performances placed an emphasis on income inequality and inclusion. That’s reflected in a phrase uttered by Jesus early in the play: “Poverty and illness will take you away.” Later, the performers refer to the Bible chapter of Matthew (19:24) where Jesus is said to have told his followers that “it is easier for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of Heaven.”

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As much as the Passion Play reflects the staunch Catholic traditions of southern Bavaria—the nearby village of Ettal holds one of the country’s most famous monasteries, and biblical scenes are portrayed on buildings around the region using the unique mural technique of Luftmalerei—one doesn’t have to be Catholic to take part in the play.

A hundred years ago, that was the case, Mayet notes. “But times change, the world changes, Oberammergau changes.”

Now, the restrictions as to who can take part in the play, whether as an actor, a technician or as a member of the choir, are limited to residency rules: you have to have either been born in Oberammergau or lived there for over 20 years. And if you’re a man, you’ll need to stop shaving months before the first performance. Part of the costuming includes a natural beard that reflects the times.

An Inclusive Adaptation

“We have people whose forefathers came from Turkey, others who identify as Muslim, and others who have left the church take part in the performances,” Mayet says. “Religion is something that should bring people along, not be exclusionary. And what’s remarkable is how everyone in the village really comes together for this play.”

That attitude of inclusion is likewise reflected in the script. While many Passion Plays are confronted with accusations of anti-Semitism, director Christian Stückl began working with organizations like the Anti-Defamation League before his 1990 debut to ensure that this was no longer the case in Oberammergau. Stückl also modernized the casting rules in 1990 when he allowed a married mother of two to play the part of Mary; previously, women had put off their weddings until after the performance so they could take on the coveted role.

INSIDER TIPWhile castles abound in Germany, one of the prettiest palaces is the Schloss Linderhof, just a few miles from the town of Oberammergau. Belonging to King Ludwig II of Bavaria, best known as the man behind Neuschwanstein, Linderhof Palace is the only castle he designed to have been seen to its finish. The small summer residence is modeled on Versailles and contains an outdoor cave created especially for opera performances.

Although much has changed since the villagers’ initial pledge to perform the biblical story, one thing has remained constant: the beauty of Oberammergau. The village is settled into rolling green hills with some of Germany’s highest Alpine peaks rising in the distance. That backdrop makes the open-air theater where the Passion Play is performed one of the loveliest venues to spend hours of your evening in. And it contributes to the story in its own unique way: local shepherds bring the sheep and cows to stage as part of the procession. While herding animals on stage may seem like a Sisyphean task, somehow it works.

Even for those whose religious traditions don’t match with those enacted in the play, the performance is remarkable and a tradition worth keeping.