The Passion Plays have their origins in one of the most devastating scourges of medieval Europe: the plague which followed the Thirty Years‘ War and which took many lives in Oberammergau. In 1633, a group of villagers pledged to stage passion plays once a decade in return for a swift end to the suffering. Legend has it that the plague claimed no more victims thereafter. True to their word, the people of Oberammergau have performed the plays every ten years since 1634. The first stage was erected in the cemetery, above the graves of the recently buried plague dead; later versions were based in the north-west of the village.
At first, Oberammergau was one of more than 250 Passion Play venues in Bavaria and Austria, but the village became by far the most popular in the 18th century: during the 14th season in 1760, a total of 14,000 people attended the two performances.
Banning orders and the ravages of war could only temporarily diminish the plays‘ appeal in the 19th century. Ten years after glowing newspaper reports of the 1830 season, audience numbers swelled to 35,000. Some 100,000 visited in 1880 after the railway line had been extended to Murnau. By this point, audiences included well-known public figures and members of the European nobility. In 1900 the whole world began to take notice, with visitors arriving from places as far away as Egypt, China, Peru and America.
The first post-war plays in 1950 served to redefine the event‘s international profile: the scheduled run of 33 performances was extended to 87, catering for an audience of around 480,000. Every season since has offered something different to the last. Villagers keenly debate contemporary versions of the Passions Play text and how the characters are portrayed – ensuring a bright future for this theatrical spectacular.
The involvement of the village community is an essential part of the Passion Plays tradition. All
participants were either born in Oberammergau or have been living there for at least 20 years. The
people of Oberammergau give their body and soul to the event, and not just metaphorically: all
performers involved in the 2010 season have let their hair grow long since February 2009. The men
have also refrained from shaving. In November 2009, more than 2,000 villagers began rehearsing for
the plays with director Christian Stückl.
As well as the main characters of Jesus, Peter, Judas, Pontius Pilate and Mary there are 120 speaking parts both large and small. Priests, soldiers and the people of Jerusalem all make appearances and there are roles for 470 children. Under the guidance of musical director Markus Zwink, a choir of 120 and the 70-strong Passion Play orchestra are practising the musical score by Oberammergau-born composer Rochus Dedler.
The people of Oberammergau will take on their biblical roles five times a week. Performances begin at 2.30pm, include a three-hour interval and finish at 10.30pm. It will be the first time that the plays have been staged during the evening.
The venue for the production is the Passion Play Theatre. Built in 1928 and refurbished in 2000,
it has around 4,700 covered seats.
To make it as convenient as possible for people to watch the plays, Oberammergau is offering packages with one or two nights‘ accommodation, tickets to the plays and meals.
All other tickets have already been allocated, though it is possible to go on a waiting list.