“An empty feeling”

Oberammergau stages the famous Passion Play every ten years. It was time to do so again in 2020, but then along came the coronavirus.

Rehearsal on the large stage in Oberammergau
Rehearsal on the large stage in Oberammergau Andreas Stückl

In the end, the decision to postpone the Oberammergau Passion Play for two years until 2022 was also a release. The tradition-steeped play about the life and death of Jesus that was again expected to draw half a million people could not be staged in the Bavarian village on the edge of the Alps at the time of a COVID-19 pandemic.

Senior Director Christian Stückl had had “an uneasy feeling” long before the official announcement. Keeping your distance is impossible when there are 2,000 people on stage, as happens in some scenes, and when the 4,500 seats are full of visitors from all over the world. Over 100 performances were planned between May and October. The season was immediately suspended for two years for logistical reasons – new contracts need to be arranged and the complicated business of ticket sales reorganised.

The echo in the media has been that it was “the right decision”. And yet the postponement also affects the many visitors who had managed to buy tickets and were looking forward to the play. And it also affects the community with its 5,250 inhabitants, most of whom have economic connections with the Passion Play – for example, through stage building work or as hoteliers and restaurant owners.

Christian Stückl is Senior Director of the Passion Play
Christian Stückl is Senior Director of the Passion Play dpa/pa

Oberammergau and the last days of Jesus are inextricably linked. For nearly 400 years the people here have been acting out the Passion, the suffering of Jesus Christ. They are not professional actors, but flight attendants and innkeepers, school students and forestry engineers who had wanted to perform this great drama for the 42nd time since 1634. It has made their village famous: the Passion Play is listed by UNESCO as part of the world’s intangible cultural heritage. Even the New York Times recommended Oberammergau in its “52 Places to Go in 2020”. Above all, US Americans love the Passion Play.

You think you’ve got everything under control, but then you realise you’ve got absolutely nothing under control.

Christian Stückl, Senior Director of the Passion Play

Christian Stückl had “an empty feeling in my stomach” after the decision. Tears flowed when the postponement was announced. That should come as no surprise, since the rehearsals had been going on for months. Lots of money and energy had been invested in an event that was no longer taking place. The Senior Director suddenly understood: “You think you’ve got everything under control, but then you realise you’ve got absolutely nothing under control.” Looking back in history, he can see that postponements of the Passion Play have not been unusual. The Passion Play was also deferred while the Spanish flu raged.

A scene from the Passion Play
A scene from the Passion Play 上阿默高2020年耶稣受难剧

This summer, Cengiz Görür would have been the first Muslim to play Judas. Following the cancellation, the school student immediately shaved off his beard and had his hair cut. It is an external sign that this time everything has turned out differently than planned. After all, normally the ancient “hair and beard rule” applies during the theatre season: men – except for those who play Roman soldiers – are not allowed to shave, and both men and women have to let their hair grow.

The Passion Play also began with a pestilence

With his mid-length hair and growing beard, Frederik Mayet already came very close to the traditional image of Jesus. The 40-year-old played Jesus in the Passion Play ten years ago, and he will also play him in 2022. He now quotes one of the first sentences of the Passion Play: “Poverty and disease are killing you off and you yearn for justice!” He says these words take on a completely different meaning at a time when the coronavirus is spreading. Protecting the weak in society is now the most important thing.

Cengiz Görür
Cengiz Görür 上阿默高2020年耶稣受难剧/ [Gabi Neeb]

Frederik Mayet kam mit seinem halblangen Haar und dem wachsenden Bart dem klassischen Jesusbild schon recht nah. Der 40-Jährige hat bei der Passion vor zehn Jahren den Jesus gespielt, er wird ihn auch 2022 spielen. Nun zitiert er einen der ersten Sätze der Passion: „Armut und Krankheit raffen euch dahin und ihr sehnt euch nach Gerechtigkeit!“ Diese Worte bekämen eine ganz andere Bedeutung in Zeiten, in denen das Coronavirus sich verbreitet. Die Schwachen in der Gesellschaft zu schützen, sei jetzt das Wichtigste.

Frederik Mayet will play Jesus in the 2022 Passion Play
Frederik Mayet will play Jesus in the 2022 Passion Play dpa/pa

The Passion Play also began with a pestilence: the inhabitants of Oberammergau swore in 1633 that they would perform the last days of Jesus on the stage if they were spared the plague. Another disease has now halted the Passion Play – but only for the time being. It may be possible to slow down a bundle of energy like Christian Stückl, but he does not give up.

The theatre producer, who staged von Hofmannsthal’s Everyman in Salzburg, designed the opening ceremony for the 2006 FIFA World Cup in Germany and directs a theatre in Munich, is the driving force behind the Oberammergau Passion Play. He has reformed the production in a process of continuous debate. For example, he pushed through his ideas that women should be given more speaking roles and that Mary, Mother of God, can also be played by married women. He has made it possible that not only Catholics, but also Protestants and Muslims are allowed to appear on stage. And he has expunged the antisemitism of the early modern period from the Passion Play. For that he will receive the Abraham Geiger Award in May. Stückl has “renewed the Oberammergau Passion Play: away from Christian hatred of the Jews towards a balanced representation of inner-Jewish conflicts”.

Stückl has already announced that the text of the 2022 Passion Play will be different from the one planned before the corona pandemic. The world changes – and so does the Passion Play.

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