If you happen to visit the small Bavarian town of Oberammergau in 2020, you will soon notice that the local men are unusually hirsute. Wandering through the streets, beards and long hair will be everywhere you look. But this town-wide grooming regime isn’t the result of any fashion trend – it’s all in the name of tradition, God and theatre.
Once a decade, on Ash Wednesday, Oberammergauers stop shaving as part of the preparations for the town’s Passion Play, a theatrical tradition that has been an integral part of life here for almost 400 years.
Ever since the play telling the story of Christ’s trial, death and resurrection was first performed in 1634, the production has grown beyond recognition. It now attracts audiences from across the globe. For the Passion Play’s latest incarnation this year, almost half a million people will descend on the town over the course of 104 performances stretching from May until October.
And it’s not just the audiences that are huge, the cast is equally formidable. Of the town’s population of around 5,500 people, more than 2,300 locals appear on stage, or perform in the orchestra and choir. Every role, from Jesus and the apostles right down to each Roman footsoldier is filled by an Oberammergau resident. Anyone who has lived in the town for 20 years has the right to partake, and many come from families in which roles have been passed down from generation to generation.
Perhaps as astounding as the scale of the spectacle itself is the fact that this mammoth undertaking originated from a holy pledge that Oberammergau’s people made in a desperate moment almost 400 years ago.
Around 90km south of Munich, close to the Austrian border, Oberammergau sits at the edge of the Ettaler Forest, under the distinctive white peak of the Kofel mountain. Situated on a medieval trading route from Venice to Augsburg, the town was renowned for the exceptional skill of its wood carvers and painters. Today, wooden alpine cabins are painted with fairytale murals and trompe-l’oeil optical illusions, while small souvenir shops overflow with Christmas decorations (sold all year round), cuckoo clocks and handmade wooden figurines. Surrounded by rolling meadows and snow-capped mountain peaks, with beer-brewing monasteries and the fairytale castles of Ludwig II nearby, it’s a picture-postcard image of Bavaria.
In the 17th century, this sleepy town looked far less peaceful. The Thirty Years’ War saw the region ravaged by marauding troops living off the land, and Oberammergau was forced to isolate itself as surrounding towns succumbed to plague. In 1632, with war still raging, disaster struck. According to local legend, the careful precautions the townsfolk had taken to avoid contamination failed when a plague-stricken man slipped unnoticed into the village during a church festival. A devastating wave of infections spread.
Desperate to escape death’s clutches, the residents struck a deal with the almighty. They pledged that if they were spared from contamination, they would, every 10 years for posterity, stage a magnificent production honouring Christ’s sacrifice. According to Pastor Joseph Daisenberger’s chronicle of Oberammergau’s history, “From this day forward, not a single person perished, even though a great number of them still showed signs of the plague.”
In response to this miraculous deliverance, the town duly staged its first Play of the Suffering, Death and Resurrection of our Lord, Jesus Christ in 1634, on a stage erected above the recently dug graves of the plague victims. Just as the villagers had promised, this would be the first of countless such productions.
As the centuries progressed, the scale of the show grew decade on decade. By the 19th century, visitor numbers exceeded 100,000. In 1830, a new open-air theatre was erected to hold the ever-increasing crowds. The play also became a draw for some of history’s leading figures, from Franz Liszt and Gustave Eiffel to the future King Edward VII and the US president Dwight Eisenhower. In 1934, Adolf Hitler attended a jubilee performance for the play’s 300th anniversary. His warmongering would ensure that the following decade was one of only two in which the play was not performed – the other being the 1770s, when Elector Maximilian III placed a blanket ban on all Passion Plays as an improper way of expressing religious devotion.
You can discover the history of the Passion Play at Oberammergau’s small but carefully curated museum. Among cabinets brimming with wooden dolls and toy soldiers is a stained-glass window given to the town as a token of appreciation from the adoring audience member King Ludwig II. The collection also holds some of the oldest surviving costumes, including a sequinned headdress dating from the 1760s.
Under the weight of almost four centuries of tradition, it’s easy to see how the Passion Play could have become stuck in the past. The fact that it has escaped this fate is largely down to the efforts of one man. First appointed as the show’s director in 1990, when he was just 27 years old, Christian Stückl is an Oberammergau local from a long Passion Play lineage. He remembers listening to his grandfather, who sometimes learned his lines as Herod while sitting on the toilet.
Despite this theatrical inheritance, Stückl has spent the last 30 years tirelessly fighting to keep the play looking forward. He overhauled the ossifying production, working with Jewish groups to remove anti-Semitism from the outdated script and casting a married woman as Mary (a role previously reserved for young and unmarried virgins). Stückl’s battle to open casting up to all women (including those who were married or over 35) ended up at Munich’s Higher Regional Court, and in 2000 he finally managed to introduce the right for actors of any religion to take on leading roles.
Pay a visit to Oberammergau during Passion Play season and it quickly becomes clear that this is still a town very much shaped by history and tradition. But while the Last Supper table that appears on stage is the same one that has been used since 1870, the people that sit around it are more diverse, and the story they are telling more inclusive.
Tradition is important here, but that tradition is kept alive through being continually reshaped and updated.
This article was first published in the April 2020 edition of BBC History Magazine