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Resurrected by Thomas Cook
December 2018 / January 2019

An event in a Jewish world, rather than a Jewish-Christian conflict: The Last Supper in the 2010 Oberammergau Passion Play (©Passion Play Oberammergau 2020)

There used to be dozens of passion plays, gospel tales staged for the edification of Christians or in expiation of some real or imagined sin. Some of these have survived into our post-Christian era while others have been resurrected. I attended one in Switzerland once that was staged every 25 years. I found it slow and long-winded and I was scorched by the sun. Even a flock of blue-rinsed sheep were unable to lift my spirits, and I bunked off back to Lausanne in the interval. The most famous passion play of all is staged in Oberammergau in the Bavarian Alps. It is put on once a decade. The next performance is in 2020.

The Oberammergau Passion Play dates back to 1633. It was the middle of the Thirty Years War and soldiers arrived in the village covered with fleas that carried Black Death. Nearly a sixth of the population died. The villagers arranged to perform a Gospel play every decade to protect the population from further mishaps. The first edition of the play was produced the following year and so it has gone on. The next performance will be the forty-second.

Oberammergau’s significance was merely local until the second half of the 19th century. The first act of recognition came from King Ludwig II of Bavaria, who built the French-style château of Lindnerhof nearby, and his Moorish house later came to rest in the village. He also donated a vast crucifix to the community after a command performance for just four people in 1871. The villagers have celebrated his birthday ever since. The real popularisers of Oberammergau, however, appear to have been the British travel company Thomas Cook & Sons who chartered a special train that year. The Prince of Wales, the future Edward VII, went, and was at pains to remain anonymous. By 1890, Thomas Cook were taking 70 per cent of the bookings.

At the tercentenary in 1934, Oberammergau had a special guest in the person of Adolf Hitler, who quarreled with the scripture-based anti-Semitism of the play which conflicted with his own racial-biological theory. He heaped praise on Pontius Pilate, whom he said represented superior race and intelligence. The village was divided: the century’s most famous Christus, the potter Anton Lang, was a stout Catholic Bavarian People’s Party man, while the mayor, another Lang — the architect Raimund — was an out-and-out Nazi. The story is complicated by the fact that Christus in 1930 and 1934 was a third Lang — Alois — who was subjected to denazification proceedings after the war. Oberammergau’s one and only Jew was shipped off to Dachau in 1938 but Raimund Lang remained mayor until 1950 when the Passion Play was revived.  There had been no wartime performances. Since then productions have chiefly kept to the decades.
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